Let’s put the question before the house: is Bernie Sanders moving left on Palestine?
The Israel-U.S. “special relationship” and what is gently called the “Israel-Palestine conflict” occupied a huge portion of the Democratic debate between Sanders and Hillary Clinton on April 14. Much commentary has welcomed Sanders’ pivot left on this issue, and his call to “treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”
To quickly sum up the two candidates’ positions in the debate, we can look at their ideas on a settlement, the role of the United States, how they see Israel’s security, and their thoughts on Israeli responsibility for violence in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.
Regarding a solution to the conflict, Clinton called for a two-state settlement along the lines of the Camp David Accords of the late 1990s. Sanders suggested that “President Clinton and others, Jimmy Carter and others have tried to do the right thing.” But referring to the much-mythologized negotiation, Shlomo Ben Ami, the Israeli negotiator, said, “If I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David.”
So in what sense did Bill Clinton try to do the right thing?
In terms of the U.S. role, Hillary Clinton stated that “as president I will…make progress and get an agreement that will be fair both to the Israelis and the Palestinians without ever, ever undermining Israel's security.” Sanders said that “of course Israel has a right to defend itself, but long term there will never be peace in that region unless the United States plays … an even-handed role … recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people.”
Clearly, both see a continued role for the U.S. government, which is the primary funder and cause of the “serious problems” that confront the Palestinians – mainly their confrontation with a militarized colonizing state and denial of their natural right to return home.
The main difference between Sanders and Clinton is the latitude they permit Israel in securing its “right to defend itself,” as Sanders put it. For Clinton, that right is basically absolute, with some “precautions taken.” For Sanders, “The question is not does Israel have a right to respond, nor does Israel have a right to go after terrorists and destroy terrorism.” Instead, he asked, “Was their response disproportionate?” during the 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip. His answer was yes.
“Moving left” is a relative term. But Sanders embraces almost the entire colonial outlook. He supports Israel’s right to self-defense, and endorses its right to “go after terrorists,” the U.S. government’s preferred term for Hamas, a democratically elected armed movement. He only quibbles that the Israeli response may be disproportionate. In other words, in killing members of an armed movement defending their own soil from occupation, Israel may occasionally bomb too many people not directly linked to that movement’s armed wing.
Here we should unpack the uses of the word disproportion, a rhetorical smoke cloud meant to obscure the ugly interior of Sanders’ position. Disproportionality assumes the possibility of a proportional response. Technical questions of “proportion” sidestep that Israel has no right to use violence in self-defense, a term that does not apply to colonial occupiers under international law.
But this is the amnesia of liberalism which constantly afflicts U.S. discussion when the subject of Palestine arises. It constantly starts the debate by erasing all that went before: from the 1882-1948 settlement-through-purchase of Palestinian lands – much of the time basically the theft of lands worked by Palestinian farmers, a process backed by the British Empire and Western European capitalists. Then to the 1936-39 joint Zionist-British colonial counterinsurgency which left Palestinian society a ruin. And then the 1948-1953 ethnic cleansing operations which created the refugee problem, to the further wave of ethnic cleansings in 1967. And finally, the illegal siege on the Gaza Strip, and the continued settlement operations in the West Bank.
Furthermore, Sanders has called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) as linked to antisemitism when BDS is currently the primary tool which U.S. and European movements use to end state and corporate complicity in Israeli settler-colonialism.
Can one treat a people with “dignity” while denying them the tools needed to secure their dignity? What possible meaning can it have to emotionally invoke the “needs” of the Palestinian people and deny them the means, armed or unarmed, to secure those needs? Never mind Sanders’ support for U.S. wars of aggression in Libya, or support for friendly dictators in Jordan?
Perhaps the only genuine bright-spot has been Sanders’ recent appointment of an organizer from IfNotNow, Simone Zimmerman, as his director of outreach to the Jewish community – who was then suspended when it was uncovered that she had used some strong language to criticize the Netanyahu regime.
This move is far from irrelevant. Recent victories for BDS in the U.S. – including the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Graduate Student Union’s call for full endorsement of the boycott – suggest that there is a rupture taking place. Sanders’ need to acknowledge that rupture, which is taking place both within and outside the Jewish population, is a very important development.
It is also one that ought to be considered in a wider scope. Sanders’ economic populism is the creation of popular movements’ current refusal to tolerate the post-1970s neoliberal attack on workers and the poor. It is above all the child of the Occupy movements and the Fight for 15. He did not come from above, but from us. Similarly, Sanders’s small improvements on racism have come as direct responses to the autonomous grassroots organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement and its many off-shoots and tributaries, and their direct confrontations with Sanders.
Will Palestine be the same? It is reasonable to think that Sanders will respond more to popular pressure than the other candidates. But ultimately, change will only come about due to the build-up of autonomous power, whether through BDS among solidarity groups, or grassroots exile organizing amongst Palestinians themselves.
For those looking to end the occupation, or decolonize historic Palestine, the machinery of containment that is U.S. politics places one or another candidate in front of us, ceaselessly, as savior or saint. Similarly, there is always the temptation to take part in the media circus and to peer into the smallest words or gestures, wishing into being an absent pro-Palestine sentiment.
For all that, Sanders is not cut from the same cloth as most cynical, self-serving, corporate politicians which dominate the U.S. government. His election could have good results for the U.S. people, namely by causing a rupture within the Democratic Party. But for those who have concerned themselves with the Palestinian cause, there is a long road ahead yet. Sanders’ appointments (less so his rhetoric) can be mile-markers in forcing a change in the realm of high politics. But that change will be forced, if it comes. It will not be a gift from above, but will be wrested from above, and be a victory from below.