WASHINGTON — Former presidential hopeful and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called for “an end to [Israel’s] 50-year occupation” during J Street’s annual conference on Monday, stressing that progressives should see the common ground between opposing the administration of US President Donald Trump and the right-wing policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
“We need to end this 50-year-long occupation and create a more prosperous future for Jews, Arabs and Palestinians alike,” Sanders proclaimed, warning against an arrangement in which “Palestinians will be forced to live under perpetual Israeli rule in a series of disconnected communities in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Sanders, who ran against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, directed some of his comments to Israeli progressives, telling them “your fight is our fight.”
“Let me be as clear as I can be,” he continued. “To oppose the policies of a right-wing government in Israel does not make one anti-Israel or anti-Semitic; we can oppose the policies of President Trump without being anti-American. We can oppose the policies of Netanyahu without being anti-Israel. We can oppose the policies of Islamic extremism without being anti-Muslim.”
Quoting former secretary of state John Kerry, Sanders affirmed Kerry’s admonition that friends should speak hard truths to each other. “The hard truth is that the continued occupation and the growth of settlements that the occupation supports undermines the hope for peace.”
In his address, Sanders applauded “the Obama administration’s decision to abstain from vetoing UN Resolution 2334,” which slammed Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and labeled them illegal last December in a 14-0 vote at the Security Council.
Sanders said: “Those of us who worry about the future of Israel, who really love Israel, have got to tell the truth about policies that are hurting chances of the Israelis and the Palestinians reaching a peaceful resolution.”
Referencing his personal connection to Israel, where he spent time volunteering on a kibbutz near Haifa in 1963, Sanders said “it was there that I saw and experienced for myself many of the progressive values upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
He added that it is “very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution, and particularly after the horror of the Holocaust.”
But, he said, “we all know there is another side to the story, a more painful side.”
“Like our own country, the establishment of Israel caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people,” he continued, saying that “to acknowledge this fact does not delegitimize Israel any more than acknowledging the Trail of Tears — what settlers did to Native Americans — delegitimizes America.”
Sanders frequently drew comparisons between the Netanyahu government and the Trump administration, stressing that what he described as the “fight for justice” must continue in both countries.
“Despair is not an option. Now more than ever we are going to continue to fight for justice for all of us,” he said.
Sanders stressed that his perspective was in the interests of both Israel and the Palestinians.
“Nobody gains when Israel spends an enormous part of its budget on its military,” he argued. “Nobody gains when Gaza is obliterated and thousands are killed; nobody gains when children and young men and young women are trained to become suicide bombers. Nobody gains when, year after year, decade after decade, the talk is about war and hatred instead of peace and development.”
Sanders has been a frequent harsh critic of Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip in 2014, calling its “level of attacks against civilian areas” disproportionate and indiscriminate. He also sparked outrage
last year during his campaign for the Democratic nomination when he said during an interview that Israel had killed “over 10,000” innocent Palestinian civilians in that summer war, massively inflating the death toll.
According to Palestinian figures of the 2014 conflict, which are cited by the UN Human Rights Council, 1,462 civilians were killed out of a total of the 2,251 Gaza fatalities during the 51-day conflict. Israel, for its part, has said that up to half of those killed on the Palestinian side were combatants, and has blamed the civilian death toll on Hamas for deliberately placing rocket launchers, tunnels and other military installations among civilians. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side of the conflict.
Speaking hours after a series of bomb threats were called in to almost two dozen Jewish community centers and schools across the United States Monday, Sanders noted that “there has been a significant outbreak of anti-Semitism in our country. I — and I know all of you — are alarmed about the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, about bomb threats against Jewish organizations and about more and more anti-Semitic language.”
Sanders grouped the events together with a series of “violent verbal and racist attacks against minorities,” and emphasized that “these attacks must be condemned at the highest levels of government.”
The Vermont senator referenced the Trump administration’s much-maligned statement honoring International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month, saying that “it was rather extraordinary that in the White House’s statement the murder of six million Jews was not mentioned by the Trump administration.” The crowd booed in response.
“I hope very much that President Trump and his political adviser Mr. [Stephen] Bannon understand that the whole world is watching: it is imperative that their voices be loud and clear in condemning anti-Semitism, violent attacks against immigrants in this country,” he said, referencing a shooting attack in a Kansas bar last Wednesday that killed an Indian software engineer and wounded another, and which police are investigating as a hate crime. The suspect, a Navy veteran, reportedly shouted “get out of my country” before opening fire at the two. The White House has been silent on the incident.
Sanders falsely said in his speech that the death toll in the attack was two and called on the White House to denounce “all forms of bigotry in this country and around the world.”
In his speech, Sanders thanked J Street “for the bold voice they have provided in support of American leadership in the Middle East and in the ongoing efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
“Given the political climate in this capital, this has not always been easy,” Sanders continued. The nuclear agreement with Iran, he said, “demonstrated that real American leadership, real American power is not shown by our ability to blow things up but by our ability as the leading and most powerful nation on earth to bring parties together and forge an international consensus.”
For a long time in Washington there has been an echo chamber that has called for war,” Sanders complained. “It is about time that there is an echo chamber that called for peace.”