Sanders Vs. Clinton on Palestine-Israel: A Primer with Phyllis Bennis

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An assessment of Clinton’s AIPAC speech and Sanders’s Middle East speech reveals their divergent approaches to the US’s closest ally, Israel

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

On Monday morning, democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton addressed the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee also known as APAC. She affirmed that the U.S.-Israeli strong military alliance and vowed to reestablish sanctions on Iran if provoked. Let’s have a look.

Hilary Clinton: That’s why I believe we must take our alliance to the next level. I hope a new 10-year defense memorandum of understanding is concluded as soon as possible to meet Israel’s security far into the future. That will also send a clear message to Israel’s enemies of the United States and Israel. Stand together United. It’s also why as president I will make a firm commitment to ensure Israel maintains its qualitative military edge. 

PERIES: Bernie Sanders, her democratic opponent was also invited to speak at APAC but he declined and he attended various campaign meetings in Utah on Tuesday. But while there he did deliver a speech on his Middle East Policy. Let’s have a look.

BERNIE SANDERS: Israel is one of America’s closest allies that we as a nation are committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival but also to make sure that it’s people have the right to live in peace and security. To my mind as friend, long term friends with Israel, we are obligated to speak the truth as we see it and that’s what real friendship demands. Especially in difficult times. Our disagreements will come and go and we must weather them constructively. But it is important among friends to be honest and truthful about differences that we may have.

America and Israel have faced great challenges together. We have supported each other and we will continue to do just that as we face a very daunting challenge and that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am here to tell the American people that if I am elected president I will work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as they partner, as a friend to Israel. But to be successful we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel but to the Palestinian people where in Gaza unemployment today is 44% and we have there a poverty rate which is almost as high. So when we talk about Israeli and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand there is a whole lot of suffering among the Palestinians and that cannot be ignored. You cannot have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side.

PERIES: Joining me now to discuss the candidates and their positions on Israel-Palestine and the Middle East is Phyllis Bennis. She’s also a fellow that directs the Internationalism Project at IPS. She’s the author of many books, among them Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, and the 6th revised addition is out now. Thank you Phyllis so much for joining us.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you Sharmini.

PERIES: So Phyllis, let’s get your take on Hilary Clinton’s speech at APAC first.

BENNIS: Well Hilary’s speech was exactly what everyone expected. She was pandering to the pro Israel audience to the max available I would say. She condemned Bernie Sanders for calling for a level playing field in any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Despite the fact that the American people overall in every poll and especially the base of the Democratic party, all call for exactly that. The call upon the United States to be an honest broker, something it has never been. She calls for more arms, stronger support for Israel. There was essentially nothing that Israel could do wrong, in her eyes, in this speech. There was no mention of the occupation. No mention of discrimination. I would not expect her to use the term apartheid but she had no acknowledgement that there was a conflict. This was all about Israel is our best friend, Israel is our closest ally and that’s it. That was the only issue on the table. She expected to get and did indeed get ovation after ovation, a great deal of support of APAC and its 18 thousand supporters who were gathered there. This is exactly what we anticipated would happen.

PERIES: She actually made several references to increased military alliance with the United States and particularly she named the Pentagon. What did she mean by that? 

BENNIS: Well, I think that there, she was referencing the discussions that are now underway about the amount of money the US is going to give into the Israeli military over there next 10 years’ agreement expires in 2018. Under that agreement the Israeli military is given 3.1 billion dollars a year of our tax money directly to the military. Privileged in many ways more than any other country receiving US military aid. It’s not only getting more than any other country. It’s allowed to spend a large proportion of it, about a quarter of it on its own research and development. All other countries are required to spend it buying US equipment. Only Israel is exempted from that requirement.

The negotiations are now underway. The Israelis are asking for 40 billion dollars over 10 years instead of 30 billion. So they would be getting more than 4 billion dollars a year of our tax money directly to support their military. Despite to state the purpose of its own assessment of the pattern and practice of massive human rights violations by the Israeli military. So what Clinton was referencing here is that she would support a stronger military alliance. That means presumably she would support the 40 billion or perhaps even more in direct military aid.

PERIES: And Phyllis, as I mentioned earlier Bernie Sanders although he didn’t attend the APAC summit, did give a speech addressing Middle East policy. Your thoughts on it?

BENNIS: Well Bernie Sanders speech was particularly important. Partly because of his decision not to speak at APAC. His official reason, I was too busy, I was campaigning in Utah, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I don’t anybody believed it. It was his cover story. He chose not to address the APAC convention. It’s hugely enforced that there had been a lot of pressure on him not to go to APAC; not to pander and his choice of refusing to go to APAC, I think spoke volumes by itself before he even opened his mouth. His actual speech of the Middle East was very, very interesting. It was quite different than any other speech by any other of the candidates for president. Of course he began with a series of regular statements about how close the alliance is between the U.S. and Israel. He is after all running to be the president of the empire, we might say. And yet it was very, very different. He spoke about support of Israel and he talked about it was important that everyone in the world recognized the state of Israel. He did not go on to say that everyone must recognize Israel as a Jewish state; which has been a new demand by the Israeli authorities, particularly Prime Minister Netanyahu, saying everyone must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Therefore, recognizing somehow, the legitimacy of this massive legalized discrimination against all non-Jews, which mainly affects Palestinians. So it was very important that when he said that people should recognize Israel, he did not say Israel as a Jewish state. There were some issues that I would disagree with, with senator Sanders. He called for both sides to make compromises and if both sides were equally responsible; both the occupied and the occupier. But on the other hand the bulk of his speech where he was talking about Israel-Palestine was very much focused on Israeli obligations and Israeli violations.

He really distanced himself from Prime Minister Netanyahu both on the question of the Iran deal he talked about how whether or not Netanyahu supports the deal. There are others in Israel who do indicating very clearly that he was not particularly stern with disagreeing with the prime minster. Very interestingly when he talked about the fact that there are good people on both sides and he said and I quote here “There are despots and liars on both sides”. I don’t know any U.S. official who has ever acknowledged there are despots and liars on the Israeli side. So that was kind of huge.

PERIES: And he encouraged Netanyahu to pull back on the settlements in his speech, which is also a very important position.

BENNIS: He actually made the comparison of West Bank settlements which of course are huge city sized, they’re cities, in the occupied West Bank and the occupied east Jerusalem. They have 30, 40, 50 thousand residents in the larger one and he said that Israel would have to close some of those settlements. And he said, like Gaza which was very important because of course in Gaza there was the forced repatriation back into Israel proper of the 6 thousand Israeli, illegal Israeli, settlers in Gaza back in 2005. At that time there was great opposition from those settlers they made a big, it was a very dramatic removal by soldiers with screaming residents of the settlements being dragged from their homes. It was deliberately orchestrated to look as dramatic as possible and the notion that senator Sanders would call for a similar evacuation of West Bank settlements or east Jerusalem settlements that still exists and are just as illegal was really quite something.

He also called directly for an end to the siege of Gaza. He referenced the high levels of unemployment and poverty in Gaza. Crucially he talked about water, something that no one else ever did. He talks about how Israel controls 80% of the water on the West Bank. Inequity of access to water and he talked about international humanitarian law and how important it is for Israel to stop its violations. He spoke directly on the disproportionate use of force by Israel in the war against Gaza in 2014, saying that while of course I stand opposed to the rocket fired from Gaza by Hamas into Israel there was no excuse that this kind of disproportional force. And he recognized it as a violation of international humanitarian law. So again while the speech from my own vantage point was perhaps incomplete in terms of recognizing as who put it then, because the Palestinian goal should be to end the violence rather than trying to end the Oslo agreement. He didn’t recognize that the real goal is to end occupation. He did speak on occupation, he did speak on ending occupation and other contexts. So it was really quite an extraordinary departure from the approach to Israel of every other candidate. 

PERIES: And speaking of every other candidate, I saw that Bernie Sanders also took opportunity to mention that of all the presidential candidates that are running in this election he was the only one to perhaps have spent some time in a kibbutz, I thought that was an interesting note. Also this leads me into your assessment on whether this was a smart move on the part of Bernie Sanders not to attend APAC and seize that moment of his kinship with Israelis and Jews in this country.

BENNIS: Absolutely, I think that the focus of the Sanders campaign has been very, very sharply focused on his main issue which is, economic inequality and the need for holding banks and Wall Street accountable. That’s a hugely important issue. But it isn’t the only issue in the world and there’s been quite a bit of concern among many of his supporters that he hasn’t yet taken on foreign policy.  So to do it in this very powerful, provocative moment of saying no to APAC, something very, very unusual. You know, last year Sharmini when we had 60 members of congress skipping the speech by Netyahnyahu in the joint session of congress. That was huge, that was unprecedented and for a presidential candidate to skip an APAC convention that’s in many ways a follow-up to that. I think that it’s very important. It’s also important that he spoke not only about Israel-Palestine but he spoke about the broader issues of the wars in the Middle East. Again distinguished himself significantly from the other candidates who talked significantly in terms of times used in his speech about the importance of diplomacy over war. He repeated that over and over again.

In the context in terms of the Iran Nuclear deal but also in terms of the recent fixation of possibilities in Syria. He talked about the importance of opposing war or regime change and he recognized interestingly, not only the Iraq war, which he had long ago opposed, was a bad thing he said, when you’re as powerful as we are it’s easy to oppose a dictator, not so easy to deal with what comes after. He also said that the U.S.-NATO strikes in Libya that had led to the absolute violence and chaos that is now assaulting Libya was the same thing as the Iraq war. They were both disastrous and they were both designed for regime change that had a terribly negative results. So that was a very pleasant requisition.

He also pulled back from his earlier calls, he’s made some, I think very problematic calls in the past for Saudi troops to go after ISIS in Iraq or Syria. This time he pulled back from that significantly. He said they do need to be significantly vocal Muslim dominate countries that must provide military support. But that no country should engage unilaterally and no country should engage with secondary motives in this context. It’s problematic that he still assumes there can be a military technique of ISIS which I think is not true. But he pulled back from his earlier calls for Saudi Arabia or other specific countries to send troops. So that was an important move and he recognized that it will take diplomacy and not war, diplomacy specifically engagement with Iran and Russia, the top supporters of the Assad regime in Syria to transition away from that regime. That war regime change was not going to do it.

PERIES: Alright Phyllis, a lot more to unpack there and looking forward to having you back to do that.

BENNIS: I look forward to it.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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