Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a restrained response Wednesday when asked about US Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders calling him a racist during a primary debate on Tuesday.
Speaking to Army Radio Wednesday, Netanyahu said simply, “What I think about this issue is that he is of course wrong, no question.”
But, he added: “I am not intervening in the US elections.”
Asked how he would handle a Sanders presidency, Netanyahu said he’d stood up to US leaders in the past and could do so again.
Netanyahu has enjoyed a close relationship with US President Donald Trump, who he has praised as “the greatest friend” Jerusalem has had in the White House. But his relationship with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was decidedly frosty and strained in its latter years — particularly surrounding US negotiations with Iran that resulted in the 2015 nuclear deal.
In Tuesday’s debate, Sanders said he was “very proud of being Jewish. I actually lived in Israel for some months, but what I happen to believe is that right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country.”
Sanders also said that if elected president, he would consider moving the US embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv. Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Wednesday lambasted the comments as “shocking.”
He went on to assail the Independent senator from Vermont, while prefacing by saying that “we don’t intervene in the internal process in the United States, which is a strong democracy.
“The remark by Sanders, who is of Jewish background, is his second against the State of Israel on topics that are at the core of Jewish belief, Jewish history and Israel’s security,” Katz said.
The first such remark was made at a J Street conference in October, when Sanders openly considered cutting US aid to Israel and giving the funds instead for humanitarian relief in Gaza in order to pressure the Jewish state to curb its settlement enterprise, enter peace talks with the Palestinians and improve the humanitarian crisis in the Strip.
“I would use the leverage of $3.8 billion,” he said at the time. “It is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government, or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.”
Katz said: “The previous time he talked about Gaza… without at all understanding the reality and the threat and the rockets and everything we are facing as those who are being attacked by radical Islam and defending ourselves. He in effect wanted to deny us the right to self-defense.
“And now, Jerusalem. There is no Jew who hasn’t dreamed of Jerusalem for thousands of years, to return, and we returned and I think President Trump did an important thing, without connection to internal disagreements within the United States,” he continued. “He recognized the reality that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of the State of Israel.
Out of all the Democratic candidates running for president, Sanders has been the most outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, calling for an “even-handed” approach more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
On Sunday, Sanders said on Twitter that he would not attend the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC’s annual conference next week, emphasizing that he was “concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
Sanders spent months living in a kibbutz in the 1960s — an experience he has cited in the past to affirm his commitment to Israel’s security.
“I am very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president,” he said at the J Street conference in October. “I spent many months on a kibbutz in Israel. I believe absolutely not only in the right of Israel to exist but the right to exist in peace and security. That’s not a question.”
“But what I also believe,” he continued, “is the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace and security as well.”
AP contributed to this report.