Senator Bernie Sanders is no stranger to igniting fiery passions with his views and speeches. But he is better known for doing so on economic and even social issues than on foreign policy. At the annual conference of the dovish, pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, however, Sanders gave a speech that can and should become the impetus for a new policy discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During the race for the Democratic nomination last year, Sanders exploded myths by calling forcefully for Palestinian rights while also strongly affirming Israel’s right to exist and need for security. When, in the wake of those remarks, the editorial board of the New York Daily News asked him more detailed questions, it was clear that he had not given enough study, time, or thought to the matter.
That has changed, and Sanders’ rousing speech at the J Street conference on Monday demonstrated a different, more nuanced, but no less powerful stance. Sanders advocated strongly for an approach that treats Palestinian and Israeli needs for security, hope, and justice equally.
Although demonstrating a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the politics that surrounds it, Sanders did not diminish his sense of moral outrage at the denial of basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians and the ongoing threats Israelis continue to face.
The key part of his speech—the bit that, one hopes, will be taken as inspiration by supporters of Israelis and Palestinians everywhere—came after Sanders relayed his personal attachment to Israel. After reminding the crowd that he had lived for several months on a kibbutz in the early 1960s, Sanders said, “I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution, and particularly after the horror of the Holocaust.”
For some, that point is too often forgotten, buried under the weight of decades of occupation, dispossession, and the increasing influence of nationalism on democratic values in Israel. That said, however, Sanders delivered what was perhaps the single most important message of the entire conference:
But as you all know, there was another side to the story of Israel’s creation, a more painful side. Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees. To acknowledge this painful historical fact does not “delegitimize” Israel, any more than acknowledging the Trail of Tears delegitimizes the United States of America.
Those words cut to the very core of the political issues that make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so vexing. More importantly, they also shine a light on the path forward.
Sanders’ formulation challenged the dueling narratives of the two sides, the emotionally, historically, and politically charged claims of Israelis and Palestinians alike, and, perhaps most importantly, the idea of a zero-sum equation where any Palestinian gain must mean an Israeli loss, and vice versa.
At times, the comparison of the Zionist emigration to Palestine and the subsequent displacement of most of the inhabitants living there to the genocide of Native Americans has indeed been used to paint Israel’s creation as a criminal event. But Sanders eloquently turns that upside down.
It is still a hard reality, but now it addresses a core Israeli fear: that any admission of culpability by Israel for the Palestinians’ displacement would nullify Israel’s moral basis for its existence. Instead, Sanders bases the moral case for Israel on the historical experience of the Jewish people, while not excusing the fact that the Jewish state’s creation resulted in a catastrophe for the Palestinians. If we accept that dual narrative, we have the basis to move forward on a resolution of the conflict that treats the rights and claims of both peoples equally.
Israelis and Palestinians may each feel that their own narrative is more accurate, that their own claims are more just. That is to be expected. But the United States, and any other outside party must, as a necessary condition of involvement in resolving the conflict, treat the national, civil, human, collective, and individual rights of all Palestinians and Israelis equally. This has not been the case, for the United States or for most other countries with a stake in the conflict.
A New Vision
Sanders stayed away from specific policies beyond a vague reference to a two-state solution to the conflict, and this was another example of clever thinking on his part. The two-state solution remains the only diplomatic game in town, and it continues to be the preferred option of many, even some who no longer believe it can be achieved.
But the process that has been the basis for the two-state solution since 1993 was ill-conceived. Moreover, it would be foolish to think that, given the political, social and physical changes that have affected the formulas for dealing with every issue—settlements, borders, Jerusalem, water, security, refugees, Gaza, et al—the same old ideas can simply be fitted onto present day realities.
Since the Oslo Accords were enacted, time has worked against the two-state solution. But it is a mistake to measure that effect in terms of the life of the two-state solution, as has so often been done. Rather it should be measured in terms of the cost: the longer Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, spreads its control over Jerusalem, and maintains a siege on the Gaza Strip, the higher the political, social, and financial costs to resolve these issues becomes.
What is needed now is new thinking on how to realize the national aspirations for independence, security, and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians. The notion that Yitzhak Rabin sold to the Israeli people a quarter of a century ago of complete separation (“Us here, them there,” said Rabin) was always a difficult one to imagine. How was Israel to find real security if a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza did not cooperate very intimately with the Jewish state? How was a fledgling Palestinian state going to grow economically, and even function sensibly, without close cooperation and, yes, support from its neighbor, the strongest and most economically and politically stable country in the region?
These essential questions were never answered in all the years of a frustrating peace process. Instead, the process was easily slowed or even halted by forces on both sides that thought only of their own needs, treated the claims of the other as ephemeral, and saw the very humanity of their antagonists as lesser.
Sanders framed the way forward very well:
It’s often said that the US-Israel relationship is based on ‘shared values.’ I think this is correct, but then we also have to ask: What do we mean by this? What values are we talking about?
We believe in democracy. We believe in equality. We believe in pluralism. We are strongly opposed to xenophobia. We respect and we will protect the rights of minorities. These are values that are shared by progressives in this country and across the globe. These values are based upon the very simple notion that we share a common humanity. Whether we are Israelis or Palestinians or Americans, whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims, or of another religion, we all want our children to grow up healthy, to have a good education, have decent jobs, drink clean water and breathe clean air, and to live in peace.
That is the basis for new thinking about the two-state solution. An Israel and a Palestine fulfilling the national ambitions of each of their peoples in democratic, national homelands that work closely together. It need not be a formal federation, but simply a peace that explicitly agrees to and spells out what should be obvious: Israelis and Palestinians need each other, and their future is much brighter together than apart.
That vision goes farther than the one Sanders laid out. But it is the logical alternative to abandoning the two states idea, which no one has seemed eager to do, or continuing the same bloody cycle that has characterized the years of the Oslo “peace process.”
The actual policies and terms of an agreement would have to be hammered out again. But then, aren’t talks without pre-conditions exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been demanding? Imagine if the principles Sanders framed were the ones the United States, along with the Arab League and US partners in the Quartet, were using?
Ultimately, those principles, however lofty they may sound, are indispensable to any solution that would be just and durable. As Sanders also said, “To oppose the policies of a right-wing government in Israel does not make one anti-Israel or an anti-Semite. We can oppose the policies of President Trump without being anti-American. We can oppose the policies of Netanyahu without being anti-Israel. We can oppose the policies of Islamic extremism without being anti-Muslim.”
And progressive principles can serve as the bedrock of a lasting solution to this conflict. One of Oslo’s fatal flaws was its over-reliance on terms of security and authority and its lack of emphasis on rights and democracy. The latter must come first. If it does, issues of security, authority, land, Jerusalem and other practical matters become much easier to deal with.