US presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders on Sunday responded to intense criticism by Israel’s UN envoy about the Democratic front-runner’s attitude toward the Jewish state, saying he would “do everything” to protect Israel, while stressing that this did not mean forsaking the Palestinian people.
“I am pro-Israel. I am pro-Palestinian. I want to bring people together to finally achieve peace in that region,” he said.
Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon had said earlier that Sanders was not welcome in the Jewish state, and called him either “a liar” or “an ignorant fool” for calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist.”
Asked about the comments by CBS News, Sanders said: “I am not anti-Israel. I will do everything I can to protect the independence and the security and the freedom of the Israeli people.”
But, he said, “what we need in this country is a foreign policy that not only protects Israel, but deals with the suffering of the Palestinian people as well.
“You’ve got 70 percent youth unemployment in Gaza. People can’t even leave that district, that area, major, major crises. It is not sustainable,” the Jewish Democrat said.
Sanders has sought to draw a contrast with the Trump administration, which has antagonized the Palestinian leadership with a series of steps seen as one-sided, including recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority and releasing a peace proposal seen as favoring the Jewish state.
Last Sunday, Sanders said on Twitter that he would not attend the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), emphasizing that he was “concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
Danon responded that Sanders was not wanted at AIPAC.
Sanders acknowledged to CBS that there was a cost to opposing the pro-Israel lobby.
“They have a lot of money. They have a lot of power,” he said.
Danon’s remarks against a leading contender for the US presidency ahead of an election were extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented for an Israeli official.
Out of all the Democratic candidates running for president, Sanders has been the most outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, calling for an “evenhanded” US approach more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
He has mentioned the possibility of leveraging US aid to Israel to pressure the Jewish state to curb its settlement enterprise, enter peace talks with the Palestinians and improve the humanitarian crisis in the Strip.
During a debate last week, he lamented Israel being led by “a reactionary racist.”
Dannon said Sunday: “Whoever calls the prime minister of Israel a ‘racist’ is either a liar, an ignorant fool, or both. We don’t want Sanders at AIPAC. We don’t want him in Israel.”
Meanwhile, seeking to distinguish himself from Netanyahu’s government, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz told the AIPAC conference Sunday that he would not allow Israel to become a partisan issue in the United States if he is elected prime minister.
The former IDF chief of staff seized on the ostensible antipathy that leading Democratic candidates have expressed for the Israeli premier and his right-wing brand of politics.
“Under my leadership, Israel will never become a partisan issue,” he said. “I will effectively work with both sides of the aisle.”
Netanyahu gave a restrained response a day later, telling Army Radio 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.”
Foreign Minister Israel Katz was more outspoken, lambasting Sanders’ comments as “shocking.”
Asked how he would handle a Sanders presidency, Netanyahu said he had stood up to US leaders in the past and could do so again.
Netanyahu has enjoyed a close relationship with US President Donald Trump, whom 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.
A poll by the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute (JEI) has said Sanders would overwhelmingly outperform Trump with Jewish voters, in a head-to-head match-up this fall.
The self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist would defeat Trump with the demographic group 65% to 30%, despite only 52% of American Jews having a favorable view of Sanders and 45% having an unfavorable view of him, the survey found.
Trump is far more unpopular with the US Jewish community. Sixty-six percent of the poll’s respondents disapprove of the job he is doing in office.
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.