The world is still reeling from the fact that last Thursday night, Bernie Sanders said on a New York stage, ahead of tomorrow’s New York primary, that the United States must be evenhanded in the Israel/Palestine conflict and that Benjamin Netanyahu is not always right and that Israel attacked Gaza with disproportionate force. These stunning revelations (irony alert) have already transformed the US discourse. It is suddenly OK to criticize the special relationship. And maybe you noticed Hillary Clinton edging away from her support for Netanyahu on that New York stage. She mumbled about the fact that she had been critical of certain foreign leaders in her writings. A reference to the fact that, because President Obama twisted her arm to do it, she had to upbraid Netanyahu once over illegal settlement construction.
Sanders has transformed the mainstream discourse because he has suddenly made it OK to say these things publicly–things everyone knew. The immediate reaction last week was that Sanders punted the New York primary in his remarks, that he doesn’t want to win. But there has been wide respect for Sanders’s comments on emperor’s new clothes grounds; and last night in Washington journalists Mara Liasson of NPR and JJ Goldberg of the Forward said that Sanders will not suffer in the New York vote for his remarks.
Liasson asserted that Jewish public opinion had changed because of the disgraceful Netanyahu intervention in our politics last year and she noted that Sanders was cheered “wildly” for his remarks– an observation Goldberg echoed when he said that Sanders’s base made him do it.
“I think he had to do it because of his base, because so much of his base is on the left,” Goldberg said, a truth echoed by Malcolm Hoenlein, a pro-Israel boss, who is quoted today grumbling that the Democratic left is weak on Israel.
His base made him do it. This belief is a reflection of the power of the pro-Palestine movement inside the Democratic Party and among American youth. We’ve been saying this for months, and the weekend has proved that prediction to be right. Sanders knows that if he had said nothing about Netanyahu and Israeli human rights atrocities in Gaza when Wolf Blitzer asked him about it, his base would have gotten angry and restless, and wondered where their leader is.
Look back at Sanders’s fumbling and angry performance at a town hall during Gaza in August 2014. He seemed protective of Israel then, and piped talking points about ISIS. He has grown since that time; the movement has led him.
JJ Goldberg also asserted last night (at a J Street panel at the 6th and I Synagogue) that Sanders was only saying what Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton said before him, except that he had the temerity to say it before January 20th not after. While Roger Cohen of the New York Times said, to laughter, that what Sanders said would not even make the newspapers in Europe, the ideas are so commonplace.
Maybe those things are true, but credit where credit is due. President Obama said a lot of this in Cairo in June 2009, but he walked it back over the next three years, under the kind offices of Hillary Clinton and the Israel lobby surrogate she brought into the administration to train Obama in orthodox foreign policymaking, Dennis Ross. In Cairo, Obama did not say that the Israeli massacre of just six months before in Gaza was “disproportionate,” nor did he describe the depths of destruction there, as Bernie Sanders did on Thursday. No, Obama helped to demolish the Goldstone Report a year later.
The great thing about Sanders’s statements is that they have not killed him instantly. Jewish Insider reports that Sanders expanded his comments on the Sunday talk shows to say that Netanyahu often gets things wrong, and, this just in, his older brother Larry says that “Bernard” is not a self-hating Jew.
So the discourse is changed because Sanders decided to change it; and because his base is giving him wild support to say these things. He has demonstrated that officialdom is a sniveling mob and if one brave person stands up to challenge that mob, public opinion will change in an instant. Sanders’s bravery just shows how many other politicians have run around for years with their tails between their legs. The biggest surprise of last night’s panel in DC was Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress. She repeatedly slammed Netanyahu and the right in Israel, saying that that Israeli political culture is too far gone now for anyone to make any progress on peace talks. Bernie Sanders has liberated her. Just a few months after she sucked up pathetically to Netanyahu.
Yes, I’m optimistic. But isn’t that the spirit of American progressives? Something got shattered last Thursday night. An edifice of public lies and hypocrisy about the special relationship and Israel’s conduct. Bernie Sanders attained an iconic status by rising to the occasion.
And his base made him do it. Sisters and brothers, keep up the struggle.