Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
As the UN describes Gaza as “hell on Earth,” Sanders seeks to prohibit the transfer of $735 million in new US bombs and munitions to Israel.
When the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates debated foreign policy in the fall of 2019, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders broke protocol by doing something the hyper-cautious consultants and strategists who strangle our politics invariably tell front-running contenders they cannot do. He demanded respect for the rights, and the lives, of the Palestinian people.
Sanders finished his campaign as one of the most influential members of the Senate, where he has argued with increasing urgency in recent days that “if the United States is going to be a credible voice on human rights on the global stage, we must recognize that Palestinian rights matters.”
The senator has emerged as the Senate’s most outspoken critic of what he decries as the “racist nationalism” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and of Israeli air strikes on Gaza that have cost hundreds of Palestinian lives—including those of more than 60 children. There were hopes that those air strikes would end Friday morning when a negotiated cease-fire was set to begin. But they had already, in the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, turned Gaza into “a hell on earth.”
With the “unconscionable devastation” of Gaza in mind, the Senate Budget Committee chair said this week, “We must also take a hard look at nearly $4 billion a year in military aid to Israel. It is illegal for U.S. aid to support human rights violations.” On Thursday, he moved to block the US sale of $735 million in new weaponry to Israel.
Sanders says that, in addition to decrying the loss of Israeli lives, Congress must finally recognize that “Palestinian lives matter.”
Sanders is not alone in speaking up on an issue that too many Democrats continue to neglect. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are sponsoring a House resolution that parallels the senator’s proposal to block bomb sales to Israel. They’ve been joined by Representative Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat, who says, “But let’s make no mistake—even if the current escalation wasn’t raging, Congress should be questioning the sales of these types of weapons to Israel—and any country in the world that has committed human rights abuses.”
AOC, Tlaib, Pocan, and Omar were all backers of the 2020 presidential campaign in which Sanders flipped the script with a groundbreaking embrace of Palestinian rights during the November 2o, 2020, Democratic debate in Atlanta.
That night, at the close to his blistering response to a question from Andrea Mitchell about US relations with Saudi Arabia, in which the senator said diplomats should tell the Saudis and the Iranians “we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts,” Sanders pivoted. “And by the way,” he said, “the same thing goes with Israel and the Palestinians. It is no longer good enough for us simply to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel. But we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”
The hall erupted in applause. But Sanders kept right on going. “What is going on in Gaza right now, where youth unemployment is 70 percent or 80 percent, is unsustainable,” he said. “So we need to be rethinking who our allies are around the world, work with the United Nations, and not continue to support brutal dictatorships.”
That wasn’t the only point during the 2020 campaign where Sanders brought Palestine into the debate. The first Jewish American ever to win a major-party presidential primary went out of his way to argue in interviews and a prescient essay for Jewish Currents that declared: “We should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.”
“The forces fomenting antisemitism are the forces arrayed against oppressed people around the world, including Palestinians; the struggle against antisemitism is also the struggle for Palestinian
freedom,” wrote Sanders. “I stand in solidarity with my friends in Israel, in Palestine, and around the world who are trying to resolve conflict, diminish hatred, and promote dialogue, cooperation, and understanding.”
What Sanders did to create space for a broader debate about Palestinian rights, within the Democratic Party and in the broader politics of the United States, cannot be overstated. “Unprompted, Bernie Sanders invokes the Palestinians as a people that are deserving of respect and dignity,” marveled Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour on the night of the debate. “Wish my Palestinian grandmothers were still alive to hear it.” New York City Council member Brad Lander tweeted, “Props to Bernie Sanders for the courage to use the #DemDebate stage to speak up (as an American Jew & a supporter of Israel) for the rights & dignity of Palestinians.”
Today, as the discourse opens even more, Sanders is amplifying concern for Palestinians once again. In doing this, the independent senator is pressuring Democrats to abandon old ways of thinking about the conflict.
Sanders has penned a New York Times column headlined, “The U.S. Must Stop Being an Apologist for the Netanyahu Government.”
After Senate Republicans proposed a motion that echoed the Israeli prime minister’s hard-line stances, Sanders took to the chamber’s floor Wednesday to block it and offered a resolution of his own that read:
Whereas every Palestinian life matters; and
Whereas every Israeli life matters:
Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate—
(1) urges an immediate cease-fire to prevent—
(A) any further loss of life; and
(B) further escalation of conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories; and
(2) supports diplomatic efforts—
(A) to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;
(B) to uphold international law; and
(C) to protect the human rights of Israelis and Palestine.
The Budget Committee chair upped the ante Thursday with his privileged resolution to prohibit the transfer of $735 million in Joint Direct Attack Munition variants and Small Diameter Bomb Increment I variants to the Israel military.
“At a moment when U.S.-made bombs are devastating Gaza, and killing women and children, we cannot simply let another huge arms sale go through without even a Congressional debate,” declares Sanders. “I believe that the United States must help lead the way to a peaceful and prosperous future for both Israelis and Palestinians. We need to take a hard look at whether the sale of these weapons is actually helping do that, or whether it is simply fueling conflict.”