Is Bernie Sanders the Best American Hope for Palestine?

Since Congress was on Memorial Day recess for much of the last week, thus generating fewer decisions, this is a good time to revisit a brief news item from Arab Center Washington DC’s May 29 report. It recounted a visit to Ramallah by Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vermont) top foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss, to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi.

A few Israeli outlets wrote about the meeting, with fewer still in the US media doing so. This is curious: one might assume that news of a presidential frontrunner’s top foreign policy aide visiting with a blacklisted PLO member in Israeli occupied territory would constitute a story of interest. Furthermore, a press release from the PLO’s communications office states that Duss carried with him a strong message of support for Palestinians and of contempt for President Donald Trump’s policies regarding occupation and the pursuit of peace.

This, undoubtedly, was a show of support from Duss and his boss. In fact, Democracy Now! later interviewed Ashrawi and described the account as “Why some Palestinians are supporting Bernie Sanders for 2020.” But it is important to ask: is Sanders really fashioning himself as an ally of the Palestinians in a way that should inspire hope? Or, is this simply a form of political opportunism, the kind that he would like to separate him from the rest of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates? And will a President Sanders even be willing—or able—to fundamentally change the nature of US relations with both Israel and Palestine?

Senator Sanders’s Support for Palestinians

It is inarguable that Senator Sanders is among the most progressive policy-makers in Washington and as such, he has vocally supported Palestinian rights and an end to Israel’s military occupation. And it is no surprise that Sanders has grown more consistent in his views and outspoken since Duss joined his team. Indeed, the younger, more diverse, and more liberal wing of the Democratic Party is much more sympathetic to the struggles of the Palestinians than before. Sanders is clearly reflecting—and at some points driving—that shift, particularly as the more energized faction of the party moves away from the so-called “Progressive Except for Palestine” wing.

Since his strong showing in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Sanders has worked to beef up his foreign policy bona fides; to be sure, his positions on Israel-Palestine have been a focal point of that strategy. He has been among the most consistent politicians in the country in recognizing and condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and he has been a full-throated detractor of Benjamin Netanyahu and his exceedingly right-wing policies. Additionally, Sanders was a vehement critic of Israel’s brutal response to the Gazans’ Great Return March and has decried Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip and the resulting humanitarian crisis.

Unrivaled Critic of Israel in the 2020 Field

While Senator Sanders usually couches his criticism of Israel in terms of justice and rights for Palestinians, in the field of 2020 Democratic candidates he is also arguably the most vociferous critic of the Israeli government and its policies toward the Palestinians. Here, Sanders has been something of an outlier on the issue due in large part to his Jewish identity and his nonconformist nature. With his high name recognition and strong favorability among the general public, he has proven to be a distinctly powerful force in driving policy discussions within the Democratic Party on issues relating to Israel. The senator has used this relative power to take on domestic US entities that unabashedly support negative Israeli policies as well. Sanders boycotted a Netanyahu address to Congress, refused to speak before pro-Israel groups he deems as too far to the right on the issues, and frustrated many in the pro-Israel community for his support for Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who was being attacked for what some charged were anti-Semitic statements.

Sanders is nuanced in his remarks but he speaks more freely and more forcefully than even the premier 2020 candidates in the field. While he frankly calls Israeli policy “apartheid-like” and aligns himself on issues of import to secure justice and human rights for the Palestinian people, other major candidates usually frame their arguments in terms of what is good for Israel and its security. These include Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). They usually pay little attention to the plight of the Palestinians and very rarely criticize Israel, if at all. Such disapproval of Israel is largely hinted at by the other candidates while Sanders will address those problematic policies head on.

Sanders as an Ally or Just the Best Option?

As progressive as Senator Sanders’s positions, comparatively speaking, on issues related to Palestine, there are still major questions about his record and whether this is a candidate in whom leaders like Ashrawi and her colleagues in the PLO should place their hopes. One thing is clear: any 2020 Democratic candidate would be an upgrade for Palestinian rights compared to the current administration, and Sanders may well be the best one. While Duss was in Ramallah, he and Ashrawi decried the White House’s policies toward the Palestinian leadership, including closing the PLO office in Washington, denying Ashrawi a visa to enter the United States, closing the consulate general in Jerusalem that historically served as an “embassy” to the Palestinians, and cutting nearly every dollar of US support to the Palestinian Authority and programs that directly support the broader Palestinian public. Indeed, such policies have poisoned the relationship between Washington and the leadership in the occupied Palestinian territories.

However, some on the liberal left argue that Sanders is still “Progressive Except for Palestine.” He is an avowed supporter of Israel and always quick to point out that he supports Israel’s “right to exist”—though many believe that is a misleading phrase. Critics of Israeli policies argue that being “100 percent pro-Israel, in the long run”—as Sanders claims—while pressuring the government for substantive policy changes are incompatible strategies. Along that note, Sanders is opposed to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, although in other instances he has supported people’s rights to engage with those tactics. Some might point out that this is contradictory since Sanders himself told The Intercept that he would consider voting to end US taxpayer-funded military support for Israel—a move which is itself a form of economic, nonviolent protest of Israeli policy.

Finally, Senator Sanders is fundamentally wedded to the idea of a “two-state solution” as the sole mechanism for realizing peace between Israel and Palestine—despite the fact that many on the left and in Palestine doubt the viability of that solution. Expanded settlements, the lack of infrastructure—and denial of permission to build such infrastructure—in the occupied territories, and an increasingly emboldened faction of the Israeli electorate that wants to realize a “Greater Israel” have severely limited the paths to securing a self-sufficient and self-determined Palestine. In light of his support of a two-state solution and opposition to one state with equal rights for all (for the sake of avoiding “the end of the State of Israel”), critics of Sanders’s position argue that this will necessarily prevent the Palestinian people from ever realizing the level of self-determination Sanders says he supports.

Conclusion

A presidential victory for Senator Bernie Sanders would usher in an administration that, arguably, would be among the most willing to be critical of Israel and to support the aspirations of Palestinians. There would undoubtedly be a tonal and rhetorical shift away from the cruel and condescending way the White House now interacts with Palestinian officials. Additionally, the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories would be promoted by the most powerful office in the world.

It is important to remember that Senator Sanders has demonstrated he will almost always support what is right for Israel, its nature as a state, and its security. Such an approach would likely limit what he could do to extract concessions that ensure Palestinians the rights and opportunities for which they have long struggled. It is unclear whether a President Sanders would fundamentally change the US relationship with Israel in order to forge a better, more productive relationship with the Palestinians. While he may be the best option in the 2020 field, it may be prudent for Palestinians not to tie all of their aspirations to his victory.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Defining Wars Not Authorized by Congress as Impeachable Offenses. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who is mounting a long-shot bid for president, introduced H. Res. 411 seeking to define any war that a president enters without a formal declaration from Congress as an impeachable offense. Her definition would cover undeclared wars in places like Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria.

Recognizing the Holy Month of Ramadan. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) introduced H. Res. 424 to recognize Ramadan and extend best wishes to the Muslims who observed the holy month.

Resolutions of Disapproval for Arms Sales. Last week ACW noted that the White House is seeking to bypass Congress in selling arms to Saudi Arabia. In response, Senators are gearing up to introduce one resolution of disapproval for every sale (i.e., 22 total) to try and block the sales.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Reps. Kinzinger, Graves, and Gonzalez Pen Op-Ed about Lebanon. In April of this year, ACW noted that Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), Tom Graves (R-Georgia), and Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) traveled together to visit Lebanon and Jordan. Last week they followed that visit with a joint op-ed detailing how they find US support helpful in maintaining stability in Lebanon.

Senators Express Concern about Situation in Libya. On May 29, Democratic Senators Bob Menendez (New Jersey) and Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and their Republican counterparts John Barrasso (Wyoming) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) wrote a letter to President Trump expressing their concerns about the ongoing conflict in Libya and called on the president to demonstrate US leadership by pushing the sides together to negotiate an end to the fighting.

Rep McGovern Calls on Sudan’s TMC to Cease Threats to Protesters. On May 30, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, released a statement calling on Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) to stop threatening violence against peaceful protesters in Khartoum. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively, also released statements decrying the TMC’s violent crackdown on the very same protesters.

Senator Van Hollen Discusses Trump’s Middle East Policy. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) sat down for an interview with Al Monitor to discuss aspects of President Trump’s Middle East policies, including US support for the Saudi- and Emirati-led war in Yemen; the administration’s use of an “emergency” provision to sell arms to those Gulf states; and the lopsided support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. The most important takeaway from the interview is that Senator Van Hollen is intent on using his position on the powerful appropriations committee to reorient US policy on all of the aforementioned items.

3) Nominations

David Schenker Confirmed to State Department’s Near East Bureau. On June 5, the Senate voted to confirm David Schenker, 83-11, as the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Jared Kushner Questions Palestinians’ Ability to Self-Govern. Jared Kushner, the top official in the White House tasked with forging a peace plan between Palestinians and Israelis, apparently does not mind if the Palestinians do not trust him. During a wide-ranging interview that aired this week, Kushner also repeated a tired and untrue gibe about the Palestinians not being ready to govern themselves.

2) Department of State

Administration Delays Iran Sanctions as Pompeo Says There Could Be Talks. On May 31, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump Administration backed off on plans to levy sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical industry in an effort to temper the tension between Washington and Tehran. Later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists that the United States is open to discussions with Iran with no preconditions, though he followed with a vow that the United States would continue its pressure campaign against Tehran. The “no preconditions” quip is curious, however, as Pompeo himself outlined 12 conditions Iran must satisfy to be welcomed back into the fold by Washington.

In Leaked Speech, Pompeo Understands Pro-Israel Perception of “Peace Plan.Secretary Pompeo held an off-the-record meeting with leaders of the American Jewish community, after which his remarks on the administration’s supposed “peace plan” were promptly leaked to the press. Among other things, Pompeo gave a sober assessment of the plan, saying that he understood why so many observers have suggested it would be a deal “only the Israelis could love.”

Pompeo Speaks with Officials of Kuwait, Iraqi Kurdistan. This week, Secretary Pompeo held phone calls to discuss regional development of US concern with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid Al Sabah and with the president-elect of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Nechirvan Barzani. In addition, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale spoke with Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman about Sudan’s TMC crackdown on protesters, as Saudi Arabia supports the TMC.

State Department Cuts Funds for Iran Disinformation Project. This week, the Department of State announced that it had suspended funds for a project meant to combat Iranian propaganda. The Iran Disinformation Project had been using government funding to attack US citizens on Twitter for, as one subject of the attacks called it, being “soft on Iran.”

3) Department of Treasury

Treasury Details Assets of Terrorist Groups. The Treasury Department released its annual report detailing the assets of designated terrorist groups and state sponsors of terror. This account includes information about al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, and what it designates as state sponsors Iran, Syria, and Sudan.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here