The two Democratic presidential candidates exchanged blows over the Middle East in Thursday night’s often-heated CNN debate in Brooklyn, NY, only a few days before voters go to the polls in the latest battleground state.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton accused the Palestinians of rejectionism and staunchly backed the Jewish state’s right to defend itself against Palestinian attacks, while Senator Bernie Sanders maintained that being “one-hundred percent” pro-Israel does not mean forgetting there are two sides to the conflict.
While Republican candidates have openly appealed to Jewish voters in recent days prior to the April 19 primaries in New York, Clinton and Sanders have performed fewer such symbolic trips to yeshivas and matzah factories. Instead, the two sparred over their policies on Israel.
Sanders, who was criticized following a recent interview with the New York Daily News in which he suggested that Palestinian deaths in Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge exceeded 10,000, a sevenfold inflation, repeated his claims that Israel had used disproportionate force in its response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
“Of course Israel has a right not only to defend themselves, but to live in peace and security,” he said. “But in Gaza there were 10,000 wounded civilians and 1,500 killed. Was that a disproportionate attack? The answer is I believe it was. As somebody who is 100% pro-Israel, in the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace… we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”
In a synchronized move, his Twitter account published a post declaring, “We should be concerned when innocents are killed anywhere in the world. That includes BOTH Israel and Palestine, not just one or the other.”
We should be concerned when innocents are killed anywhere in the world. That includes BOTH Israel and Palestine, not just one or the other.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 15, 2016
In the debate, he stressed the strain that the conflict has placed on Palestinian civilians, describing “decimated” schools and medical facilities as well as a 40% unemployment rate in Gaza.
While Clinton on Thursday did not attack Sanders specifically over his wildly inaccurate estimate of Palestinian casualties in the earlier interview, she did use it as an example of what she said was his general unpreparedness to hold the presidency.
“[W]hen asked about a number of foreign policy issues, he could not answer about Afghanistan, about Israel, about counter-terrorism, except to say if he had some paper in front of him, maybe he could,” Clinton said. “I think you need to have the judgment to be ready on day one to be president and commander in chief.”
Sanders in turn blasted Clinton for failing to address the needs of the Palestinian people during her recent speech to AIPAC. He said the US must be willing to criticize Israel when it sees an outsized military response and, at times, stand up for the Palestinians.
“There comes a time if we are going to pursue justice and peace that we are going to have to say that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” he said.
“You spoke on the Middle East and barely mentioned Palestinians,” Sanders complained, saying that he had read Clinton’s AIPAC speech, and that it failed to address the needs of the Palestinians.
Sanders did not attend the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby, instead issuing a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, which outlined his positions on Israel.
‘I don’t know how you run a country when you are under constant threat. Terrorist attack, rockets… you have a right to defend yourself’ — Hillary Clinton
While reiterating her support for the two-state solution and arguing that “there have to be precautions taken” in war, Clinton appeared to back up Israel’s argument that the devastation during the 2014 operation was caused by Hamas’s intentional deployment of military targets in civilian areas. “Even the most independent analysts will say that the way that Hamas places its weapons is terrible,” she said.
Israelis, the former secretary of state argued, “do not seek these kind of attacks.” Clinton referenced what she described as “a constant incitement by Hamas, aided and abetted by Iran, against Israel.”
Gaza, she said, had become “a terrorist haven that is getting more and more rockets shipped in… I don’t know how you run a country when you are under constant threat. Terrorist attack, rockets… you have a right to defend yourself.”
She also said pointedly that “if [late Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat had agreed with my husband at Camp David in the late 1990s to the offer that [then Israeli] prime minister [Ehud] Barak put on the table, we would have had a Palestinian state for 15 years already.”
Bill Clinton brought Arafat and Barak to Camp David in July 2000, in a last-ditch attempt at the tail end of his presidency to resolve the conflict. The summit ended without resolution, and some two months later, the Second Intifada broke out.
Clinton also highlighted her involvement with Mideast peace efforts as President Barack Obama’s former top diplomat, and accused Sanders of failing to provide a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, where negotiations have remained stagnant despite repeated international peace drives.
“Describing the problem is a lot easier than trying to solve it,” she admonished the senator.
Watch the Israel segment of the debate:
Clinton also criticized her opponent for not being specific on how he would implement his promise of a political revolution, usher in free college education and break up America’s largest banks.
“If you go and read Senator Sanders’ long interview with the Daily News, talk about judgment and the kind of problems he had answering questions about even his core issue, breaking up the banks,” she said.
Sanders, in turn, earned applause from the audience when he criticized his opponent for favoring Israel.
“There will never be peace in that region unless the US plays an evenhanded role,” Sanders warned.
The two candidates aggressively challenged each other’s judgment to be president, wrangling over Wall Street banks, the minimum wage and gun control.
The Vermont senator took a biting and often sarcastic tone as he sought to chip away at Clinton’s credibility. He cited her support for the unpopular Iraq war and for free trade agreements, as well as her willingness to accept money through a super PAC, as evidence that she lacks the needed judgment to lead the nation.
Still, Sanders backed away from previous statements questioning Clinton’s qualifications, saying the former secretary of state does have the “experience and intelligence” to be president.
Clinton made little effort to hide her irritation with Sanders’ challenging of her qualifications, saying that while she has been “called a lot of things in my life, that was a first.” She also cast Sanders as unprepared to implement even his signature policy proposals, including breaking up the big banks.
The debate was the first for the Democratic candidates in five weeks. It came ahead of Tuesday’s primary in New York, a high-stakes contest with a huge cache of delegates at stake.
For Clinton, a win in her adopted home state would blunt Sanders’ recent momentum and put his pursuit of the nomination further out of reach. A Sanders upset over Clinton would shake up the race, raising fresh concerns about her candidacy and breathing new life into the Vermont senator’s campaign.
The Democratic primary has been fought for months on familiar terrain. Clinton has cast as unrealistic Sanders’ proposals on breaking up the banks and free tuition at public colleges and universities. Sanders has accused Clinton of being part of a rigged economic and political system, hammering her repeatedly for giving paid speeches to Wall Street banks and refusing to release the transcripts.
Clinton continued to struggle to explain why she has not released the transcripts, saying only that she’ll do so when other candidates are required to do the same thing. She tried to raise questions about Sanders’ own openness for not releasing his income taxes.
The senator pledged to release his most recent tax returns on Friday, and said there would be “no big money from speeches, no major investments” in the disclosures.
The candidates also sparred over raising the federal minimum wage, with Sanders expressing surprise as Clinton voiced support for efforts to set the hourly pay rate at $15, the level he has long backed.
“I don’t know how you’re there for the fight for 15 when you say you want a $12 minimum wage,” he said. Clinton then clarified that while she does support a $12 hourly minimum wage, she would sign legislation raising that level to $15.
Sanders has won a string of recent primary contests, including a big victory earlier this month in Wisconsin. But because Democrats award their delegates proportionally, he’s struggled to cut into Clinton’s lead. He’s also failed to persuade superdelegates — the party insiders who can back the candidate of their choice regardless of how their states vote — to switch their loyalties from Clinton.
Clinton has accumulated 1,289 pledged delegates from primaries and caucuses while Sanders has 1,038. Her lead grows significantly when the superdelegates are added in: 1,758 for Clinton and 1,069 for Sanders.
It takes 2,383 to clinch the Democratic nomination. Sanders would need to win 68 percent of the remaining delegates and uncommitted superdelegates to reach that figure.
Despite his long mathematical odds, Sanders has vowed to stay in the race through the party’s convention in July. Backed by legions of loyal supporters, he’s amassed fundraising totals that give him the financial wherewithal to do just that.
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