Bernie Sanders Bold Comments On Palestine Are Historic — Here’s Why

Sanders just made history by Speaking Up For the Palestinian cause

Last Thursday’s Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was a heated one, yet one topic in particular marked the evening as a historical moment in U.S. presidential politics: the Israel-Palestine conflict. And this is not only because the debate took place in New York City, home to the largest Jewish population outside of Tel Aviv, but also because for the first time a presidential candidate spoke openly about the reality of this conflict and in particular, the plight of the Palestinians. As explained by The Guardian, observers are still astonished by how directly Sanders spoke about the plight of Palestinians while he criticized Israel and Netanyahu for using disproportionate measures in retaliation.

Throughout his campaign, Sanders has been careful to describe himself as a secular Jew and pro-Israeli. However, this time he broke what is considered an unwritten rule of U.S. presidential races: emphasizing the commitment to support Israel while ignoring the Palestinian side in the conflict. Instead, he not only spoke about the Palestinian cause, but talked at length about the suffering of the Palestinian people living in Gaza where, as he said:

“there is a landscape of ‘decimated houses,’ decimated healthcare, decimated schools. I believe the United States and the rest of the world have got to work together to help the Palestinian people.”

Additionally, he dared to remark on the mistakes committed by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to Salon, the Democratic candidate said:

There comes a time when, if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time… If we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity… We cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue.” 

These are truly rare words in U.S. politics, in which the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and the violence inflicted by Palestinians over Israelis is seen as the threat. Hillary Clinton stuck to that tradition during the debate, refusing to engage in the Palestinian issue. With much more conventional remarks, she limited herself to expressing sympathy with Israelis who live under the threat of terrorism from Hamas. In fact, she even stated:

“I don’t know how you run a country when you are under constant threat, terrorist attacks, rockets coming at you. You have to defend yourself.”

Nevertheless, certainly the same would apply for the Palestinians who live under an illegal military occupation, with disproportionate violence, their homes destroyed and taken away, under Israeli oppression and rockets coming at them; they have to defend themselves. This is not a debate on the friendship between the U.S. and Israel, and Bernie Sanders has not adopted an anti-Israeli position at all. Yet he has done something essential for the resolution of such a long conflict: he has acknowledged the reality of it, the fact that there are two sides to the story, while he has also recognized the atrocious humanitarian problem faced by Palestinians.

While perhaps this will actually mean more votes for Clinton (although effects are yet to be seen), Sander’s comments marked an extraordinary moment in U.S. presidential politics. As Chemi Shalev, U.S. editor and correspondent of the Haaretz newspaper explained, the only two individuals who came close to doing something similar have been Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008, but were still far from making declarations as strong as Sanders’. The importance of his is that they, for the first time, create the opportunity for a real debate on the decades-long conflict. And at the international level, Sanders’ remarks mean a lot for the future of the conflict, for America’s foreign policy and especially for the Palestinian cause.


Featured image via United Nations Photo/Flickr and AFGE/Flickr

From Mexico City, Carolina has lived in five different countries, experiences she defines as the most enriching. She has focused her studies and work on international conflicts and international security issues, diplomacy and protocol. Carolina holds two MA degrees and hopes to begin her PhD studies soon.