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.