Head of Israeli Democrats defends Sanders: Foreign policy is not his forte
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Head of Israeli Democrats defends Sanders: Foreign policy is not his forte

When presidential hopeful suggested Israel killed over 10,000 innocents in last Gaza war, he was referring to the wounded, Hillel Schenker argues

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally on April 5, 2016 in Laramie, Wyoming (Theo Stroomer/Getty Images/AFP)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally on April 5, 2016 in Laramie, Wyoming (Theo Stroomer/Getty Images/AFP)

Foreign policy is not Bernie Sanders’ strong suit, the head of the Democratic party’s Israel branch said Wednesday, defending the presidential candidate for his controversial positions on the Middle East conflict, including his suggestion that the IDF had killed more than 10,000 innocent Palestinians during the last Gaza war.

While admitting that the Vermont senator needs “a rapid learning course” in international affairs, Hillel Schenker argued that the presidential hopeful is fully committed to Israel’s security and that his positions are in line with those of many Israeli security experts.

“It’s quite clear that Bernie Sanders has a weakness — by the way, a weakness shared by Donald Trump on the Republican side — that his forte is domestic and not international affairs,” Schenker told The Times of Israel. “In that area, it’s clear that Hillary Clinton has much more experience,” he said, referring to the former secretary of state who is Sanders’s rival for the Democratic nomination.

“Bernie Sanders has run his entire campaign primarily on internal American socio-economic issues. And that is also what all of his supporters are interested in. They’re not really interested in foreign policy and in Israel, et cetera.”

Hillel Schenker, chairman of Democrats Abroad Israel, seen at a debate ahead of the 2012 US elections in Tel Aviv (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Hillel Schenker, chairman of Democrats Abroad Israel, seen at a debate ahead of the 2012 US elections in Tel Aviv (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

On the other hand, Sanders’ speech submitted last month to the AIPAC conference in Washington, which was addressed in person by all the other presidential candidates from both parties, was “the most thoughtful of all of the presentations,” Schenker argued. “The other presidential presidents who spoke at AIPAC spoke essentially in slogans and cliches, whereas Bernie Sanders gave a very thoughtful, well-reasoned presentation.”

In his remarks prepared for AIPAC, which he chose not to deliver in person and was not allowed to read by satellite feed, Sanders noted that he is the only candidate who has ever lived in Israel — he spent three months at a kibbutz in the 1960s — and reiterated his commitment to Israel’s right to exist, Schenker said.

Schenker, who co-edits the dovish Palestine-Israel Journal and blogs at The Times of Israel, tried to explain Sanders’ outlandish comments to the effect that Israel had killed more than 10,000 non-combatants during the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza by saying he had likely confused the casualty figures with the number of people wounded in the conflict.

In an interview with the New York Daily News, the presidential hopeful had said that, while he was fuzzy on the numbers, he believed that “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza,” and lamented that “Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”

‘There is no doubt in my mind that he is committed to Israel. But he’s also committed to the idea that it is in the American and in the Israeli interest to achieve peace’

Sanders admitted that he was not sure about the number of casualties and the interviewer, too, said he did not know the exact figure, though he felt Sanders’ estimate was too high.

“Now we here in Israel, we know. We live with it, we know the numbers more or less,” Schenker said. “What happened was that the guy from the Daily News came back [later in the interview] and said, ‘Actually the 10,000 refers to the 10,000 wounded, and there were 2,200 Palestinians who were killed.’ So that’s where the number 10,000 obviously came from.”

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, run by Hamas, which Israel and many other countries consider a terror group, 10,626 Palestinians were injured during the 50-day war, in addition to 2,310 dead. Hamas claims that of those killed, 1,462 were civilians. Israeli authorities argue that the true figure was significantly lower. Israel did not publish estimates of how many Palestinians were injured during Operation Protective Edge, as the war is known in Israel.

Palestinians walk in front of buildings destroyed by the Israeli military in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, Monday, August 4, 2014. (Emad Nasser/Flash90)
Palestinians walk in front of buildings destroyed by the Israeli military in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, August 4, 2014. (Emad Nasser/Flash90)

Sanders was also criticized by some for demanding that Jerusalem end its blockade on the Gaza Strip, with his critics asserting that the blockade is crucial to prevent Hamas from arming itself with weapons used to attack Israeli civilians.

Schenker dismissed those arguments. “Bernie Sanders shares the views of many people in the Israeli security establishment who are saying that there is a pressure cooker building up in Gaza and there is tremendous need to enable the Palestinian economy and employment to grow. And that includes also not having the type of blockade that we’re having,” he said. “Of course I would assume also that Sanders would be concerned about security questions.”

‘Sanders understands his limitations and will know how to put together a very substantial team that would enable him to deal with those issues’

In the interview with the Daily News, Schenker said, Sanders clearly stated that he considers Hamas a terrorist organization.

“There is no doubt in my mind that he is committed to Israel. But he’s also committed to the idea that it is in the American and in the Israeli interest to achieve peace, and he would try to make a contribution to move that forward, although he so far hasn’t given any substantial indication of how we would do that,” he said. “As I said, he has in general not focused, so far, on foreign policy.”

However, Schenker added, it is important for Sanders to realize that an American president does not only deal with domestic issues but also has to devote considerable time to international affairs. From his previous political positions it is clear that Sanders knows how to assemble a team of advisers that can help him deal with issues in which he is not well versed, he said.

“Like Ronald Reagan — if I may make that comparison — Sanders understands his limitations and will know how to put together a very substantial team that would enable him to deal with those issues,” Schenker said. “But clearly, he has to do a rapid learning course there.”

To Sanders’ credit, he added, it must to be stressed that, as opposed to Trump, Sanders refrained from “ irresponsible comments” such as suggesting the US lower its commitment to NATO and indicating that South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia should launch their own nuclear weapons programs.

Schenker’s sympathy for the Vermont senator could have something to do with the fact that the two men have a lot in common: Both are Jews born in Brooklyn, New York, who arrived in Israel at a kibbutz belonging to the socialist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in the Fall of 1963. Sanders spent three months at Sha’ar HaAmakim; Schenker went to Kibbutz Barkai and stayed there for 13 years before moving to Tel Aviv, where he lives to this day.

Nor is Schenker the only Israeli Democrat who has warm feelings for Sanders. In the primaries conducted by Democrats Abroad Israel, 249 registered party members voted for him, compared to 160 who cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton.

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