Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barrie Times Argus,
Sunday April 24th, 2016
I owe Bernie Sanders an apology.
In this space two weeks ago, based on his controversial interview with the New York Daily News Editorial Board in which Sanders demonstrated both a lack of expertise on the Middle East and a diffidence toward Israel, I predicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would “eat him for lunch” in any negotiations about peace with the Palestinians. But the following week, during his testy Brooklyn debate with Hillary Clinton, Sanders surprised a lot of people, including a number of the television pundits analyzing the debate, one of whom called it an act of unusual political courage.
Questioned about his Middle East views, Sanders said, “In the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”
He went on to say, “In the long term there will never be peace in that region unless the United States plays a role, an even handed role trying to bring people together and recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people.” And he added this zinger, “There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”
I have to confess, that hearing this in the midst of the debate, it didn’t sound that radical to me. But I wasn’t considering the total context. Middle East Peace activist Mitchell Plitnick, provided that context in a commentary in the New Republic this past week. He wrote, “The debate took place in Brooklyn, New York, a place that can make a strong case for being the capital of Jewish support for Israel.” After citing the Sanders quotes on the subject, including the line that Netanyahu is not right all the time, Plitnick offered this analysis. “A direct critique of the Israeli Prime Minister is unprecedented from an American presidential candidate. And a pledge to be even handed, rather than solely defend Israel’s interests, is not a common refrain. To say these things in New York of all places would have been heretofore unimaginable.”
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen, had a slightly different take on Sanders remarks in a column with the headline, “Bernie’s Israel Heresy.” He begins,
“In New York, no less, days before a primary, a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination declares that Israel used ‘disproportionate’ force in Gaza in 2014, that ‘we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,’ that the United States has to play ‘an even handed role,’ and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel ‘is not right all the time.’  Wow! Sensation! Hold the presses!”
Cohen continues in a more serious vein to make his point. “That candidate, of course is Bernie Sanders, a Jew in the party that is the political home of a majority of American Jews; and the fact that his words are deemed shocking or even newsworthy reflects the degree to which, over many years, major American Jewish organizations have been able to dictate the line that says there is only one way to support Israel and win elections – and that is uncritically.
Columnist Cohen, who is based in London, has worked many decades as a foreign correspondent and his opinions on the Middle East often reflect an internationalist’s view. As he writes in this column, “In most of the rest of the world, Sanders position would be uncontroversial, reflecting a broad consensus. In fact, his statement in the debate with Hillary Clinton that he is ‘100 percent pro-Israel in the long run’ would almost certainly have caused more of a ruckus in Europe.”
Sanders of course, did not win the New York primary. But there is nothing I have seen in the exit polls and post-election data to indicate that his views on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute had in any sense been a factor in his defeat. In any event, it is to his credit that he took a principled stand on an issue that was not likely to win him many votes and could have cost him some.
These are not good days for Middle East peacemakers. With the region in turmoil, the Palestinians are on no one‘s list of priorities. Actually, Aaron David Miller, one of the American team’s negotiators in the Clinton administration's effort to get Israel to give up the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty with Syria, is now expressing relief that the deal fell through. He believes if Syria now controlled Golan, the five year Syrian Civil War would have sucked Israel directly into the conflict. Meantime Netanyahu has announced again recently, that Israel will “never” give up Golan.
The year 2017 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel trounced the Arab armies and absorbed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. So began Israel’s half century military occupation of Palestinian territory which has brought nothing but tragedy to both sides. I see no end in sight, and given Israel’s hard turn to the right, escalating conflict seems inevitable.
Still. I would join Roger Cohen in his praise for Bernie Sanders. “Sanders struck an important blow for honest and more open debate by raising issues seldom broached in an American presidential campaign- the Palestinian houses and schools ‘decimated’ by Israeli forces in Gaza, the fact that ’there are two sides to the issue,’ the need for a balanced American role. He set down a marker in the Jewish American city, par excellence.”
So thank you Bernie.  But one more thing. As your campaign continues, please don’t join the ranks of disgruntled spoilers like Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and Ralph Nader in 2000, who helped deliver the White House to Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. I really don’t think that’s the way you wish to be remembered.

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