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On Palestine, We Need More Politicians Like Bernie Sanders

Some commentators have criticized Bernie Sanders for not going far enough on Palestine. But his denunciation of Israeli land grabs in the West Bank, plus his agenda for transformative policies at home, constituted the most meaningful challenge to the status quo of US-backed Israeli colonialism.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally on February 27, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Zach Gibson / Getty

Bernie Sanders did much to advance the cause of Palestine. In his comments and speeches, he challenged the conservative positions baked in to the American mainstream that have historically undermined the Palestinian struggle for justice. Apart from referring to Benjamin Netanyahu as a racist and calling into question AIPAC’s (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s) authority, Sanders had shown his intent to pressure Israel for meaningful concessions, should he have become president of the United States. Rather than repeating the US habit of timid, empty requests for Palestinian rights, Sanders was willing to push for Palestinian sovereignty in ways totally alien to the Democratic Party, not to mention the Republicans. Most important, perhaps, Sanders had insisted on adherence to international law in regard to the settlements in the West Bank.

The sham peace process since the 1990s has morphed into US acceptance of Israel’s annexation of territory that directly contravenes international law. Sanders, by contrast, is against the occupation and has argued that Israeli settlements in the West Bank were illegal and constitute a major impediment to Palestinian sovereignty. Breaking with the consensus that for the past three decades has asked the Palestinians to make endless accommodations, Sanders privileges a genuinely negotiated agreement that would undermine Israel’s core strategy of both de facto and, now, de jure annexation.

This is a long way from the constantly shifting so-called middle ground between Palestinian rights and whatever Israel wishes to do. For the past three decades, every round of negotiations has simply asked the Palestinians to accommodate Israel’s latest spoils. Sanders, by contrast, supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, including the West Bank.

Some Palestinian critics miss the significance of this. Because Sanders did not come out in support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, or the one-state solution, or — allegedly —the right of return, he has been subject to harsh criticism. One Palestinian critic seems startled as to why pro-imperialist, pro-Zionist liberals fear him:

Yet it seems that his long history of support for US imperialism and Israeli Zionism has not redeemed his two major sins: support for universal healthcare, and meagre words of sympathy for the Palestinian people — though, in all fairness, it must and should.

Another thinks that not only are Sanders’s actions on the conflict similar to other contenders for the Democratic Party nomination, but that the talking points are not that different either:

I don’t see how anybody can read Sanders’ responses here next to those of his opponents and objectively conclude that they’re superior (or even meaningfully different). In fact, billionaire Tom Steyer’s answers are arguably better, or at least equivalent . . . All the candidates are Zionist. I don’t care to parse the nuances of their Zionism. Seeking – or, worse, celebrating – a kinder colonizer is a waste of time.

Such blanket use of the term “Zionist” is politically purist and conceptually cloudy. It ignores the fact that ending the occupation — as Sanders is working to do — would significantly improve the lives of millions of Palestinians. A plurality of those Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still support the two-state solution (although less than previously, as settlements take over more and more of the West Bank).

Real Change, Not Platitudes

Of course, it would be better to see a presidential candidate reciting Mahmoud Darwish’s poems on the campaign trail, or discussing ethnic cleansing on the stump and pledging the right of return at mass rallies. But we are just not there, neither in the United States nor in Palestine and Israel. To ask for such a politician to emerge from the seat of empire — regardless of the social forces that underpin any policy shift, is to seek a prophet or, worse, a martyr.

We shouldn’t deny the ways in which Sanders has come up short on this issue: his fond reminiscence of his kibbutz days, as well as his positive comments about Israel’s establishment, are a disappointment, as was his comment that he is “100 percent pro-Israel.” However, he still stands out on the issue of upholding international law as the organizing principle of negotiations, be it the 1967 borders or the right of return.

But there is another point to consider, more vital than Bernie’s own promises on the conflict itself. What made his distinctively better position on Palestine unprecedented, and deserving of Palestinian support, was the broader agenda he championed: redistributive policies at home that dissolve imperial policies abroad.

There is no single American policy shift that could, on its own, go as far as the Sanders campaign has in promoting the Palestinian struggle for justice. The Sanders program would have put economic pressures on Israel, demoted the significance of oil that forestalls progress in the region, and, even more broadly, undermined capitalist markets internationally as well as the autocrats — so many of them in the Middle East — watching over them.

No More Subsidies

The United States is a main backer of Israel’s military project. About half of the US Department of Defense’s budget for foreign military funding goes to Israel. This amounts to $3.8 billion annually, which is more than 18 percent of Israel’s overall defense budget. The funds are used primarily to buy weaponry, ammunition, and services produced by US companies.

Further to that, there are two streams of funding that feed Israel’s private sector: missile programs fund collaborations between American and Israeli firms, and offshore procurement allows Israel to spend 26 percent of the military aid on Israeli-manufactured equipment. Today, these two streams are a roughly $1 billion per year prize that is available mostly for Israeli firms.

Sanders had outright suggested that all this US funding to Israel would be conditional on certain concessions from Israel regarding Palestinian statehood. The impact of such a shift would not only limit the Israeli state’s fiscal abilities, but it would pressure the country’s industrial sector, which has transformed Israel into a highly developed economy with the aid of state patronage.

This developmental edge of Israel is already being eroded by venture capital that finances emergent companies on less restrictive terms than what a developmental state would do. Production could finally be moved abroad to more profitable outlets, leaking jobs out of the market. On top of that, Obama’s Memorandum of Understanding with Israel — the third since Bill Clinton’s — will end 26 percent of all offshore procurement by 2028, allowing American firms to finally cannibalize their Israeli counterparts by restricting aid flows to the benefit of American corporations, encouraging mergers, buyouts, and an investment outflow.

Unlike politicians before him, Bernie was coming for real damage. He threatened to shut the main valve — no matter whose thirst it quenches first in that swamp.

The Green New Deal pledged by Bernie would also have had a significant effect for Palestine, insofar as the strategic weight of oil would be greatly diminished, realigning the political forces of the Middle East. Since the 1940s, the US economy has always relied on the stability of its allies in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular had been protected by the United States since the 1980s, when Saudi oil was fueling the rapid industrialization in Asia. Similarly, Arab nationalism, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, jihadist networks, and so on all had to be defeated in an effort to prop up US allies. The ongoing strikes against Iranian military positions in Syria are just the latest in the list. Aligning Israel with the American imperialist project meant putting its colonial program on automatic pilot for decades. Israel has always acted with impunity. The Middle East had to be stable, because it is a cog — and a vital one, in the broader scheme of things.

Heart of Empire

Transforming the United States itself helps to reshape the world. The massive changes Bernie rallied around in the United States would have mattered to Palestine. His unprecedented steps on the conflict are a cherry atop that cake.

On their own, maximalist positions on Palestine amount to little. They can even alienate would-be supporters without gaining others. Bernie’s commitment to progress was on display recently when he addressed an anti–West Bank annexation protest in Tel Aviv. Choosing to address the protesters directly via video link was just the latest example of Sanders’s commitment to Palestinian rights — and it is significant that it comes at a moment of acute nationalism and racism in the United States and abroad. It’s this commitment that we need the next time a democratic socialist makes a bid for the presidency.