WASHINGTON — Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders excoriated the Netanyahu government as “racist” Monday night as he participated in a CNN town hall event with Democratic voters.
Without discussing specific details, the 2020 presidential hopeful called for a change in America’s policy toward Israel, describing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach toward the Palestinians as “oppressive,” and said that his administration, should he be elected, would be more sympathetic to Palestinian concerns.
“What I believe is not radical,” Sanders said. “I just believe that the United States should deal with the Middle East on a level playing field basis. In other words, the goal must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing — dare I say — racist government.”
Sanders has been a fierce critic of Netanyahu. In the run-up to Israel’s election earlier this month, he castigated the Israeli premier for supporting a deal to allow the extremist Otzma Yehudit party to join his coalition and for his promises to annex West Bank settlements.
He told NBC News: “I’m not a great fan of his, and, frankly, I hope he loses his election.”
The self-declared democratic socialist has also in the past criticized Netanyahu’s 2015 election-eve warning that Arabs were “voting in droves.”
Asked on Monday night how he would navigate the US-Israel relationship given his history of sharp criticism against Netanyahu, Sanders said that his views on the prime minister did not reflect his feelings toward the Jewish state.
“I spent a number of months in Israel. I worked on a kibbutz for a while. I have family in Israel. I am not anti-Israel,” Sanders said. “But the fact of the matter is that Netanyahu is a right-wing politician who I think is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly.”
That line was met with loud applause by the audience of mostly college students at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
The event was a rare five-hour town hall with back-to-back hourlong segments with five Democratic presidential candidates: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sanders.
The 77-year-old lawmaker insisted that he was “pro-Israel” but that as president he would take a vastly different approach to the intractable conflict than the current administration.
US President Donald Trump is known for his close relationship with Netanyahu, and for giving Israel several diplomatic gifts: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, cutting aid to the Palestinians, and recognizing the Golan Heights as sovereign Israel. Since the US announced the embassy relocation and the aid cuts, Palestinian Authority officials have written off the administration and have refused to engage with Washington.
“I am 100 percent pro-Israel,” Sanders said. “Israel has every right to exist, and to exist in peace and security and not be subjected to terrorist attacks. But the United States needs to deal with not just Israel, but with the Palestinian people as well.”