Should Palestine activists vote for Sanders?

April 13, 2016

He isn't as hawkish in his support for Israel as his opponent Hillary Clinton, but is that a good enough reason to vote for Bernie Sanders? Wael Elasady considers the question.

A DEBATE has emerged among solidarity activists about whether supporters of the Palestinian struggle should back Bernie Sanders in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Steven Salaita, the professor fired by the University of Illinois for his tweets denouncing Israel's war on Gaza, has said he won't vote for Sanders due to his weak position on Palestine, while several well-respected activists have come out arguing for support for the Sanders campaign with articles on the Palestine in America website. These latter authors recognize that Sanders' position has weaknesses, but argue that he is better than Hillary Clinton, who is a hawkish supporter of Israel, and is therefore worthy of critical support.

This discussion is important, and not just for people organizing around Palestine solidarity. The Sanders campaign has produced enormous excitement with its frankly left-wing message on many questions. But there are obvious holes in that message, particularly on questions of U.S. foreign policy. The question of how the left should advance its critiques of Sanders can't be overlooked amid the general excitement.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders (Marc Nozell)

This article will start by outlining Sanders' position and then look at the responses of various voices in the solidarity movement.

BERNIE SANDERS' position on Israel and Palestine is seen as more sympathetic than Clinton's--especially now, when Clinton has been cynically trying to exaggerate her differences to win support from pro-Zionist voters.

In the run-up to the primary vote in New York, for instance, she went after Sanders for criticizing Israel's 2014 assault on Gaza. While many political leaders around the world said the same as Sanders, former Secretary of State Clinton recycled Israel's propaganda that Hamas "provoked" the war.

There's no question about Clinton's loyal support for Israel. But it must be recognized that Sanders' stance is still a clear defense of official U.S. policy, which is emphatically pro-Israel.

Thus, Sanders reflects all of the prejudices and distortions typical of the American political establishment: the lie that Israel, uniquely within the Middle East, is committed to "democratic principles"; the false belief that both sides in the conflict are equally responsible for violence; the illusion that U.S. imperialism is a "neutral" actor.

In a pre-recorded speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that the group refused to show to attendees, Sanders laid out his position straightforwardly, stating that "America and Israel are united by historical ties...including a deep commitment to democratic principles, civil rights, and the rule of law."

What's needed, Sanders argued, is to bring "rational people on both sides together" and "[resume] the peace process through direct negotiations," which requires "compromises on both sides," including "the unconditional recognition by all of Israel's right to exist," in order to reach a "two-state solution." Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have made similar, if not exactly the same, statements.

Much has been made of the fact that Sanders said the U.S. should be more evenhanded in its approach in the Middle East. Remarks like this one--"Peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people"--have been hailed as "remarkable," "defiant" and a break with the Washington policy consensus.

But U.S. presidents have verbally criticized Israel and supported limited Palestinian rights within the narrow confines of a negotiated two-state solution, as Bernie Sanders does. In fact, Sanders' line about friends being "obliged to speak the truth" to each other is taken directly from the Obama administration--as is much of Sanders' foreign policy, for that matter. For example, in Obama's 2013 speech in Jerusalem, he said:

The Palestinian people's right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes--look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student's ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.

But despite these seemingly strong and compassionate words, the Obama administration has continued to reward Israel throughout its time in power, increasing military assistance every single year since Obama took office, even as Israel continues its settlement expansion and the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, its deadly siege of Gaza and the daily brutality of occupation in the West Bank.

The gap between the rhetoric and actions of American political leaders is, of course, no accident. From the beginning, the purpose of the U.S.-led "peace process" and the discourse that accompanied it was to give the impression of progress so that Israel, a central U.S. ally in dominating the Middle East, could break out of its isolation and normalize international relations, even as it tightened its control of Palestinian lands.

After 20 years of a "peace process" that never brings peace and deteriorating conditions for Palestinians, the jig is up. It has become clear for more and more people that the "peace process" is a dead end that has served all along to cover Israel's crimes.

BUT YOU won't hear those conclusions expressed during the 2016 election, certainly not on the Democratic side.

Among Democrats, Clinton allows no one to outflank her hawkish pro-Israel position on the right on the question of Israel. By comparison, Sanders does seem more liberal with his promise to "make every single effort" to restart negotiations if elected and aura of championing progressive reforms.

But the danger, if supporters of Palestinian rights don't make our criticisms clear, is that Sanders could breath life back into the otherwise moribund and increasingly discredited framework of the "peace process"--at the very moment when young Americans are beginning to see the issue not as a conflict between two equal sides, but one in which Israel is acknowledged as a chronic human rights violator and an apartheid state.

Even worse, at the same time that Sanders is giving a progressive tint to this crumbling pillar of U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East, he has also attacked the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

Asked during an MSNBC interview if he would join Hillary Clinton in smearing BDS as anti-Semitic, Bernie went along with the slander, stating: "It would be a mistake to count out anti-Semitism as a driver of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel."

This statement came just as Israel, its lobbying organizations, supportive Western governments and other institutions have been carrying out an unprecedented drive to silence and even criminalize support of BDS--with the claim about anti-Semitism as an important justification. Sanders' lent his political authority to this outrageous slander, giving it a left cover.

It can't be overstated how important it is for Palestine solidarity activists to challenge this anti-BDS offensive. The spread of the movement internationally is one very important reason why the two-state framework, and all of the propaganda that goes with it, is more and more discredited among a new generation.

One of the great successes of BDS is that it has put the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian refugees back in spotlight after two decades of the "peace process" had reduced the Palestinian question to demanding an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the creation of a perpetually undermined Palestinian quasi-state.

We can't under any circumstances give up those advances for the movement in order to register support for a politician who remains emphatically pro-Israel, even if he is not as hard-line as his opponents.

AMONG THE Palestine solidarity activists who are leaning toward support for Sanders, there is an awareness of his shortcomings. As Kumars Salehi wrote in an article titled "Backing Bernie Sanders is the wise choice":

I recognize all too well the timidity and tepid centrism of his response and the limitation and concession to Zionism inherent in any discourse of "both sides"....But Sanders' position, while inarguably pro-Israel, is both decidedly not good enough and (given the current state of U.S. discourse on the issue) good enough to merit begrudging but vocal support.

These formulations about "begrudging but vocal support" for Sanders' "not good enough"/"good enough" positions concede for too much ground. In the closing paragraph of the article, Kumars urges activists in favor of "publicly stating a preference for Sanders' meekness on the issue over Clinton's ardent support for Israelis."

This very explicitly states that we should prefer one version of pro-Israel policy over another. Perhaps it is a "meeker" or "weaker" version, but one could argue that it would be more effective in advancing the interests of Israel and U.S. imperialism than the more confrontational and openly racist brand.

All this seems even more problematic in light of Sanders' anti-BDS comments, which, alarmingly, received little criticism or even coverage on movement websites like Electronic Intifada or Mondoweiss. A web search on both sites for any articles referencing Sanders' comments about the possibility of BDS being driven by "anti-Semitism" returned zero results.

Likewise, an article by Rima Kapitan and Burkay Ozturk titled "Can Sanders' humanism be completed?" at the Palestine in America website criticized Steven Salaita for refusing to support Sanders, but failed to mention Sanders' slander of the BDS movement just days before.

All this shows that support for Sanders, even "begrudging," can lead solidarity activists to tone down criticisms of otherwise indefensible positions on Palestine--and import into our movement the logic of lesser evilism and "pragmatism" that pervades the U.S. system more generally. It's not for nothing that the Democratic Party has been described as the graveyard of social movements.

As Salaita wrote in a recent comment on social media:

[I]t's wise to remember that the ballyhooed pressure the left always pledges to assert [chortle] can't exist if we're unwilling to even acknowledge a politician's weaknesses, to say nothing of criticizing them. Please don't lionize a Democratic presidential candidate at the expense of those who already suffer enough U.S. political violence.

THIS DOESN'T mean that Palestinian activists should ignore the Sanders phenomenon, nor limit themselves to criticizing Sanders' position on Palestine.

Although I disagree with their position and won't be voting for Sanders, I am sympathetic to the Palestinian activists who are supporting his campaign.

For many, Sanders' appeal is also his more consistently progressive program on domestic issues, and their support is tied to a recognition that the struggle for justice for Palestinians won't be won in isolation, but must be connected to a broader working class challenge to the status quo. I think this reasoning is correct, even if I don't agree with the particular conclusion.

U.S. support for Israel isn't a passing phenomenon or a political distortion based on the strength of the "Israel lobby." It is rooted in Israel's historic role as the central ally of U.S. imperialism's aim to dominate the Middle East. This is ultimately why the U.S. gives billions in military aid to Israel, and why the ruling class of this country is participating in the attempt to suppress the free speech of Palestinian rights activists involved in BDS.

This means that challenging U.S. support for Israel will require the left to win and unite significant social forces behind a challenge to American imperialism. Sanders is expressing both the anger and the hopes of a section of those social forces, but it's important to remember that they should not be reduced to the Sanders campaign or their support for it.

In fact, because Sanders has settled on a strategy of running inside the pro-corporate Democratic Party--which stands against everything unique to what he stands for--he will be unable to deliver the reforms that have galvanized millions of young people behind his campaign. For one thing, Hillary Clinton is still much more likely to win the Democratic presidential nomination, and in that case, Sanders will ask his supporters to vote for her. But even if he were to somehow win the election, the party he seeks to lead would not support his agenda.

One way or another, many of Sanders' supporters will be looking for ways to realize their aspirations beyond this election. Our orientation should be on Sanders supporters and the potential they represent, and not on Sanders himself.

We can and should agree with those supporters on the need to challenge economic inequality, make free higher education, achieve universal health care and create a "political revolution" in this country. But in doing so, we don't have to give an inch on Sanders' "meekness" on Palestine--instead, we should convince those Sanders supporters we engage with to likewise criticize their candidate's support for U.S. imperial policy, and support the BDS struggle.

Stopping U.S. support for Israel and ending American imperialism's deadly wars and interventions in the Middle East--as well as challenging the staggering economic inequality in this country--will require building and linking together powerful social movements from below. But it will also require breaking through the two-party straightjacket in the years to come and forging an independent left-wing party.

That party must be democratically controlled from below, and not reliant on the good intentions of individual politicians. It must represent the interests of workers and the oppressed. It must put the fight against racism front and center and challenge U.S. imperial aggression across the globe. And it must must support Palestinians' struggle for liberation and not leave them in the cold.

We should settle for nothing less. This election shows that building such an alternative, while it remains a long-term objective, is far from the impossible task it is often made out to be.

Further Reading

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