WASHINGTON — At a town hall meeting with his constituents in August 2014, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was asked a question about the then-ongoing Israel-Hamas war. What unfolded made the inside of that room seem as hot as the scorching summer conditions outside.
Prodded into discussing Israel’s conduct during the Gaza conflict, and interrupted for a second time by an angry attendee, Sanders told the man: “Shut up. You don’t have the microphone.”
The question that had preceded the eruption was from a woman who wanted to hear more from her senator about his position. He had recently abstained in a vote on Senate Resolution 498, which expressed support for Israel defending itself against “unprovoked rocket attacks” from Hamas. Sanders was one of the 21 members who didn’t sign the unanimously passed resolution.
While his eventual response didn’t satisfy Israel’s most ardent supporters in the room that day, neither did it please the ardent Israel detractors, and the audience contained more of the latter group.
“Is anybody happy in this room or feel good about the kind of civilian deaths we’ve seen in Gaza? The answer is no,” Sanders told the crowd in Cabot, Vermont. “Has Israel overreacted? Have they bombed UN facilities? The answer is yes. That is terribly, terribly wrong in my mind.
“On the other hand — and there is an another hand — you have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel. That’s a fact,” he went on. “And you know where some of those missiles are coming from? They’re coming from populated areas. That’s a fact. Hamas has used money that came into Gaza for construction purposes — and God knows that they need roads and all the things that they need — and used some of that money to build these very sophisticated tunnels into Israel for military purposes.”
After some angry back-and-forth with some in the audience who considered the senator’s posture overly sympathetic to Israel, Sanders moved on from the subject, but not before saying he found it “a very depressing and difficult issue,” and telling those in attendance: “If you’re asking me if I have a magical solution, I don’t.”
That flare-up reflects Sanders’s record of voicing both support for and criticism of the state of Israel. He has more than once condemned the Israeli military response to intensified periods of conflict while simultaneously defending the state’s right to exist and showing some empathy for the challenges it faces.
A Jewish candidate for president who spent several months working on a kibbutz in 1964, when in his early 20s, Sanders is now running neck and neck in the Democratic primary against previous clear frontrunner Hillary Clinton. The latest polling has the former secretary of state leading Sanders, 74, by three percentage points in Iowa, with Monday night’s caucuses marking the first contest of the primary season.
And while the self-proclaimed democratic socialist has spoken very little about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians during this election cycle, his rhetoric on the matter has remained consistent for the last 28 years.
During a 1988 press conference, when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he took a similar “Yes, but…” kind of posture over Israel’s response to the outbreak of the First Intifada.
“What is going on in the Middle East right now is obviously a tragedy, there’s no question about it,” he said. “The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.
“You have had a crisis there for 30 years, you have had people at war for 30 years, you have a situation with some Arab countries where there are still some Arab leadership calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of Israeli citizens.”
Precisely as he did in 2014, Sanders said then, “I don’t have a magical solution to that problem,” but advocated for a US attempt to “work out a sensible solution to the problem which would guarantee the existence of the state of Israel and which would also protect Palestinian rights.”
‘Not a great fan’ of Netanyahu
In a lengthy interview with Rolling Stone magazine published in November 2014, Sanders said that if elected president, he would “support the security of Israel, help Israel fight terrorist attacks against that country and maintain its independence,” while also vowing to maintain “an evenhanded approach to that area.”
“I believe in a two-state solution, where Israel has security and the Palestinians have a state of their own,” he said. “The United States has got to work with the Palestinian people in improving their standard of living, which is now a disaster, and has been made much worse since the war in Gaza.”
He was also asked about an earlier statement that he was “not a great fan” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Without directly addressing that comment, Sanders reiterated his contention that Israel “overreacted” during the war in Gaza in 2014, which he said “caused more civilian damage than necessary.”
Sanders is the only US presidential candidate from either party to have explicitly expressed disapproval of the Israeli premier. Last March, he was one of the Democratic legislators to boycott Netanyahu’s congressional address lambasting US President Barack Obama’s negotiations for a nuclear accord with Iran.
In fact, the quote Rolling Stone asked him to elaborate on was taken from a June 2015 interview with NPR host Diane Rehm, who asked Sanders to deconstruct the famously strained relationship between Netanyahu and Obama just as the US and world powers were nearing their latest negotiating deadline with the diplomatic representatives of the Islamic Republic.
“Well, I gotta tell you, I am not a great fan of President Netanyahu,” he said, misstating his title. “I did not attend the speech that he gave before the joint session of Congress. I think it was opportunistic. I think he was using it as part of his campaign for re-election. I think he was being used or did use the Republicans to go behind the president’s back. And I think in that region, sadly on both sides, I don’t think we have the kind of leadership that we need.”
The interview with Rehm was also notable for her false declaration that Sanders had dual citizenship with Israel, a rumor that had been circulating on the internet. She later apologized.
On Iran and US military aid to Israel
Sanders supported the Iran nuclear deal, though he called it “not perfect.” Shortly after the agreement was reached, he appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to defend his position.
“Look, I’m not going to tell you this deal is perfect,” he said. “But the United States has to negotiate with other countries. We have to negotiate with Iran. And the alternative of not reaching an agreement — you know what it is? It’s war. Do we really want another war, a war with Iran? An asymmetrical warfare that will take place all over this world, threaten American troops?”
‘I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran’
With the presidential campaign heating up, Sanders has recently indicated a willingness to move beyond the policy Obama has pursued with the Islamic Republic. In a January 17 debate, Sanders called on the US to “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”
The Obama strategy has consisted of working to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat with sanctions and diplomatic pressure, along with individually confronting its other actions in the region that run counter to the interests of the US and its allies.
Sanders’s call to normalize US-Iranian ties elicited a response from 10 Clinton-allied former foreign policy officials, who issued a statement calling his proposal “out of step with the sober and responsible diplomatic approach that has been working for the United States, and if pursued would fail while causing consternation among our allies and partners.”
While the US and Israel currently negotiate the terms of a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that would strengthen Israel’s security capabilities in the wake of the Iran deal, Sanders has previously indicated a desire for the US to spend less on its military assistance package to Israel and more on quality-of-life issues in the Palestinian territories and other parts of the Middle East.
In a July 2015 interview with Ezra Klein of Vox, Sanders said his “long-term hope is that instead of pouring so much military aid into Israel … we can provide more economic aid to help improve the standard of living of the people in that area.”