BY REBECCA SHIMONI STOIL, Times of Israel—
WASHINGTON — While declaring his commitment to Israel’s security, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) accused Israel of using disproportionate force in its military operations and pilloried the settlement policies of the Netanyahu government, in a speech released Monday while the candidate campaigned in Salt Lake City, Utah.
After raising eyebrows by choosing to campaign in the mountain West rather than attend AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference in Washington — the four other candidates for president all visited the pro-Israel confab — Sanders’s address, which he had previously offered to deliver before AIPAC via video link, discussed the topics he would likely have raised there.
“I have a deep personal connection to Israel,” Sanders said, quipping that he was “fairly certain I am the only US presidential candidate to have ever lived on a kibbutz.”
Sanders is America’s first Jewish candidate for the presidency from a major political party. Although he lost to frontrunner Hillary Clinton in five of the six most recent primary contests, Sanders resoundingly defeated the former secretary of state in the primary held among Democrats abroad. The results of that poll were revealed on Monday, hours before his campaign posted the foreign policy speech on its official website.
Sanders emphasized that Israel “is one of America’s closest allies” and that Americans “as a nation – are committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival, but also to its people’s right to live in peace and security.”
Echoing arguments made by the current administration, Sanders said that the very closeness of the friendship between the two states obligated the parties “to speak the truth as we see it.”
“Our disagreements will come and go, and we must weather them constructively,” he asserted.
The progressive sweetheart’s speech paired criticism of Israel with criticism of Palestinian actions, but while he mentioned terrorism in the framework of ISIS and Hezbollah, Sanders’s address referred to the ongoing wave of violence against Israeli civilian and military targets alike only as “attacks.”
Sanders pledged to “work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend to Israel” but argued that “to be successful, we have to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people.”
“There is too much suffering in Gaza to be ignored,” Sanders declared, but stopped short of ascribing blame for the cause of the suffering.
Sanders, like his Democratic opponent former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, expressed his support for the two-state solution, describing it as “the only prospect for peace.”
The Vermont senator outlined his plan to reach such a solution.
“The first step in the road ahead is to set the stage for resuming the peace process through direct negotiations,” he began. “It means building confidence on both sides, offering some signs of good faith, and then proceeding to talks when conditions permit them to be constructive.”
In order to do so, he said, there must be “unconditional recognition by all of Israel’s right to exist” and “an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel.”
Peace, he said, “will require that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah renounce their efforts to undermine the security of Israel” – an unlikely precondition for Hamas, which has steadfastedly refused to remove calls for Israel’s destruction from its official charter.
Sanders said that in order to achieve peace, Israel would have to “end what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza.”
“Peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic wellbeing for the Palestinian people,” Sanders said.
He spoke out against what he described as “Israel’s recent expropriation of an additional 579 acres of land in the West Bank,” which he said “undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well.”
The senator accused Israel of “disproportionate responses to being attacked,” while adding that “any attack on Israel is unacceptable.”
“Peace will also mean ending the economic blockade of Gaza. It will mean a sustainable and equitable distribution of precious water resources so that Israel and Palestine can both thrive as neighbors,” he added.
“Inadequate water supply has contributed to the degradation and desertification of Palestinian land,” he argued. “A lasting peace will have to recognize Palestinians are entitled to control their own lives, and there is nothing human life needs more than water.”
He lashed out against the current Israeli government, saying that it was “absurd for elements within the Netanyahu government to suggest that building more settlements in the West Bank is the appropriate response to the most recent violence,” and that it was “also not acceptable that the Netanyahu government decided to withhold hundreds of millions of shekels in tax revenue from the Palestinians, which it is supposed to collect on their behalf.”
His critique of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was more limited, saying that it was “unacceptable” for Abbas “to call for the abrogation of the Oslo Agreement when the goal should be ending the violence.”
Sanders was more critical of the Hamas government in Gaza, saying that he “strongly object” to Hamas’s “long held position that Israel does not have the right to exist.”
After critiquing Hamas’s behavior, Sanders once again balanced his critique with a reminder that he, “along with many supporters of Israel – spoke out strongly against the Israeli counter attacks that killed nearly 1,500 civilians, and wounded far more,” including “the bombing of hospitals, schools and refugee camps.”
Sanders called on the international community to “come together to help Gaza recover.”
He also discussed regional challenges throughout the Middle East.
Sanders, who has prided himself on opposing the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, said that the US should continue to fight Islamic State. “There is no doubt in my mind that the United States must continue to participate in an international coalition to destroy this barbaric organization,” he argued.
“The US must also play a greater role disrupting the financing of ISIS and efforts on the Internet to turn disaffected youth into the next generation of terrorists,” he continued.
At the same time, he noted that “while the US has an important role to play in defeating ISIS, it must be led by the countries in the region, some of whom have for too long not only turned a blind eye to violent extremism, but have encouraged and funded it.”
“The major powers in the region – especially the Gulf States – have to take greater responsibility for the future of the Middle East,” he continued. “Wealthy and powerful nations in the region can no longer expect the United States to do their work for them. We are not the policeman of the world.”
Stronger US military involvement in Syria, he warned, “would simply prolong the war, and increase the chaos in Syria, not end it.” Instead, Sanders insisted, “the only solution in Syria is a negotiated political settlement.”
Sanders emphasized his opposition to the Iraq War as reflecting his opposition to unbridled military interventionism. “It is my firm belief that the test of a great nation, with the most powerful military on earth, is not how many wars we can engage in, but how we can use our strength to resolve international conflicts in a peaceful way,” he said. “Yes, the military option should always be on the table, but it should be the last resort.”
The Democratic candidate, who enjoys strong support from a younger demographic in his party, reiterated his support for the Iranian nuclear deal signed last July, which was implemented in January.
“The bottom line is this: if successfully implemented – and I think it can be – the nuclear deal will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he stressed. While acknowledging that the agreement does not achieve everything he would like it to, he insisted that “it is far better than the path we were on with Iran developing nuclear weapons and the potential for military intervention by the US and Israel growing greater by the day.”
“I do not accept the idea that the ‘pro-Israel’ position was to oppose the deal,” Sanders argued.
“If Iran does not live up to the agreement, we should re-impose sanctions and all options are back on the table,” he continued, while calling on the world to “stand united in condemning Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests as well as its continued support for terrorism through groups like Hezbollah.”