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Washington Affairs: What would a Sanders presidency mean for Israel? – American Politics

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The crowd at J Street conference in Washington stood on his legs and gave a long standing ovation to Senator Bernie Sanders as he entered the stage last week during the progressive group’s annual conference. The very first question he was asked was about his view on military aid to Israel. The Vermont Senator laid out a controversial plan, suggesting he would use the military assistance to Israel to pressure the government to change its policy.

“I would use the leverage of $3.8 billion – it is a lot of money […] we have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy,” he said. “Some of that $3.8b. should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza.” Since that moment, the debate about military aid to Israel became a campaign issue in the Democratic primaries.

The Iowa caucuses, which will formally open the primaries season, is 87 days away, and the Democratic Party is moving into a higher gear. Key figures, such as Beto O’Rourke and others who ran out of cash, are leaving the race, while three candidates are still at the top tier: former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

A national Monmouth poll released on Wednesday predicts 23% for both Warren and Biden and 20% for Sanders. The socialist senator from Vermont, who lost his 2016 primary bid to Hillary Clinton, is eager to beat all odds and become the Democratic nominee in 2020. On his way to achieving that goal, he is not staying away from controversy.

Last week, at the J Street annual conference in Washington, he laid out some of his most aggressive plans toward Israel, suggesting he would use the military assistance to Israel to pressure the government to change its policy.

“I would use the leverage of $3.8 billion – it is a lot of money […] we have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy,” he said. “Some of that $3.8b. should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza.”

On Sunday, he received an endorsement from Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the most controversial figures to the pro-Israel community, a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement who used antisemitic tropes on a few occasions, and who was barred from entering Israel.

These recent developments raised alarms for moderate Democrats, who emphasized that Sanders’s positions do not represent the mainstream of the party.

“[Cutting aid for Israel] is certainly not the new normal in the sense that nobody else has quite endorsed the policy that [Sanders] endorsed, and a number of other candidates have disagreed with it rather forcefully,” Mark Mellman, president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, told The Jerusalem Post.

“Sen. Sanders represents his own opinion,” he added, “but that is not an opinion that is widely shared in the Democratic Party at all. Not among the presidential candidates and certainly not among Democrats in Congress.”

When asked about the warm reaction from the crowd at J Street for Sanders’s plan, Mellman said that it does not represent the majority of Jewish Democrats.

“I wouldn’t mistake the audience at J Street for the Democratic Party, just as I wouldn’t mistake the audience at any conference for the party as a whole,” he said. “That just is not a reasonable characterization. Is that what the J Street audience wants to hear? No question about it. Is that what the Democratic Majority for Israel audience wants to hear? No. Is there a segment of the community that likes those views? Yes. But that’s a pretty small segment.”

He added that Sanders would cooperate with the Israeli government, but the relations between the two administrations would be different from what we got to know.

“Would he be open to working with some Israeli government on some issues? I’m sure he would. Will he be like Donald Trump? Certainly not. Would he be like Barack Obama? Certainly not,” he said.

Republicans, on the other hand, slammed Sanders for saying he would cut aid to Israel, and suggested that he lacks the understanding about the mechanism of the US military aid to Israel.

“It’s disturbing and it highlights this far-left trend in the Democratic Party,” Neil Strauss, national spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, told the Post. “Conditioning military aid to Israel is something that was so far outside of the mainstream just six or 12 months ago, and all of a sudden, because Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have now embraced this idea, it’s becoming very mainstream.

“To talk down to Israel like we are dictating their internal security policy, that’s just not how we speak to, and act with, any of our other allies,” Strauss continued.

“He says he wants to take some of that money and give it right down to the people in Gaza. Either he doesn’t understand, or he doesn’t care, that the people who run Gaza, who administer it, is Hamas. What he is proposing is giving money to a terrorist group and hurting the people of Gaza.”

Strauss said that while some Democratic hopefuls are claiming to have a specific problem with the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, in fact, these positions are at odds with most of the public in Israel.

“[They] would try to tell you, ‘Well, this is not anti-Israel, it’s anti-Netanyahu.’ This is a myth, because this is basically where Blue and White is [as well as the Likud], and where the Israeli people are. This is the policies that they’ve voted for. So, really, this isn’t anti Netanyahu; this is anti the overwhelming majority of the people of Israel.”

MATTHEW DUSS, a foreign policy adviser for Sanders, told the Post that Sanders’s remarks about shifting aid to Gaza should not be taken literally.

“I think it was more of a political statement to say that we give Israel a lot of money, a lot of that does go to the US defense industry, but a big portion of it, a quarter of it, in a deal that’s unique to Israel, can be spent domestically in Israel. I think the point he was trying to make is it’s not good enough for us just to pour all this money into buying weapons. There are issues like the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that have a security impact that are in fact an issue of human rights.”

When Sen. Sanders is speaking about conditioning aid to Israel, this is a stance that many in Israel, both on the Left and on the Right, strongly oppose and consider harmful. What would you say to them?

“This is a conversation from the perspective of US policy about Americans not wanting their money to go to support policies and practices that they disagree with. This is not specific to Israel. I think this is a debate that’s rising in relation to a bunch of other countries. The US taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be going to policies that contradict our own interests and our values. If there are instances where they do, we need to look at how that money is being used.

“Bernie believes in a strong US-Israel relationship. He said this repeatedly. He certainly recognizes [that] Israel has very legitimate security needs, and absolutely supports the US backing Israel’s legitimate security requirements. But when it comes to policies of the occupation, settlements, practices like home demolitions, and other policies that violate international humanitarian law, he believes it’s important to make clear that the US does not want US dollars used for those purposes.”

Where does Sen. Sanders stand on the situation in Gaza in which a terrorist organization controls the Gaza Strip? As we know, aid to Gaza on many occasions ends up in the hands of Hamas.

“Obviously, Hamas supports rockets and digging tunnels; their oppression of the people of Gaza; their own corruption is a huge problem. Not to mention their position that Israel should not exist – needless to say, something Sen. Sanders disagrees with entirely. But that’s one piece of the problem in Gaza. And you’ve got the Israeli blockade and the Egyptian role in the blockade. You’ve got the division between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. So, as he said, this is not easy.

“But the bottom line is that the basic human rights of the Palestinian people in Gaza cannot be kind of held hostage to this political process.”

“We need to find ways to rebuild the economy, to address the water crisis, to address the humanitarian crisis. And there are plans out there for ways to kind of facilitate increased aid to make sure that it simply is not taken by Hamas; and we should work together with the Israelis, with the Egyptians, with the PA and the international community to do that.”

During the Trump administration, there have been many actions taken in favor of Israel, whether it’s moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, and other actions regarding the Palestinians, like closing the PLO office in Washington and closing the consulate in east Jerusalem. Which – if any – of these actions would Sen. Sanders reverse if he got a chance?

“I think first he would immediately welcome, the PLO [back to Washington]. He would also reopen the consulate in Jerusalem, but with the understanding that this would very intentionally serve as an embassy to a future state of Palestine. His first step would not be to reverse the embassy move. But I think the step would be to open a representation of the Palestinians, with the understanding that this is where the capital of the Palestinian state would be. And this is where the United States Embassy to that state will also be. But ultimately, as he has said, if there is no cooperation on that from the Israelis, then moving the embassy back to Tel Aviv is something that’s on the table. It would not be a first choice.

“On some of those other steps, there are certain things that he would reverse. That, I think, has been very damaging, understanding that Trump’s policy toward the Palestinians has simply been to try and destroy the Palestinians as an independent political entity. Sen. Sanders has said many times that the Palestinians have very legitimate claims in this land as well. And that’s what the two-state solution is about.”

Duss also pushed back when asked about Trump’s actions in favor of Israel.

“What is Trump giving Israel? I mean, he’s moving the embassy, he’s giving some things to Netanyahu to help Netanyahu’s reelection. That didn’t work,” he said.

“He pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Iran is now doing worse things in the region and is now moving toward starting enrichment again. He’s pulling out of Syria – what is Trump actually doing for Israel? He says nice things, but his actual behavior has been massively destabilizing. So, in terms of Israel’s genuine security, I would say Trump has been a disaster for the State of Israel,” he added.

Sanders was recently endorsed by Ilhan Omar, who just last week refused to vote in favor of recognizing the Armenian genocide and was the only Democrat not to support sanctions against Turkey. And yet it seems like Sen. Sanders is fully aligned with her. What does Sen. Sanders think about the criticism of Omar’s record?

“Congresswoman Omar can speak for herself on her decisions on those votes. I’ll just say that on a range of policies, particularly with regard to the US role in the world, the goal of the US playing a more productive, progressive role around the world to promote human dignity and human rights, Sen. Sanders and Congresswoman Omar agree.

“He has watched as she [was under] very severe attacks by name, by the president, who has whipped up hysteria against her. She’s someone who endures harassment, threats of violence, constantly. And he feels very strongly that that’s completely unacceptable. So I think, in addition to the areas of policy where they agree in their vision for a country that’s welcoming of immigrants and refugees, I think that’s also something that he feels it’s very important to stand up to.”

In July, Omar put forward a resolution supporting BDS.

“Sanders’s position, which he said numerous times, is that he’s not a supporter of the BDS movement,” Duss said. “He believes that boycotts are protected speech.”

The Trump administration took a very specific approach of not imposing any solution on the sides. What kind of approach would Sen. Sanders take?

“First of all, he recognizes that ultimately this solution will need to be agreed by Israelis and Palestinians. But he also recognizes that this is not a negotiation between two equal parties right now. There is one side, Israel, that enjoys a massive disparity in power, that controls all of the territory, who’s military goes wherever it likes in the territory. And there are things that the United States can and should do to help empower those on either side who support a peaceful resolution. And we should do that.

“This is not something where we need to reinvent the wheel. There are certain things, certain answers to some of these issues, that will have to be developed. But in general terms, there is an international consensus based on international law, multiple UN Security Council resolutions, that will help determine the general parameters of a solution.”

Can Israelis be sure that if Sanders makes it to the White House, relations between the two countries will stay the same?

“I think Israelis can be absolutely sure that Sanders, as he has said repeatedly, is committed to the security of the State of Israel.”

But the question is, if you understand why Israelis are worried about it.

“I do. Again, if you look at Sen. Sanders’s history, there is no candidate in this race that has as personal an attachment to the State of Israel as he does.”

It has been 13 years since the Palestinian Authority held its last elections. It seems like no one there is waiting to sign a peace agreement. Can Sanders be aggressive to the Palestinians as well?

Yes, absolutely. Obviously, the Palestinians need to get their house in order, both in terms of elections in the PA and dealing with the split between the West Bank and Gaza. Certainly, Sen. Sanders would use US pressure to kind of push toward that as president.

To push Hamas out of power, for example?

“I think his focus is going to be to use US policies and US aid to support and empower those who want to make peace. And part of that, I think, is going to do be: empower those leaders among the Palestinians and showing them that diplomacy works. The United States made promises to the Palestinians years ago that – end use of violence, recognize the State of Israel, meet these conditions, and the occupation will end and you’ll get a state on 22% of Palestine. That argument 20 years later does not seem to have worked out. And I think working to fulfill that promise and showing all the Palestinian people that this path is how you will achieve your liberation, we need to do that if we want to get to a resolution.

“I think, yes, Palestinian leadership has a lot to do to get their house in order. One of the things that Sen. Sanders believes needs to happen is that the PA needs to start behaving like a democracy. I mean, this repression of Palestinian activists, the banning of Palestinian websites, this needs to end.”

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