The South Carolina debate was something of a debacle, but the subject of Israel/Palestine finally came up.
Multiple candidates were asked about whether or not they would the U.S. Embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv. In 2017, the Trump administration chose to move the embassy to Jerusalem, an action that was condemned by many Democrats and praised by the Netanyahu government. It also led to widespread protests from Palestinians. Last July, Axios reported that, despite their concerns, none of the Democratic candidates would commit to moving the embassy back.
During the debate, Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders was asked about the embassy, but still wouldn’t commit to moving it back to Tel Aviv. He was also asked about his recent decision to skip the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference and his declaration that the lobbying group promotes bigotry. In his response, he referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “reactionary racist.” He also said that the United States must adopt a policy that reaches out to Palestinians:
CBS MODERATOR MAJOR GARRETT: Senator Sanders — no, Senator Sanders, I have a question for you, sir. You’re the frontrunner in this race. You’re on the ballot in South Carolina. Mayor Bloomberg, you’ll understand that preamble in just a second.
If elected, Senator Sanders, you would be America’s first Jewish president. You recently called a very prominent, well-known American Israel lobby a platform for, quote, “bigotry.” What would you say to American Jews who might be concerned you’re not, from their perspective, supportive enough of Israel? And specifically, sir, would you move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv?
BERNIE SANDERS: Let me just — the answer is, it’s something that we would take into consideration.
GARRETT: Which would…
SANDERS: But here — excuse me. But here is the point. I am very proud of being Jewish. I actually lived in Israel for some months. But what I happen to believe is that, right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country.
And I happen to believe — I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel, but you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.
We have got to have a policy that reaches out to the Palestinians and the Americans. And in answer to your question, that will come within the context of bringing nations together in the Mideast.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about the embassy as well and said that the United States would “have to leave it there.”
GARRETT: Mayor Bloomberg, would you like to weigh in on that, please?
BLOOMBERG: Well, the battle has been going on for a long time in the Middle East, whether it’s the Arabs versus the Persians, the Shias versus the Sunnis, the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians, it’s only gone on for 40 or 50 years.
Number one, you can’t move the embassy back. We should not have done it without getting something from the Israeli government. But it was done, and you’re going to have to leave it there.
Number two, only solution here is a two-state solution. The Palestinians have to be accommodated. The real problem here is you have two groups of people, both who think God gave them the same piece of land. And the answer is to obviously split it up, leave the Israeli borders where they are, try to push them to pull back some of those extra over the — on the other side of the wall, where they’ve built these new communities, which they should not have done that, pull it back.
Elizabeth Warren was also asked about the embassy. She said that the decision should be left up to Israel and Palestine, which seemed to indicate she was addressing the subject of the capital. Technically an embassy can be anywhere, but it’s typically more convenient to put them in a country’s capital:
ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, the way we have to think about this is I think we have to start with the values and what has to be protected here. Israelis have a right to security and the Palestinians have a right to be treated with dignity and to have self-determination. That is a two-state solution.
But it’s not up to us to determine what the terms of a two-state solution are. We want to be a good ally to everyone in the region. The best way to do that is to encourage the parties to get to the negotiating table themselves.
Donald Trump’s big mistake is he keeps putting a thumb on the scale on just one side, and that moves the parties further away from working out their own solution here. We need to be an ally by supporting them to come to negotiate to find a lasting peace.
GARRETT: But, Senator Warren, just on the question of the embassy, what was your position on that?
WARREN: It is not ours to do.
GARRETT: Would you move it back?
WARREN: It is not ours to do. We should let the parties determine the capital.
GARRETT: Would you move it back or not, yes or no?
AMY KLOBUCHAR: It’s our embassy.
WARREN: We should let the parties determine the capitals themselves.
According to reports, Israel’s foreign minister Israel Katz denounced Sanders’ comments on an IDF radio station after the debate. “That remark is shocking,” said Katz, “…the remark by Sanders, who is of Jewish background, is his second against the state of Israel on topics that are at the core of Jewish belief, Jewish history and Israel’s security. Naturally, people who support Israel will not support someone who goes against these things.”