Moderated by CNN host Chris Cuomo, the town hall allowed people in the audience to ask questions of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Ajamu Baraka.
An audience member identifying herself as a US army veteran expressed dismay at Stein’s support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to hold Israel accountable for ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians.
“Why do you single out Israel being that they are a democratic ally to us?” she asked, reciting a standard pro-Israel talking point. “Why don’t you do the same for other Middle Eastern States, many of which are committing horrific crimes and abuse of people?”
Stein pushed back, noting that she emphatically supports ending US aid to human rights abusers across the board.
“What we’re saying is our foreign policy will be based on international law and human rights,” said Stein. “So when we say to Israel that we will not continue to give you $8 million a day when the Israeli army is occupying territory in Palestine, conducting home demolitions and assassinations and things of that sort that are recognized by the UN, we’re not going to do it for the Saudis either.”
Stein added that the same would apply to Egypt which continues to receive major US subsidies despite “incredible human rights violations.”
Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid, accounting for 55 percent of the total, to the tune of about $3 billion a year.
President Barack Obama is currently negotiating a new deal that his administration vows will be the biggest military aid package to any country in history.
Egypt is in second place, receiving $1.5 billion in US military aid annually, an estimated 20 percent of the total.
“Have you advocated to boycott Saudi Arabia?” Garcia asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” Stein replied.
Arms to Saudi Arabia
While Saudi Arabia receives little direct military aid from the US, it does rely on US technology and has been the top purchaser of US arms every year since 2011.
Despite the mounting civilian death toll and famine-like conditions that have resulted from the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, the Obama administration recently approved another $1.15 billion weapons deal with the Saudis.
“The international community must go ‘all in’ on a peace agreement,” Scott Paul, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam America, told Foreign Policy. “A sale of major arms to Saudi Arabia signals the opposite — that the US is instead all-in on a senseless war that has created one of the world’s largest humanitarian emergencies.”
Of course neither newspaper has applies this logic to American sponsorship of Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians as Stein has done.
Singling Israel out?
As though playing the role of Israel’s lawyer, CNN’s Chris Cuomo argued that Israel “occupies a special alliance with the United States and, supporters would argue, faces an existential threat that others do not.”
In other words, Israel should be singled out, but for special treatment rather than boycott.
Cuomo’s brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, is a strong believer in giving Israel special treatment.
In what has been slammed by civil liberties groups as a McCarthyite violation of constitutionally protected speech, Governor Cuomo signed an executive order in June that requires state agencies to divest from companies and institutions that back efforts to boycott Israel.
“I happen to be of Jewish origin,” Stein responded, noting she has relatives living in Israel. And because of that, “I don’t think we are doing Israel a favor by condoning a policy that makes Israel very insecure, that makes Israel the target of hostility from its neighbors,” she said.
Ignoring Stein’s response, Cuomo repeated his question: “Do you believe that as a state Israel has a preference as an ally … do you believe they’re a special ally, yes or no?”
Stein refused to play into his narrative, saying, “I believe all our allies are special allies.”
She added: “I think we have responsibilities to everyone to create a world that works for all of us. And by sponsoring a very hostile military policy that violates international law, that doesn’t do us any favors.”
Stein hopes to persuade disaffected supporters of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to vote for the Green Party instead of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in November.
While Sanders raised the issue of Palestinian human rights during the primary, he never went as far as supporting BDS and largely refrained from talking about foreign policy more generally.
With Stein polling around 4 percent, she has no realistic chance of winning. And it’s unlikely she’ll meet the 15 percent polling threshold to be included in the presidential debates.
But with the majority of Americans heavily dissatisfied with both of the major party candidates, there is more interest than ever in learning about third parties.
Stein’s message about boycotting Israel and ending military support for it and Saudi Arabia are rarely given air time.
And as the CNN town hall demonstrated, mainstream journalists have no counterargument against such a reasonable and universally applied demand.