A majority of Democrats now backs economic sanctions or tougher action on Israel over its continued colonization of occupied Palestinian land, a University of Maryland poll revealed this week.
His signature appears with those of all 99 of his Senate colleagues on a 27 April letter reaffirming key talking points of the powerful Israel lobby group.
The diverse coalition Sanders brought together will be jeopardized if he thinks Palestinians can be thrown under the bus with no reaction.
The letter, addressed to the UN secretary-general, claims absurdly that Israel is being picked on and singled out by the world body – even though Israel has flouted international law and UN resolutions for decades without ever once being subjected to UN sanctions.
It also smears UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, whose overstretched resources mean the difference between subsistence and hunger for a million Palestinians in Gaza, which has been under a decade-long Israeli siege.
The attack on the refugee agency, which also provides education and medical care to millions, is part of a long-standing agenda by Israel and its surrogates to defund it in the apparent reckless hope of removing the rights of Palestinian refugees from the international agenda once and for all.
Betraying the base
Sanders galvanized progressives with his strong Democratic primary challenge to Hillary Clinton. He won many over by aggressively going after Clinton’s record of unconditional, hardline support for Israel.
“There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,“ Sanders told Clinton in a prime-time TV debate. “We cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to this issue.”
But by signing the letter, Sanders has signaled a retreat. He defended his decision this week in an interview with Dena Takruri of AJPlus:
“I didn’t write that letter. I signed on to that letter. It’s not a letter I would have written,” Sanders said, wanting to have his cake and eat it too.
Against BDS and equal rights
While offering mild criticism of Israel – he even used air quotes when he said the words “human rights violations” – Sanders deployed a favorite Israel lobby tactic of deflecting attention to abuses by other countries.
Sanders said he does not support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which the Senate letter also attacks. Takruri challenged him to say what Palestinians should do to confront decades of endless Israeli occupation if they are condemned for using violent and nonviolent forms of resistance.
“What, if not BDS, is left for Palestinians to do?” she asked.
“What must be done is that the United States of America must have a Middle East policy which is even-handed, which does not simply supply endless amounts of money, of military support to Israel, but which treats both sides with respect and dignity, and does our best to bring them to the table.”
That sounds great, but Sanders did not explain how an even-handed policy would materialize if he – along with all his Senate colleagues – refuses to stand up, and condemns those who use BDS to challenge one-sided US policy.
Instead, Sanders appears to counsel returning to a so-called “peace process” that has failed for decades. His apparent confidence in the unprincipled triumvirate of President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is astonishingly misplaced.
If a two-state solution fails, Takruri asked Sanders, would he support “one-state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and equal citizenship?”
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I mean, I think if that happens, then that would be the end of the state of Israel, and I support Israel’s right to exist.”
That puts Sanders out of step with two-thirds of Americans who would support such an outcome. Worse, it suggests he prefers apartheid to one person, one vote when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians.
Who is being singled out?
In the interview, Sanders repeated the false claims in the letter he signed, that Israel is unfairly singled out.
If one is going to denounce alleged anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment at the UN – albeit for merely condemning Israeli occupation and decades of war crimes – then why does the letter not also acknowledge the much greater anti-Palestinian sentiment harbored by the organization’s most powerful nations, principally the United States with its veto?
It is not true that Israel gets all this supposedly unfair attention. As the UN’s word cloud analysis of its own publications shows, Israel gets far less attention than other countries.
And when Israel’s systematic abuses do get attention, US government machinery goes into action to suppress that criticism, let alone any consequences for Israel.
In March, a meticulously documented UN report detailing Israel’s system of apartheid against the entire Palestinian people was removed from a UN website, an act of censorship committed by the UN secretary-general under direct pressure from the United States.
This cowardice prompted the resignation of the leader of the UN agency that had issued the report.
Israel is being singled out, but it is for impunity that no other country can count on.
That Sanders and other “progressives” would join such an attack on the rights and existence of the Palestinians is another indication that the self-styled Democratic “resistance” to the Trump administration prefers political expediency over principle.
Sanders’ office was not willing to provide a statement to The Electronic Intifada and also refused to comment for Alternet.
Democrats run for cover
For his whole career, Sanders doggedly identified as an independent. His decision to run as a Democrat in the 2016 primaries was motivated by a desire to pull the party to the left. But it seems that the Democratic Party is pulling Sanders and some of his supporters to the right, at least as far as Palestine is concerned.
In February, Sanders-backed congressman Keith Ellison narrowly lost a hard-fought campaign for the chair of the Democratic National Committee, the party’s top governing body.
Ellison has previously been outspoken on Israeli abuses, but tempered his criticism during the campaign, even coming out against BDS.
It appears this unity will come with the cost of progressives like Ellison and Sanders further curtailing their support for Palestinian rights in order to conform with an establishment eager to appease such pro-Israel mega-donors as billionaire Haim Saban.
No going back
The millions who ebulliently joined Sanders’ campaign when he started to talk sense on Palestine and other social and economic justice issues need to haul him back into the 21st century and remind him of the reality of Israel’s decades-old regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
One person who is clearly in a position to influence Sanders is his foreign policy adviser, Matthew Duss – a person with whom I have interacted socially and professionally.
Duss has been strong on calling for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which began in 1967, but more cautious in addressing the other ways Israel violates the rights of millions of Palestinians: its denial of the right of return of refugees and its refusal to grant equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel.
As Sanders’ key adviser on this issue, will Duss continue to undercut the BDS movement as he did in his July 2015 congressional testimony?
Then, he indicated support for limited boycott actions targeting settlements, but pushed back against broader Palestinian-led efforts targeting the government, institutions and companies that back those illegal settlements and Israel’s other systematic violations of Palestinian rights.
Like his current boss, Duss expressed clear discomfort with the idea of equal rights for all in a single state, even equating those who support such a democratic outcome with extremists who yearn for “a messianic vision of ‘Greater Israel.’”
Duss has the opportunity to present Sanders with evidence that Americans in general, and Democrats in particular, are moving ahead of the senator on the question of Palestine.
The University of Maryland poll, commissioned by professors Shibley Telhami and Stella Rouse, shows that 56 percent of Democrats back sanctions or more serious action against Israel.
It also indicates that a majority of Americans – 54 percent – wants the US to be even-handed between Israelis and Palestinians. That figure soars to 72 percent among Democrats.
While Sanders talks of being even-handed, he and others are moving in the opposite direction by signing up to the AIPAC-endorsed letter and opposing BDS.
For decades, the Democratic Party’s progressive wing was PEP – progressive except on Palestine. Grassroots activists have, however, been pushing it in the right direction and just last year had Sanders’ support.
There must be no going back.