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Are Clinton and Sanders really all that different on Israel/Palestine?

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Indiana’s vote for Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination remains all but guaranteed.  For the defenders of Palestinian rights who have flocked to Sanders, this is grim news.  But in terms of actual U.S. policy in the Holy Land, does it really matter? Is there really a fundamental difference between Clinton and Sanders on this issue?

I say yes.  And no.  And maybe.  In that order.

Yes, there’s a big difference.  

Sanders’s profile in courage moment, played out on a Brooklyn stage on the eve of the New York primary, stands as a singular defense of fairness on the matter of Israel and Palestine.  By insisting that “we are gonna have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” by sharply criticizing Israel’s “disproportionate” attacks in Gaza, and by attacking his opponent’s slavishly pro-Israel speech to AIPAC, in which she “barely mentioned… the needs of the Palestinian people,” Sanders drew a loud and clear distinction.

Clinton’s statements, and her silence, only magnify that difference.  There’s her promise to meet Benjamin Netanyahu in the first 30 days of her presidency; her AIPAC-ready attack on Donald Trump’s Israel position from the right, deriding his “sort of a neutral guy” remarks; her pandering blame of Yasser Arafat for the collapse at Camp David, a long-ago-debunked talking point; her unilateral condemnation of recent Palestinian killings of 28 Israelis, while saying nothing about the 188 Palestinians killed during the same period, some of them in extra-judicial executions by Israeli military, including here, here, and here.  And then there is her recent utter silence on the settlement issue, her ongoing defense of Israel’s 2014 slaughter in Gaza, and her uber-pandering to her billionaire donor, the Israeli-American, Haim Saban, with her anti-free speech attack on BDS.

So, of course, all this matters. A lot.  As do the candidates’ histories on this issue.  

During the 1988 presidential primaries, as the Palestinian intifada raged in the Occupied Territories, Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, VT, stood by Jesse Jackson and his prophetic call for an independent Palestinian state.  The soon-to-fade candidate Al Gore had baited Jackson on the issue, smarmily trying to curry favor with Jewish voters in another New York primary.  “Gore is finished in my opinion, I think this is a desperate cheap shot at him [Jackson],” Sanders declared.  But then the Brooklynite doubled down, calling out the tactics of Israel’s military to deliberately break the bones of Palestinian stone-throwers. “It is an absolute disgrace,” Sanders said. “It goes without saying. Soldiers of any nation, especially an occupying power, are not allowed under any moral code to break the arms and legs of people. That is absolutely unacceptable, period. And that sort of behavior must be condemned.” Sanders even called for the U.S. to suspend arms shipments to Israel and other Mideast nations if they didn’t begin to pursue “a peaceful solution to the conflict.”

Twenty-five years later, in a 2013 Playboy interview, Sanders remained willing to criticize Israel, though he carefully couched it in “both sides” rhetoric.  “The hatred, violence and loss of life that define this conflict make living an ordinary life a constant struggle for both peoples,” he declared.

We must work with those Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are committed to peace, security and statehood rather than to empty rhetoric and violence. A two-state solution must include compromises from both sides to achieve a fair and lasting peace in the region. The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to end terrorism against Israel and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Hillary Clinton, before rushing into the arms of AIPAC and Saban, once had her own modest pro-Palestinian moment. Back in 1999, before neutrality on Israel/Palestine was deemed radically treasonous by America’s billionaire presidential anointers, Clinton spoke warmly of Palestinian aspirations.   On a visit to the West Bank, she shocked pro-Israel enforcers by kissing the cheek of the Other, Yasser Arafat’s widow, Suha, who had denounced Israel’s military domination of the Palestinians.  The Kiss was essentially diplomatic behavior by the then-First Lady, but it rattled the enforcers, already skittish about Clinton after her shocking use of the actual word “Palestine,” and endorsement of an independent state of that name, a year earlier.  

Soon, alas, Clinton would be atoning for these sins as a candidate for the United States Senate from New York – the first corrective step in a steady rightward march toward military intervention, war under false pretense, support for a military coup against a democratically-elected president, a $29 billion weapons deal that benefited million-dollar donors to the Clinton Foundation, warm relations with accused war criminals then and now, and the embrace of Saban, the billionaire benefactor hell-bent on shutting down open discussion of Israel’s human rights disaster in the Occupied Territories.

For 18 years we have thus witnessed Hillary Clinton’s hawkish march — from her 20th Century air kiss of a former Palestinian first lady, and apparently sincere support for a state called Palestine, to her current role as the Israel-can-do-no-wrong panderer-in-chief.

Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign reveals the roots of her current fealty to Israel.  Lickety-split she abandoned any pretense of support for Palestinians.  She advocated moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv – an anathema to Palestinians, who wish to make their capital in East Jerusalem.  She even attacked her Republican Senate opponent for once shaking hands with Yasser Arafat.  I suppose a handshake is worse than a kiss?

No, there’s no meaningful difference.

The Two State Solution (soon to lose its capital-letter status) has long been at the center of U.S. policy on Israel/Palestine.  (Of course it depends on what you call a state, and whether a rump statelet could actually be considered meaningful.  But we’ll leave that aside for the moment.)  The point here is that there is little discernable light between Sanders and Clinton on this fundamental U.S. position. Both support it.

As Secretary of State, Clinton dragged around the weakly flickering torch of the two-state solution.  She issued mild diplo-speak criticism that Israel’s settlement building “undermines mutual trust.” (Well, yes, Israel’s tripling of the West Bank settler population in the “Oslo era” – from 109,000 in 1993 to some 380,000 today – might slightly undermine trust in America’s professed solution.)  She also allowed that Israeli military demolitions of Palestinian homes – the numbers are in the tens of thousands — are “unhelpful.”  (And, yes, getting your home smashed to pieces by American-made Caterpillar bulldozers can, indeed, be quite unhelpful.)  In 2010 she “yelled” at Netanyahu on the phone after Vice President Biden, in Israel, had pledged America’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security,” only to learn hours later of Israel’s plan to build 1,600 new housing units in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, further undermining the dream of a Palestinian capital there.

But Clinton’s dressing-down of the Israeli prime minister was more a matter of timing and American pride than it was a policy rift.  Though it’s to her credit that in her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices she acknowledged the hardships of Palestinian “life under occupation,” as Secretary of State he did her best to stop Palestinian aspirations to establish their own state, blocking even mild U.N. resolutions to label Israeli settlements illegal.   

Clinton’s words about a two-state solution therefore don’t amount to an actual endorsement of a sovereign independent Palestine, or even a “viable and contiguous” one, in the language of the diplomats.

Because of Hillary’s one-sided rhetoric, Bernie’s positions, at first look, seem fundamentally different.  His remarks about the need for even-handedness are like a cool ladle of water in a killer desert heat.  On his campaign website, a 13-minute “crash course” on Israel/Palestine history remarkably mentions the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, which resulted in the dispossession of more than 750,000 Palestinians during the creation of Israel in 1948.  The video points out that the conflict is over land, not religion.  And it declines to repeat the tired trope of the heroic birth of Israel against a shadowy terrorist enemy.

Yet, zoom in on the basic Sanders positions on Palestine/Israel.  Though he is willing to offer mild criticism of Israel (couched in being “100 percent pro-Israel”) and he talks some trash on Netanyahu, he, like Clinton, stands firmly behind the two state solution.  If anything, the Sanders position is nearly the same as Barack Obama’s, which is best remembered by John Kerry’s failure in 2014 to forge a lasting peace in the Holy Land.

Bernie’s recent past on the issue also sounded some alarms.  His kneejerk defense of Israel during its assault on Gaza – in which 400 times more Palestinian civilians died than civilian Israelis – at first looked more like something out of the playbook of Clinton 2016.  At a Vermont town hall in August 2014, Sanders shouted down people protesting his statement blaming Hamas more than Israel for civilian deaths.  “Shut up!” the senator yelled at the protestors.  “You don’t have the microphone!”  Fifteen months later, at a Sanders campaign event in Boston, student activists who unfurled a “Will ya #feeltheBern 4 Palestine??!” banner were told to put the sign away or face arrest.  Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver later apologized, blaming an overzealous staffer, but for millennials strongly in solidarity with Palestine, and even for leftist intellectuals like Cornell West, these were troubling signals.  

Given all this, it’s fair to ask:  If Bernie Sanders were miraculously elected president, how much would it really matter in terms of U.S. policy in Israel and Palestine?

Maybe, in the long run, there is a difference, and it will matter.

We can’t yet know whether Sanders’s refusal to play the standard AIPAC card, and instead to insist on an even-handed treatment for Palestinians, could lead to real change in future U.S. policy.  That’s in large part because it’s not clear if his millennial-fueled campaign will morph into a sustained movement for change on this or any other issue.

We do know that a significant component of millennial disdain for Hillary is her uber-pandering to Israeli interests.  This includes her attempts to silence free speech and legitimate criticism of Israel, largely at the behest of Saban, he of the Mighty Morphin Power Ranger fame, who has thus far donated some $6.4 million to her campaign.  Thus Clinton is advancing deeply repressive and undemocratic policies to silence constitutionally-protected speech – but only when the target is Israel.  Millennials wonder why, as a candidate for U.S. and not Israeli office, is she taking up this fight to shut down, if not criminalize BDS?  

Sanders has come increasingly to understand that his campaign is fueled by millennials for whom traditional fealty to Israel does not compute.  A 2014 survey by Gallup at the height of the Gaza war showed more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds disapproved of Israel’s actions.  And a Pew poll showed more millennials blamed Israel for the war than blamed Hamas. These young people, unlike their parents and grandparents, did not grow up with the mythic Zionist slogan of “people without land” going “to a land without people.” For them, the brutality of Gaza 2014 was a turning point. Eyewitness accounts told the story of four cousins, 9, 10, and 11 years old, killed by Israel missiles while playing hide and seek on a Gaza beach.  News reports and cell phone videos chronicled the death of young men blown to bits while watching the World Cup, as Israelis in lawn chairs cheered the war from a bluff in the distance.  These images, shared endlessly by young people on social media, suddenly carried more power than vague threats of another Holocaust, especially when the dark warnings came from a cynical leader whose nation would soon be under investigation for war crimes.  In a conflict in which the explosive power of Israel’s rockets and missiles outnumbered those of Hamas by an estimated 1500:1, the old anti-Palestinian tropes were no longer effective with the new generation.

Yet the bigger challenge – not only for Sanders, but for any future progressive candidates, and for that matter millennials themselves – is recognizing that the problem is the two state solution itself.  As Israel has colonized Palestinian land, the idea of two states has become, simply, the rhetoric of politicians claiming they want a solution.  For real change to come to future U.S. policy, a visionary leader, backed by an inspired movement of young people, would need a new analysis based on the actual facts on the ground.  Since the beginning of the Oslo “peace process” in 1993, Israel has:

  • Tripled the settler population in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem), to nearly 400,000;
  • Surrounded East Jerusalem, the supposed capital of a future Palestinian state, with a ring of 17 Jewish settlements;
  • Carved up the West Bank with hundreds of military checkpoints and other barriers to Palestinians, and dozens of settlers-only roads;
  • Devastated the people of Gaza with repeated wars, including the 2014 war which killed some 1,500 civilians, left 108,000 Gazans homeless, and destroyed or badly damaged 18,000 buildings.

Real change on the issue of Israel/Palestine can’t come without a new conversation in America – one that absorbs these basic facts.  Sanders, by nearly every measure – income inequality, financial corruption, race relations, the environment, foreign policy – has changed the conversation in the United States, hauling out unpopular items long ago kicked under the couch.  No more is this more dramatic than on Israel and Palestine.  For Sanders, at this point, it hardly matters that his policy prescriptions on the issue aren’t new; he’s not going to win anyway.

What does matter is that Sanders’s words on rights, dignity and fair play for Palestinians is informed by a shifting understanding of land, power and brutality in the long struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.  And this, in turn, is fueled by millennials, whose own power will only grow in the years to come – if they so choose.  

So, maybe.  Maybe this new movement, whatever it becomes, whoever it puts on its shoulders, will carry a profound new understanding of a just solution for Israel and Palestine at its center.  And maybe, in the long run, that will make a difference.

Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan is the author of “Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land,” a finalist for a 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the international best seller, “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East” (Bloomsbury, 2006). He is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, and a co-founder of Homelands Productions, which produces documentary journalism for public radio. He blogs at Twitter: @sandy_tolan

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15 Responses

  1. amigo on May 4, 2016, 4:01 pm

    Hillarious Hillary will be given instructions from American FP HQ in Tel Aviv to name Bernie as her VP . That ought to rein him in.He is of an age that most likely precludes him from ever running for the top job again , so he may settle for next best appointment available.Also , he might be hoping for an FBI indictment of his boss and that would open the door to the top job.

    Only in America , the land of opportunity .

  2. JWalters on May 4, 2016, 6:18 pm

    A scenario:

    Bernie wins 65% of the remaining delegates and arrives at the convention with more pledged delegates than Hillary. Not so farfetched given some of his huge victory margins. This happens because more voters find out (1) about Hillary’s blind backing of Israel’s wars, including her efforts to sabotage the Iran peace agreement, and (2) about her Wall Street-style money laundering to finance her campaign, and (3) realize she is never going to tell them what she said to Wall Street. Her insistence that she should only be held to the “same standard” as Republicans will be seen for the utterly empty evasion that it is. This will happen despite the establishment media’s frantic efforts to torpedo Bernie with misleads, omissions, and groundless personal attacks.

    Meanwhile, the public’s overriding anger with the corruption of the ruling elite will tilt even more people toward taking a chance with Trump and away from Hillary. The financial and Democratic party elite(s) will see this and start moving toward Bernie. They hate Bernie like they hated FDR, but they fear Trump even more. They don’t trust Trump’s peacemaking overtures because of his earlier extreme condemnations of them. Bernie would go after them in a civilized way, whereas Trump might go after them like the barbarians they are.

    • pabelmont on May 5, 2016, 8:59 am

      Clinton says “vote for me because I am a consummate mechanic for the engine of governance (by implication — within our plutocratic, oligarchic, Establishment-dominated system)” and Sanders says “vote for me because I am a human being who cares about other human beings, the environment, etc., and — quite explicitly — am NOT in bed with the plutocrats, oligarchs, Establishmentarians (–implicitly — as Clinton is).

      The Clinton camp (the national Tammany Hall that runs the Democratic national party) are in it to protect their power, wealth, social position, etc., which they hold due to slavish devotion to the whims of their masters, the aforesaid oligarchs, plutocrats, etc (chiefly: CEOs of big multinational corporations which are called American Corporations). Presumably (by all evidence) they believe they will preserve most of their “perks” even if Clinton loses to Trump but not so much if Clinton loses to Sanders.

      I find a sort of quasi totalitarian system in place in the USA by which the corporate masters control most politicians and most (big) media. and they support those who support them — here Clinton. (Among the Republicans they seem to have no-one to support.) American voters who identify as “Democrats” are told it is their duty to support Clinton, and the political-party-dominated convention delegates are committed (so far) to her. Loyalty is due to those who demand loyalty, not to those who deserve loyalty.

      Kinda reminds me of how AIPAC et al. “tell” American Jews it is their duty to support Israel, whether supporting Israel is good for them or not. And Netanyahu tells the Jews of the world that he is the boss of the country of the Jewish people — support me and it! because it is your only country. And Jews must stick together and support each other. Loyalty is due to those who demand loyalty, not to those who deserve loyalty.

    • hoya saxa on May 7, 2016, 11:54 am

      why would voters care if hillary supports israel? So do 70% of america. Seems that can only help her cause. Supporting palestinians is just a pathetically low group in america it would actually hurt your chances of winning an election by including that in your platform. Dont forget that less than half of america even supports the creation of a palestinian state. WAsh post and gallup report it.

  3. JimMichie on May 5, 2016, 10:41 am

    Professor Tolan, your veiled bias in favor of Hillary-for-president is quite clever—somewhat opaque, but discernable. You attempt to diminish the Bernie Sanders position on Palestine and Israel to bring it more in line with Hillary’s unconditional support of Zionist Israel. The absence of historical context in your piece further establishes your bias in favor of Zionist Israel by failing to reveal much of that rogue state’s six-decades of brutal, ruthless, genocidal, ethnic cleansing, fascist military occupation and rule over what little remains of Palestine. You even failed to acknowledge that Zionist Israel is an “apartheid state” (polite for “racist”), as seen by most of the world.

    Moreover, you fail to point out that Zionist Israel’s unlawful “colonization” of Palestine has been in violation of international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention since 1967:

    Illegal occupation: U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967 emphasizes “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and called for withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the Palestinian territories occupied [by Israel] in the 1967 conflict.

    Illegal “settlements”: Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Article 85 of the First Protocol to Fourth Geneva Convention further stipulates that “the transfer by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory, in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Convention” shall be regarded as one of the “grave breaches of this Protocol” that “shall be regarded as war crimes.”

    Anyone who has taken the time to learn the history of how Zionist Israel came about and compares Hillary Clinton’s record with that of Bernie Sanders on the Palestine-Israel longstanding and ever-worsening crisis would find the Sanders position far more humanitarian in advocating freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians. Indeed, Professor Tolan, there is a vast difference between the Sanders and Clinton positions on the Palestine-Israel crisis.

    • sandytolan on May 5, 2016, 9:17 pm

      Mr. Michie,

      I will respond at greater length a bit later. But I have to believe you did not read my article thoroughly; otherwise I think it would have been impossible to determine that I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton. Absolutely, I am not. Would you please take the trouble to read the article completely, and then respond again? Thank you. – Sandy Tolan

      • sandytolan on May 5, 2016, 10:47 pm
      • JimMichie on May 6, 2016, 8:06 am

        Thank you for your response, Professor Tolan. I did read your piece several times. If my perception was incorrect, you might wish to read both your piece and my comment again and perhaps come to appreciate my perception of what you wrote. I am relieved to hear that you are not a “closet” Hillary supporter. I would be doubly relieved to hear that you are a true practitioner of Judaism, as is Bernie Sanders, and not a supporter of Zionist Israel. I do look forward to your response “at greater length”.


        Jim Michie

      • sandytolan on May 8, 2016, 7:53 pm


        Why do you assume I’m Jewish? I’m not, by the way.

        In any case, my perspective on Israel’s ongoing illegal occupation of the Palestinians should be clear from both my books, The Lemon Tree and most recently Children of the Stone, which describes children building a music school under military occupation in the West Bank. There’s also this piece I wrote for The Daily Beast:


      • eljay on May 8, 2016, 7:59 pm

        Thank you for “The Lemon Tree”, Mr. Tolan. It is a beautiful book.

  4. Rusty Pipes on May 5, 2016, 2:54 pm

    On most foreign policy issues, Bernie has aligned himself with Obama — and where he has disagreed with Obama, he has been in even stronger disagreement with Clinton who was pushing Obama toward those hawkish positions (like regime change). Obama would find any peace initiatives furthered more by a subsequent Sanders than Clinton presidency.

    As an aside, the Feel the Bern site is not an official statement of the Sanders campaign.

  5. Citizen on May 5, 2016, 4:27 pm

    The legality, legitimacy of the settlements, to my knowledge, has never been discussed in public by any POTUS candidate. Maybe Jill Stein?

  6. brent on May 5, 2016, 10:03 pm

    Clinton went put of the box and kissed Suha Arafat and talked about Palestine. Obama went out of the box and called Abbas first.

    Unfortunately, they learned the lesson all politicians learn… its not safe to walk out the limb for Palestinians. Not one Member will speak of holding back aid to Israel.

    America, unfortunately, is a system of competing special interests. Palestinians expect us to “do the right thing”, something we seldom do.

    Teaching American politics at Palestinian universities would be helpful.

  7. Citizen on May 6, 2016, 6:20 am

    Sheldon Adelson has just endorsed Trump! I guess Trump’s very recent clear support of Jewish settlement expansion as a defense against Palestinian rockets was the clincher (after Trump’s employment of his son-in-law as his AIPAC speech writer and an orthodox Jewish real estate macher working for Trump as his Israel consultant.)

  8. Kathleen on May 8, 2016, 10:57 am

    Great piece. Although you fail to mention Clinton’s “yuge” role in pushing for Israel firsters push for Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad to be taken out. She has been following the PNAC’s blueprint since her vote for the 2002 Iraq war resolution. I believe she supported the Iraq sanctions before that although had no vote but behind the scenes support for those deadly sanctions
    Clinton Email Shows US Sought Syria Regime Change for Israel’s Sake
    “Bringing down Assad would not only be a massive boon to Israel’s security, it would also ease Israel’s understandable fear of losing its nuclear monopoly. Then, Israel and the United States might be able to develop a common view of when the Iranian program is so dangerous that military action could be warranted. Right now, it is the combination of Iran’s strategic alliance with Syria and the steady progress in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program that has led Israeli leaders to contemplate a surprise attack — if necessary over the objections of Washington. With Assad gone, and Iran no longer able to threaten Israel through its, proxies, it is possible that the United States and Israel can agree on red lines for when Iran’s program has crossed an unacceptable threshold. In short, the White House can ease the tension that has developed with Israel over Iran by doing the right thing in Syria. The rebellion in Syria has now lasted more than a year. The opposition is not going away, nor is the regime going to accept a diplomatic solution from the outside. With his life and his family at risk, only the threat or use of force will change the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s mind. UNCLASSIFIED U.S. Department of State Case No. F-2014-20439 Doc No. C05794498 Date: 11/30/2015 The Obama administration has been understandably wary of engaging in an air operation in Syria like the one conducted in Libya for three main reasons. Unlike the Libyan opposition forces, the Syrian rebels are not unified and do not hold territory. The Arab League has not called for outside military intervention as it did in Libya. And the Russians are opposed. Libya was an easier case. But other than the laudable purpose of saving Libyan civilians from likely attacks by Qaddafi’s regime, the Libyan operation had no long-lasting consequences for the region. Syria is harder. But success in Syria would be a transformative event for the Middle East. Not only would another ruthless dictator succumb to mass opposition on the streets, but the region would be changed for the better as Iran would no longer have a foothold in the Middle East from which to threaten Israel and undermine stability in the region.”

    Best to read all. Hillary has been pounding the war pavement for what she and other neocons believe is in Israel’s best interest. She is a devoted war hawk with no conscience what so ever. Bernie’s conscience appears to be somewhat intact. Far more than Clinton’s

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