What could a Bernie Sanders victory mean for Palestine?

During Wednesday’s Democratic presidential primary debate, Senator Bernie Sanders spoke sympathetically about Palestinians without any prompt from the moderators.

Responding to a question on foreign policy, Sanders first laid out how rather than siding with the “brutal dictatorship” in Riyadh, he would bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together.

“The same thing goes with Israel and the Palestinians,” he added.

“It is no longer good enough for us simply to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel, but we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”

“What is going on in Gaza right now – where youth unemployment is 70 or 80 percent – is unsustainable,” Sanders said.

“We need to be rethinking who our allies are around the world, work with the United Nations, not continue to support brutal dictatorships.”

Initially, I was less than overwhelmed by Sanders’ statement.

We’ve heard him talk about Palestinians before and like his statement during this debate his words are usually couched in an affirmation that he is “pro-Israel.”

It’s troubling that anyone would describe themselves as “pro-Israel,” especially as Israel proceeds at full speed with annexing occupied territory and openly formalizing its system of apartheid.

But progressive YouTuber Mike Figueredo prompted me to reflect on my reaction.

You can see Sanders’ comments and Figueredo’s analysis in the video above.

Figueredo is clearly enthused about Sanders: “He’s not just a candidate who could potentially transform America, but he could transform the world based on what he said.”

Figueredo says that he has been critical of Sanders for not being bold enough on Palestine, but that the senator’s words Wednesday night “almost made me tear up” because “we are at a time when we have a presidential candidate on the debate stage acknowledging the humanity of Palestinians.”

“Nobody else will say we should respect Palestinians or actually try to get some type of peace deal without kowtowing to Israel,” Figueredo adds.

He points out that Sanders is the only candidate to have condemned the overthrow of Bolivia’s President Evo Morales as a military coup – though Sanders did not mention Bolivia during Wednesday’s debate.

“Bernie Sanders is talking about bringing the world together,” Figueredo says, arguing that President Sanders could transform foreign policy in a way that would begin to dismantle US imperialism.

“He’s getting everyone to think about foreign policy in a different way, in a more humane way, where we’re not just using our hegemony to destroy the world, to destroy the planet,” Figueredo argues.

Sanders’ mixed record

Figueredo acknowledges that Sanders’ position on Palestine remains less than “perfect” and there is still “opportunity for growth.” That is true and an understatement.

But his overall point is that Sanders is pushing the discourse further than any other candidate, not just on Palestine, but also on the destructive American “war on terror.”

I and other writers for this publication have consistently pointed out Sanders’ shortcomings on the question of Palestine.

It is difficult to forget how in a town hall during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, Sanders angrily shut down constituents who protested the slaughter of Palestinians.

Sanders also still refuses to endorse the nonviolent BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement for Palestinian rights.

Nor did it inspire much confidence in July when Sanders said he would “probably not” reverse the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

But there have been notable developments.

Sanders now regularly talks about the situation of Palestinians in Gaza, even putting out a video last year on the impact of Israel’s brutal siege.

It opens with a declaration that Gaza has become the world’s “largest open-air prison.”

Cutting aid to Israel

By talking about the situation in Gaza, Sanders is pointing to root causes of violence, rather than resorting to the usual talking points that erase and dehumanize Palestinians while portraying Israel as a blameless victim merely exercising a natural right to “self-defense.”

Sanders is the first major candidate to say he would cut US aid to Israel to curb its abuses and would even send the money to support Palestinians in Gaza instead.

That forced Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is competing with Sanders for the progressive mantle, to make a similar, though less emphatic, statement.

Compare that to former Vice-President Joe Biden, a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination:

Challenging the status quo

My point is not to argue that Sanders’ positions are great, terrible or something in between.

Nor have I suddenly concluded that US electoral politics provide the route to Palestinian liberation, especially in an American system where a permanent imperial state and rapacious war industry control foreign policy.

But I am certain that there cannot be justice for Palestinians or for anyone else as long as the planet is subject to unchecked American violence.

So where can we look for hope if we still have any faith that popular mobilization can get us out of this morass and move the world closer to justice?

If we see Sanders’ comments not as a reflection of how Good or Bad the man is, but as the product of a growing movement pressing for change then there is some reason for hope.

Sanders has his own convictions, and remains unreliable on the question of Palestine, but he is responding to a massive shift in grassroots opinion, especially in the Democratic Party.

Huge numbers of people no longer hew reflexively to pro-Israel positions and they are increasingly supportive of Palestinian rights, including the BDS campaign to achieve them.

It was striking how much applause Sanders received on Wednesday night when he made his statement about respecting Palestinians.

Organizer-in-chief

It is easy enough to imagine that if Sanders became president, he would quickly disappoint by reverting to a traditional pro-Israel stance and doing little to alter American policy. Or, even with good intentions there is an excellent chance Sanders would be thwarted by the pro-Israel establishment.

But unlike other candidates, Sanders appears to understand that the systemic resistance from fundamentally corrupt political elites applies to everything he wants to do, especially his signature Medicare for All policy.

He understands that the only way a president could win the fight for single-payer universal healthcare is to have a mass movement behind him challenging a Congress that has been legally bribed by healthcare profiteering capitalists.

Sanders has said that as president he would be “organizer-in-chief,” not governing from the top, but rallying people to pressure Congress to implement his movement’s agenda.

The same is true with respect to Palestine: Sanders can and will only do as much as a mass movement demands and enables.

We should not resign ourselves to accepting that the way things are today is the way they will always be. We live in a moment of unprecedented crisis in the neoliberal order, amid climate collapse and skyrocketing inequality.

Even President Donald Trump has privately acknowledged that a socialist agenda “might not be so easy” to beat in 2020.

That is why the US is moving to topple popular socialist governments with renewed vigor, especially in Latin America.

Be as bold as Trump!

One thing we can thank Trump for is demonstrating that presidents can break with long held consensus.

Trump has been nothing if not bold by giving Israel everything it wants, from formally recognizing Jerusalem as its capital, recognizing Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and this week blessing Israeli settlements on occupied territory as legal.

It is just as possible that a new president could be equally bold in the other direction – including cutting aid to Israel – guided by a respect for Palestinian human rights and international law and a revulsion at Israeli occupation, apartheid and racism.

And what possibilities would be unlocked if the United States suddenly stopped blocking every effort to hold Israel accountable at the United Nations or the International Criminal Court?

Even if a President Sanders wanted to renege on all his promises, the change in discourse may be irreversible.

A president who entered the White House pledging to cut US aid to Israel may provide an opening for others in the world to take meaningful action even if the US failed to follow through.

It would also provide an enormous boost to the BDS movement and all efforts to advance Palestinian freedom and equal rights.

Don’t take yes for an answer

Regardless of how one reacts to Sanders’ comments, what is absolutely necessary is to maintain pressure on all politicians. No one deserves unconditional support. Don’t accept their positions as good enough, or make excuses for why they cannot go further right now.

The same is true in Britain, where Jeremy Corbyn – a lifelong supporter of Palestinian rights – has been cowed by a relentless Israel lobby campaign to falsely portray him and his Labour Party as anti-Semitic.

People on the left must learn this key lesson from the success of the right wing: Never take yes for an answer. Always demand more, because that’s the only way to keep pushing the discourse in your direction.

As for Sanders, my own response to his comments on Wednesday is: Thank you for your humane words, especially about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, but if you’re serious about supporting Palestinian rights, now let’s hear you loudly and clearly endorse BDS.

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Comments

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Please don't ultra-left Bernie. People who wanted to send a left message to the Democratic Party in 2016 by voting for Jill Stein sent Trump to the White House in Wisconsin and Michigan--where votes for the Green Party were the difference.

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I'm not sure what you mean. Are you asking that folks not portray him as ultra left, when he isn't. Or are you saying he is and you don't want to see the same thing happen that did with Stein and Nader before her. I think I share both concerns somehow but I'd remind you that Bernie has totally played by the Dem rules, with the notable exception of sacrificing principles to triangulation.
Which strategy I'm not totally opposed to at all but I'm having a hard time, this time, getting past the point that Trump was elected because he appeared to offer a departure from politics as usual - which he both did and didn't - and we need a clear and resounding call for that to win back the middle. A new kind of triangulation really but one that's not under mainstream control.

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It is way past time that the discussion started ,especially in the Unite States regarding the Palestinians which have been bombed into the ground by Israel using the pretense that Israel has the right to defend itself .Israel has a right to defend itself but Palestine is an occupied land and under international law the occupied people have a right to fight against their occupation even using arms to do so.Look it up.Start by reading Jeremy R Hammond's book "Obstacle to Peace"
Furthermore Israel has no right in the settlement in the West Bank or anywhere else for that matter.
https://www.un.org/webcast/pdf...

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The right to defend oneself is the phrase used by the settlers in the U.S. who's land they were taking from the native people.

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Without appearing too cynical, I want to point out that Sanders is having a difficult time emerging from the pack with Medicare for all, even though he “wrote the damn bill”. It’s a tough sell to the party because it’s a tough sell to Americans. So he has to distinguish himself as the most progressive candidate because he is and his strong suit is he is who he is and the other top candidates all sound hollow notes, here and there.
But some of Ali’s hopes might be a little overly optimistic, for instance; I’m not sure what would be more difficult; bringing the Saudis and Iran together or Israel and the Pals, both meetings seem unimaginable to me. Still, we had Camp David, but we also had a country that was more progressive, so I have my doubts even with a President Sanders.
And it doesn’t take boldness to give Israel everything it wants. Trump saw the power Israel exerts on Congress by 2016 and recognized what many Republicans did around the turn of the century; give Israel more than the next guy and win! And reversing that paradigm seems a difficult prospect, to say the least. And as for what happens to Presidents who try to hold Israel accountable to international law; I offer Obama as an example. Congress watched as Bibi stumped for Romney and even invited him to lecture them en masse. Obama’s bold abstention for UNSCR2334 has now been officially suspended here and nobody in Congress has taken their nose out of their impeachment transcript long enough to say gezundheit.
Lastly I’m concerned that he gets so little support amongst Blacks. I’m leery of ignoring Black leadership, as white progressives have for decades now, leading to deep divisions where much more evolved political movements once formed. But I am happy to hear the positive possibilities in the midst of so much that’s really deeply disheartening. And I too prefer Bernie.

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I think that, especially considering Barack Obama's rumored "Stop Bernie Campaign", EI owes it to its loyal readers to include views other than the one presented here.

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Many people on the left didn't vote for Hillary in 2016 because she wasn't pure enough. She is a bourgeois liberal, like Biden, Bloomberg, Klobuchar. We are in coalition with bourgeois liberals in a united front against fascism and racism. Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist. He is the leader of the socialist wing of the Democratic Party. We support his leadership because he represents the best hope for progressive social change. If he cannot get the endorsement, and he says we should support Elizabeth Warren (even though she has a gradualist approach to Medicare for All, was not critical of the fascist coup in Bolivia and supports sanctions against Venezuela) then we should accept his leadership and support Elizabeth Warren. Medicare for All is now a mainstream Democratic Party position. Supporting Bernie helps advance his program. People of good will and good conscience may disagree with some of Bernie's positions, or Warren's positions, but we need to keep our eyes on the prize and hang on. We must not let "the perfect" become the enemy of "the good." "Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder" by Lenin, is a good read on this question. "The basic reason why all previous revolutionary struggles in China achieved so little was their failure to unite with real friends in order to attack real enemies." Mao We are in a struggle against fascism and racism--on the Mexican border, in Israel/Palestine, in the heartland of America. We need allies in this struggle. We don't need self-righteous martyrs trying to burn down the house.

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Ed, I’m still not sure what you meant by “Please don't ultra-left Bernie”. But in reading the above comment once, I thought I was in full agreement and was relieved to hear your words, which seemed to endorse moderation in a common cause. But a second reading leaves me with questions. I would like to think I’m with you though, so…
If we are finding common cause with bourgeois liberals, why are we necessarily following Bernie’s advice on whom to support in lieu of himself? He may be our leader because he is a democratic socialist but if we don’t get behind the candidate chosen by the largest, most effective coalition, what did it mean that we found common cause with our bourgeois bros and sisters?
There’s another ingredient here; Obama. He represents that broader coalition and in’16 he met with Bernie about his race with Hillary. My sense was that they were not of one mind and now Obama has leaked out that he doesn’t at all support Sanders. If you’re really about uniting against fascism and racism, what are you doing rejecting the leadership of the nation’s first black President, who’s fresh out of office and advising that Bernie’s just too far left for the general election? If this is a new triangulation it seems to be a tempest in a teapot - again.
Coming out with a more progressive stance on Israel-Palestine when you’re running is easier if not less courageous than Obama’s challenge of Netanyahu and the lobby, to basically try to resuscitate Oslo. Not the most progressive avenue but one that forced Israel’s hand. I like Bernie but I’m fully prepared to follow that broader coalition’s leadership and give Bernie my love.

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