The Democrats had a brief but substantive foreign policy debate Wednesday night—and Bernie Sanders gave it scope and meaning by centering Palestinian rights in a way major presidential candidates rarely do.
Joe Biden seemed ready to dominate with his “this guy has no idea what he’s doing” critique of President Trump’s relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and with his rumination on how North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had said Biden should be “beaten to death with a stick.”
“Other than that, you like him,” joked Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “Other than that, I like him,” replied the former vice president, who remains the front-runner in most polls. It was a pleasant exchange, of the sort that usually concludes the moment when a Democratic debate turns toward international affairs.
But then Sanders got serious. He interrupted another of the former vice president’s recitations of his international bona fides and turned the discussion to Biden’s 2002 vote to authorize war with Iraq. In so doing, he won the debate within the debate.
“One of the big differences between the vice president and myself is he supported the terrible war in Iraq, and I helped lead the opposition against it,” declared Sanders. “And not only that, I voted against the very first Gulf War as well. And I think we need a foreign policy which understands who our enemies are that we don’t have to spend more money on the military than the next ten nations combined.”
Responding to a question about whether he would negotiate a deal with the Taliban in order to get the United States out of Afghanistan, Sanders argued that the time has come to “rethink the entire War on Terror.”
“I think it is time, after spending many trillions of dollars on these endless wars which have resulted in more dislocation and mass migrations and pain in that region, it is time to bring our troops home,” said Sanders. “But unlike Trump, I will not do it through a tweet at three o’clock in the morning. I will do it working with the international community, and if it’s necessary to negotiate with the Taliban, of course, we will do that.”
Sanders seized every opportunity to outline foreign-policy alternatives in the fifth round of Democratic debating. Joining several of the candidates in calling out President’s Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia, he declared that “Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally.” Sanders argued that the United States must promote negotiations between the Saudis and the Iranians, telling both “we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts.”
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That in itself was a strong statement, but the senator did not stop there.
“The same thing goes with Israel and the Palestinians,” said Sanders. “It is no longer good enough for us to be pro-Israel, I am pro-Israel, but we must treat the Palestinians with the dignity they deserve.”
That declaration drew sustained applause from the crowd at MSNBC/Washington Post Democratic primary debate in Atlanta. And rightly so, because Sanders inserted the issue into the debate.
The debate statement highlighted a position that has become a key component of the broader “new foreign policy” stance being advanced by Sanders—who, in a November 11 essay for Jewish Currents (“How to Fight Antisemitism”) wrote:
Opposing antisemitism is a core value of progressivism. So it’s very troubling to me that we are also seeing accusations of antisemitism used as a cynical political weapon against progressives. One of the most dangerous things Trump has done is to divide Americans by using false allegations of antisemitism, mostly regarding the US–Israel relationship. We should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.
The senator, who is Jewish, explained in the essay:
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. 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.
While Sanders was amplifying a message he has stated in other forums, his unprompted discussion of Palestinian dignity on a presidential debate stage was notable. Within moments of the exchange, The Times of Israel was headlining a story, “Sanders gets applause at debate for call for treating Palestinians with dignity.”
The Forward headlined its report, “Bernie Sanders: ‘It’s No Longer Good Enough For Us To Be Simply Pro-Israel.’” Sanders backer Linda Sarsour pointed out: “Unprompted, Bernie Sanders invokes the Palestinians as a people that are deserving of respect and dignity.” Referencing the applause from the debate crowd, she reflected, “Wish my Palestinian grandmothers were still alive to hear it too.”
Sanders even earned praise from a prominent supporter of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, another leading contender for the nomination. New York City Councilman 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.”