Bernie Sanders’ comments on Israel at last Thursday’s debate are being described as “extraordinary” and a potential watershed moment in the politics surrounding Middle East policy. The latest article from CNN is even titled “Bernie Sanders Smashes the Israel Status Quo.” Still, for many people watching the presidential race, Sanders’ ideas might not seem particularly radical — despite being extremely rare in presidential politics.
When questioned by Jake Tapper of CNN about Israel’s actions in the 2014 Gaza conflict, Sanders answered, “Was Israel’s response disproportionate? I think it was.”
The presidential candidate was given a chance to walk back the remarks during the recent debate in New York. He didn’t. Instead, he doubled down, saying, “There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu [Israel’s Prime Minister] is not right all of the time.”
CNN political commentator Van Jones explained that Sanders’ statements were “extraordinary.”
“It’s not just that it was interesting politics in New York. It’s that I’ve never seen a Democratic candidate trying to be president – I haven’t seen a Republican, I haven’t seen anyone at this level of the game – say, ‘Look, let’s have a more balanced approach. That takes a level of courage and a level of integrity. You can disagree with it, you can feel badly about it, you can be proud of it – but something happened tonight.”
There are few things that unite both sides of the political aisle, and support for Israel is one of them. By saying that support for Israel and its policies should come with possible scrutiny, Sanders is taking a distant step away from the political pack. The debate wasn’t his first stand against this status quo, but he was likely under pressure in New York with its large Jewish population.
Still, Bernie Sanders insists, in the end, he is pro-Israel.
Senator Sanders is the first Jewish, non-Christian presidential candidate to win a major party primary. Likewise, he has lived in Israel, volunteering in a kibbutz in the ’60s. But Sanders has not jumped through the typical hoops politicians use to win over the pro-Israel crowd. According to ABC News, he is the only candidate to not attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for example.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, vehemently stated her support for Israel, while avoiding speaking too much on the Gaza conflict.
So, will Bernie Sanders’ position on Israel hurt or help the candidate?
During the debate, Sanders’ responses on Palestinians received a loud applause from the audience. Clinton’s comments were more lukewarm according to CNN.
A poll from Gallup showed that Israel’s popularity among Democrats is declining. In 2015, 60 percent had a favorable view of the country and its policies, down from 74 percent the previous year.
“They are pro-Israel but they are anti-settlements. They lack confidence in the sincerity of the Israeli government in pursuing peace. The Democratic Party is changing. Younger Democrats are still pro-Israel, but they’re opposed to many Israeli policies.”
His position still leaves him vulnerable. Sanders accidentally claimed that 10,000 civilians were killed in the 2014 conflict, when he was referring to the 10,000 wounded (roughly 2,203 people were killed in Gaza, how many of them were civilians varies by source).
The New York Daily News was quick to jump on the misstep and publish a piece claiming that Sanders was quoting lies from terrorists.
Bernie Sanders’ views might be echoing the future position of the Democratic party, but it could prove to be too soon for a political body where support for Israel is rarely questioned.
[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]