The Brussels attacks today came one day after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual meeting, dutifully attended by all but one of the 2016 candidates for president of the United States. What’s the link between the two? The Brussels outrage reminded the civilized world that the terrorist threat will be with us for a long time, susceptible to no easy solution. The AIPAC meeting reminded us (or me, anyway) that among the varied roots of jihadism is one that is never acknowledged as such in American politics, even though it is susceptible to action by the United States. That is the complicity of the West, led by the United States, in enabling Israel’s brutal occupation and effective annexation of Palestinian land. A just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would remove the single most important, legitimate grievance that stirs practically universal resentment in the Muslim world, fueling the rage that jihadists exploit. But no ambitious American politician will ever say that. A just settlement would mean rolling back Israel’s appropriation of the West Bank. It is a no-no in American politics to even suggest that our national interests might not coincide exactly with those of the government in Tel Aviv.
And so one after the other of this year’s crop of presidential candidates—three Republicans and one Democrat—made their obeisances to AIPAC, declaring their everlasting love and support for our favorite ally. I haven’t seen transcripts, but as far as I can tell, none of the speeches contained even a hint of criticism of Israel. This was unsurprising coming from the Republicans, who after all have effectively forged an alliance with the dominant Israeli right. More might have been expected from Hillary Clinton. After all, Clinton has sought doggedly to associate herself with Barak Obama’s legacy, a legacy that includes the first persistent effort by a US administration to push back, however gingerly, against the hubris of its Israeli counterpart. But Clinton went all out to assure the AIPACniks that she’s on their side. Not only did she lambaste Donald Trump for one of the very few admirable things that he has said during this campaign—that he would attempt neutrality in brokering an Israel/Palestine settlement—she also moved to differentiate herself from Obama. The administration is considering putting forth its view of the parameters of an Israel Palestine final agreement, perhaps in the form of a UN Security Council resolution. That step would be an important part of Obama’s foreign policy legacy—his last try at contributing to an eventual peace settlement. Clinton has disavowed any such attempt to “impose” a peace on a resistant Israel.
Enter Bernie Sanders. Or, rather, not enter Bernie Sanders: he was the only current presidential candidate to decline AIPAC’s invitation (read: summons) to address them. Bernie pleaded scheduling difficulties, but I don’t believe that. (Where there’s a will there’s a way.) I think the snub was calculated to show that Sanders does not genuflect before the Israel lobby. If he had simply left matters at that, the snub would have been praiseworthy—a rare show of independence by an American politician. But Sanders went further, sending a copy of the address he would have delivered had he been there in person. This is not a speech that would have brought the audience to its feet. Mostly, it would have met with stony silence. Not that it is terribly harsh on Israel, but it does, for example, tell the assembled that we need to be friends “not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people,” and that a settlement will require Israel pulling back settlements, ending the economic blockade of Gaza, and recognizing the Palestinians’ rights to “self-determination, civil rights, and economic wellbeing.” Sanders condemned a recent further Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, called for an end to “disproportionate” Israeli responses to attacks, and even pointed to the unfairness of Israel’s monopolization of water resources on the West Bank.
Objectively, Sanders’ explicit and implied criticisms of Israel were fairly mild, but I am sure that they go further in criticizing Israel than any major party candidate for president—indeed, probably any member of the US Congress—has ever gone. That isn’t saying all that much, but it’s still saying something. It’s another reason to be glad Bernie Sanders is in this race.