Bernie Sanders has made headlines by committing himself to a fairer U.S. Palestine policy. “All I can tell you is I will make every single effort to bring rational people on both sides together so that hopefully we can have a level playing field,” the senator said at a rally in Dearborn, Michigan—”an Arab-American stronghold”, in the view of The Jerusalem Post —with “the United States treating everybody in that region equally.” Sanders’s remarks have been hailed as something of a breakthrough for the senator, who incurred progressive ire by arrogantly defending Israel during Operation Protective Edge. But these latest comments, while certainly extraordinary by the standards of U.S. presidential candidates (of either party), are noteworthy for their ambiguity—all I can tell you; every single effort; hopefully; a level playing field—as well as the essential confusion they reflect: the United States has been, for decades, a participant in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and participants don’t level the playing field.
The point is so obvious that it hardly requires supporting argument and evidence; nevertheless, it’s useful to remind ourselves now and again of specific examples, so that we remember exactly what we’re dealing with. Bill Clinton was one of the presidents Sanders mentioned as having “tried their best to resolve” the conflict, and it’s true that Clinton took a more evenhanded approach—in the final months of his presidency, after he collaborated with Ehud Barak to “unmask” Yasser Arafat as no partner for peace at Camp David, and at the same time that his administration was sedulously resupplying an Israeli army intent on converting the initial protests of the second Intifada into armed confrontations (the playing field on which it excels). In this of course the IDF succeeded, with critical U.S. help; the result was a ruinous bloodbath that may have forestalled peaceful resolution permanently.
Why? Why would Clinton allow his administration to restock Israel with attack helicopters, which it knew full well were being used against civilians, even as he worked to formulate his eponymous parameters, by far the best U.S. attempt to mediate between the two sides? The answer is something Sanders has never come close to articulating: that the special relationship persists because of enduring deep-state ties, not the whims and ambitions of prestige-obsessed officials or fanatical advocates. If you doubt the dispositive significance of the military-to-military relationship, consult this tweet by the U.S. ambassador to Israel—
A Commitment to Keeping Israel Armed to the Teeth
“For decades now,” Sanders said in Dearborn, “there has been hatred and warfare in the Middle East, everyone knows it.” But not everyone know why; does Sanders? The evidence suggests not. In March 1988, early in the first Intifada, Sanders fielded several questions about the conflict at a press conference. Then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he was running as an independent for Congress and had endorsed Jesse Jackson, a supporter of Palestinian rights, in the Democratic presidential primary. Sanders condemned Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians with uncommon forcefulness: “The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.” Pressed by a reporter on how the U.S. could facilitate successful Mideast negotiations, Sanders responded that aid should be used as leverage:
The United States of America is pouring billions of dollars into arms and into other types of aid in the Middle East. Has the United States of America used its clout, the tremendous clout that it has by providing all kinds of aid into the Middle East, to demand that these countries begin to sit down, and talk about a reasonable settlement which will guarantee Israel’s sovereignty—which must be guaranteed—but which will begin to deal with the rights of Palestinian refugees? That’s the demand that I would make.
Asked if he was calling for sanctions, Sanders answered flatly, “No.”
Again, these remarks are strong by the standards of U.S. politics, then or now, but Sanders’s criticism was tempered by typical misunderstandings and evasions. He blamed Arab governments for their confrontational stance, bizarrely singling out the dependably accommodating Hashemite kingdom: “Let’s not forget the role of Jordan, and King Hussein—you know, sometimes we concentrate on Israel, you still have an autocracy there, you have a king.” (Since then, Sanders seems to have gotten the memo on Jordan, perhaps the very next year during his stay at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: during a debate in January he called Abdullah II “one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place.”) More seriously disordered is the notion that the U.S. government would even be interested in pressuring Israel to recognize indigenous rights. This betrays a profound naiveté about the sources and aims of foreign policy: the potential subversive effects of national liberation, in a region where U.S. hegemony depends on suppression of the popular will, have always militated against support for the Palestinians. The U.S. was willing to use its massive “clout” to broker Mideast agreements in its own interest—like the peace between Israel and Egypt, achieved by Sanders’s other presidential good guy, Jimmy Carter—but Palestine was off the agenda for reasons deeper than Sanders seemed to perceive. Why would the U.S. cut off arms shipments, as the candidate suggested it might, when Israel’s utility as a strategic asset depends on its being armed to the teeth and primed for war?
Achieving Mideast peace “is not an easy task,” Sanders averred in Michigan, “but it is a task we must pursue. We cannot continue to have, for another 60 years, the kind of hatred and conflict that exists in the Middle East.” In fact, the Israel-Palestine conflict would be one of the simplest geopolitical disputes to solve: the contours of a possible solution have been widely understood for decades, and only U.S. backing allows Israel to escape the kind of international pressure that would soon see it implemented.
From the U.S. standpoint, Sanders’s emphasis on hatred as a feature of the conflict amounts to mystification. Hatred exists in every intercommunal war; this one is kept alive not by human emotion, but the imperatives of empire. “The United States has got to play a leadership role in what is a morass,” Sanders argued in 1988, “what has been year after year, war after war, of conflict.” But the U.S. has done exactly that, and from the era of Kissinger onwards endless war has been the intentional result. The strategic calculus that leads the U.S. to rely on force as its primary tool of statecraft in the region, with Israel as our principal deputy, is not going to change next year; if Sanders is unable to explain, or even comprehend, this deeply immoral reasoning, there’s little chance he’d be able to alter a policy with such huge material and ideological momentum.