Statement from Bernie Sanders on Gaza
Posted by Kevin on February 7, 2009
Last week I finally heard something back from the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Israel’s attack on Gaza:
Thank you very much for contacting me about the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza that resulted in the loss of hundreds of Palestinian lives. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to you on this important issue.
As you know, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been of the world’s most difficult disputes over the last half century. The hatred, violence and loss of life that define this conflict make living an ordinary life a constant struggle for both peoples. This crisis not only endangers the Middle East but also creates enormous instability throughout the region and ultimately, the world.
Recently, this decades-old conflict spilled over once more as Israel launched a major military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in order to counter Palestinian rocket fire into its cities and, more broadly, to significantly weaken Hamas rule in Gaza. Tragically, the operation resulted in more than 1,200 Palestinian deaths, the majority of whom were civilians. Thirteen Israelis also lost their lives in the battle before both sides declared temporary cease-fires.
While I fully support Israel’s right to defend itself from the constant barrage of rockets Hamas fires into its homes and urban centers, I have strongly condemned the use of violence by either side as a means for achieving its goals. Leaders on both sides must recognize that the only solution to this conflict is thorough a political process that recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and the right of Jews to a safe and secure homeland in Israel.
Unfortunately, the approach of the Bush administration over the last eight years has been one of disengagement from the conflict and complacency with the status quo. This approach has been shown to be not just ineffective, but detrimental to achieving the long-term goals each side seeks. Worse yet, the United States’ inaction on this issue has consistently been out of sync with our allies and has weakened the international coalition’s efforts to resolve this conflict.
That is why I wholeheartedly support the new Obama administration is its commitment to expand our diplomatic presence in the region and to take a more active role in facilitating negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. To that end, President Obama recently appointed Senator George Mitchell as a Special Envoy to the Middle East. I believe Senator Mitchell is uniquely qualified for this role due to his ability to listen to both sides in conflicts, his non-confrontational manner and his years of experience in negotiating peace agreements.
Moving forward, the United States must again be a leader in helping bring both sides together to negotiate a final status agreement. We must work with those Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are truly committed to peace, security and statehood rather than empty rhetoric and violence. We must also enlist the help of the United Nations and the international community to lend support for a two-track process that provides the Palestinians with a state of their own while ensuring the security of the Israeli people.
A two-state solution must include compromises from both sides to achieve a fair and lasting peace in the region. The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to arrest terrorists, confiscate terrorists’ weapons, dismantle terrorist organizations, halt all anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure.
Further, instead of being used as a political football, the Palestinians should be given the financial support of wealthy Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as the rest of the international community. Frankly, I have little respect for the leaders of wealthy Arab countries who express great concern about the plight of the Palestinians, while they put billions in Swiss bank accounts. Economic assistance is desperately needed to help create jobs and improve the desperately low standard of living that afflicts so many Palestinians.
I have long believed that one of the best antidotes to war and international tension are citizen exchange programs. In many instances, when people of different backgrounds get to know each other on a personal and human level, differences of opinion can be worked out or, at least, a mutual understanding can be established.
To that end, I was proud to sign a letter last year calling for $20 million in funding for the Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Reconciliation and Democracy Fund, which helps support “through Palestinian and Israeli organizations, the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of the press, and non-violence among Palestinians, and peaceful coexistence and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.” Included is $10 million for the People-to-People Exchange Program, which among other things, trains hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian teachers in peace education.
While I was in the U.S. House of Representatives, I was also very pleased to introduce and pass legislation that established the Arab-Israeli Peace Partners Program in Vermont. This program allocated $1.5 million over a two-year period to enable Arabs and Israelis to come to the United States to work together in our local communities, and develop ways to expand democracy and the peace process.
With the help of the United Nations and the international community, we must intensify our diplomatic efforts to bring peace to this embattled region. Rest assured, I will continue to support the Palestinian right to national sovereignty while at the same time ensuring the security of Israel. In addition, it is essential that we work toward improving human rights in the region and provide economic support if we are to achieve our political goals.
There’s some good and some bad in here. Overall, I’m happier with Sanders’ statement than with Welch’s, or with what I heard on the visit to Leahy’s office (or the visit to Sanders’ office, for that matter). But I do have some problems.
I’ll deal with the good news first. He makes note of the civilian nature of most of the Palestinian casualties, something not many in his position have been willing to do. And he shows a slight willingness to criticize Israeli actions and point out how their actions are counterproductive. I basically agree with his point about Arab governments that only pretend to care about the Palestinians, as well as his remarks on Bush’s policies. He doesn’t go nearly as far as I’d prefer on any of the above – he doesn’t seem to be willing to stick his neck out very far – but it’s something. At least he’s a lot more detailed and specific on the matter than Welch.
Probably my biggest gripe is Sanders’ apparent embrace of a key piece of Israeli framing of the conflict: Hamas started it! The attack was primarily “to counter Palestinian rocket fire into its cities,” he says (leaving out the fact that it was planned months ago, ready to be executed when an appropriate excuse could be found). And then there’s this egregious piece of hyperbole, referring to “Israel’s right to defend itself from the constant barrage of rockets Hamas fires into its homes and urban centers”. I’ve already written about the tendency of him and others to massively overstate the effect and importance, and to ignore the causes, of Hamas’ rocket attacks in the process of decrying what “both sides” are doing. Sanders here comes pretty close to saying – whether he realizes it or not – that Gazans brought it on themselves, that they have no right to resist occupation.
[To make myself clear, I'm not saying I think the rocket attacks are justified, just that it's pretty minor compared to what Israeli forces regularly do. It's incredibly frustrating to see bottomless emphasis placed on Hamas "terrorism" which poses no existential threat to Israel, while much greater Israeli crimes are barely mentioned and often rationalized.]
Regarding the necessary compromises Sanders outlines toward the end, I don’t have a major beef with it (although I might come back to it in a later post). My only quibble is with the idea that the Israelis should “prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land”. Well, not with the idea itself, but with the implicit notion that the settlements already there are fine. And with the concept that even just not building more of them is a concession of any sort on the part of Israel. I don’t remember where I read it, but someone once suggested that dismantling the settlements, every last one of which is on stolen land, isn’t a concession any more than it would be for a thief to return stolen jewels. It’s just the bare minimum they should be expected to do.
I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other on the citizen exchange programs Sanders talks about. My gut response is that it’s not a bad idea, but I wonder about its long-term effectiveness. Does anyone else have an opinion?
Also important is what Sanders doesn’t say. Not a word about the ongoing blockade. Not a word about Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure during the conflict, like police and schools. Not a word about white phosphorus. Not a word about the role of US military aid in conflict. And not a word about why he supported (or at least wouldn’t publicly oppose) the noxious Senate resolution granting 100% support to Israel.
I want to be clear at this point that while I’m certainly nitpicking, I’m not being a perfectionist about this issue; I recognize that any politician that fully embraces my position is going to be a virtual pariah to the DC establishment (sure there’s Kucinich, who I still admire, but no one really takes him seriously), and there’s not exactly a lot of people to support someone willing to stick their neck out, so I realize that the muddled positions like the ones I’ve been critiquing are probably the best we’re going to get absent some large public outcry that doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. But I still think it’s important for those against Israel’s occupation to voice criticisms even when a given position, like Bernie’s, is better than those of the sociopaths running both the Democratic and Republican parties (and we should of course praise them when they do give us something better, as I’d like to think I’m doing here). If no one is at least talking about justice for the Palestinians, that guarantees it will never happen.