Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic front-runner, said on Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “racist,” and called for a US policy toward Israel that makes space for both Israeli security and a “pro-Palestinian” perspective.
Fellow Democratic hopeful Joe Biden, for his part, castigated Netanyahu for moving to the “extreme right,” and urged constant pressure on Israel for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking during the fifth Democratic debate between candidates hoping to take on US President Donald Trump in November 2020, Sanders said, “Israel has — and I say this as somebody who lived in Israel as a kid, proudly Jewish – Israel has the right to exist, not only to exist but to exist in peace and security. But what US foreign policy must be about is not just being pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian as well.”
“We must understand that right now in Israel we have leadership under Netanyahu, who has recently, as you know, been indicted for bribery, who, in my view, is a racist. What we need is a level playing field in terms of the Middle East, which addresses the terrible crisis in Gaza, where 60 percent or 70% of the young people are unemployed,” he added.
Sanders, who would be the first Jewish president if he wins the Democratic nomination in 2020 and bests Trump, has called a number of times for the United States to consider conditioning aid to Israel as a means to nudge its government away from expanding settlements in the West Bank and other moves that have impeded Israel-Palestinian relations.
Sanders delivered similar views at a debate in Atlanta last month; in that instance, he went out of his way to talk about Israel and the Palestinians.
Two other Democratic presidential candidates debating in Los Angeles on Thursday, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, have joined Sanders in leaving the door open to using US aid to Israel as a means to leverage Israel to change its policies on the Palestinians.
Buttigieg focused his ire on Trump at the debate, saying that Trump’s pro-Israel nods were made to “effectively interfere in Israeli domestic politics.” Multiple times in the past year, the Trump administration has made Netanyahu-friendly announcements prior to elections or while Netanyahu was trying to form a government.
Trump is “acting as though that somehow makes him pro-Israel and pro-Jewish while welcoming white nationalists,” Buttigieg said, referring to accusations that Trump gives succor to racists with his policies and rhetoric.
The Democratic presidential candidates faulted Trump on multiple fronts for his failure to lead in key disputes and areas of international friction, including in the Middle East and China.
Former vice president Biden argued that Trump had played to fears and prejudices and stressed that a two-state solution was needed for peace to ever be achieved, condemning both Trump and Netanyahu for retreating from it.
Trump, he charged, “is “no longer being an honest broker in Israel.” He went on: “There’s no solution for Israel other than a two-state solution. It does not exist. It’s not possible to have a Jewish state in the Middle East without there being a two-state solution. And [Trump] has played to all the same fears and all the prejudices that exist in this country and in Israel.
As for Israel’s prime minister, Biden said: “Bibi Netanyahu and I know one another well. He knows that I think what he’s doing is outrageous.
“What we do is, we have to put pressure constantly on the Israelis to move to a two-state solution, not withdraw physical aid from them in terms of their security.”
Two weeks ago, Biden had charged that Netanyahu has “gone in a direction that is counterproductive. He wants to stay in power and has gone to the extreme right in his party and in the country. I think it’s a serious mistake.”
The former vice president also said on Thursday that Washington must rebuild alliances “which Trump has demolished.'”
Buttigieg said Trump was “echoing the vocabulary” of dictators in his relentless attacks on the free press. Klobuchar said the president had “stood with dictators over innocents.” And Tom Steyer warned against isolating the US from China, saying the two nations needed to work together on climate change.
The centrist Biden is leading polls, trailed by Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren who are competing for the party’s progressive wing.
Their leftist platform — universal health care, a tax on the wealthy to reduce inequality, dramatic action on climate change — is very popular with young and women voters, but makes moderates uneasy.
Buttigieg is in fourth place but has surged to the top in Iowa, which votes first in the Democratic nominating process on February 3.
Further back in the pack are Klobuchar and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, whose staying power continues to surprise.
California billionaire Tom Steyer rounds out the group.
While two women were on stage, Yang, who is Taiwanese-American, is the only non-white candidate in the debate. Senator Cory Booker and former cabinet member Julian Castro did not qualify.
Senator Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the race, dropped out earlier this month.
JTA contributed to this report.