The most significant moment of the Democratic primary debate in Brooklyn—and perhaps any presidential debate this season—came when Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton over her refusal to criticize Israel's excessive use of force against the Palestinians in Gaza. For the first time in memory, a major American political figure insisted publicly that the Jewish state and its leaders are "not always right"—and that in attempting to suppress terrorism, they had killed and injured far too many blameless human beings.
Asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer about his judgment that Israel's military response to attacks from Gaza in 2014 was "disproportionate and led to the unnecessary loss of innocent life," the Vermont Senator answered firmly: "Yeah, I do believe that." He mentioned that many other nations, including longtime allies of Israel, had denounced the atrocities in Gaza, along with human rights organizations around the world.
Having reiterated that he supports Israel as our ally—with every right to self-defense—Sanders said that "in the long run, 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."
That should be blindingly obvious, especially to Clinton, who has worked alongside President Clinton and President Obama toward a decent two-state solution for almost a quarter century. Her disappointing reply to Sanders reflected her political priorities in the New York primary, rather than her commitment to human rights or her assessment of American diplomatic interests.
She talked about her effort in negotiating a Gaza ceasefire, but that self-serving paean was evasive, as Sanders pointed out. Pressed for a serious answer, she pandered to the most conservative voters, Jewish and Christian, who mistakenly believe friendship with Israel means supporting any violence perpetrated by Israel's government. She blamed the casualties among Palestinian civilians solely on Hamas, even as she vaguely mentioned "precautions" that Israel should have taken to prevent them.
This display of subservience to the most right-wing elements in Israel and its Washington lobby was all too typical of American presidential aspirants. Rarely does any U.S. politician dare to utter the truth about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. But coming from Clinton the usual pap sounds worse because, unlike the average pol, she possesses deep knowledge of the region.
When Bill Clinton was president, he and Hillary became close friends of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a former general in the Israel Defense Forces and a war hero who courageously sought a just peace with the Palestinians—and paid for that brave policy with his life when a right-wing fanatic assassinated him in November 1995. Her memoir, "Living History," describes hopeful moments with Rabin and his wife Leah around the time of the Oslo accords—and an affecting account of the moments after President Clinton, who loved Rabin like a father, told her he had been murdered.
Hillary Clinton knows that the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, responsible for the Gaza disgrace and more, is far closer in outlook to the ultra-nationalists who applauded Rabin's assassination than to the peacemaker whose death she lamented. She knows that Netanyahu's aim is annexation, not negotiation. She knows that our interests—indeed, those of the entire world—can only be advanced by a just peace that both protects Israel and relieves the suffering of the Palestinian people.
The day after the Brooklyn debate, her campaign issued a lengthy press release: "Hillary Clinton and Israel: A 30-Year Record of Friendship, Leadership, and Strength." But its failure to mention Palestinian rights and needs again revealed weakness, not "strength." We can only hope that if she wins the presidency, she will prove herself to be a true friend of Israel and its people—as her husband did when he warned that unless they achieve a durable agreement with a new Palestine, Israelis will eventually lose their nationhood, their democracy, or both.
Unfortunately, Clinton's current approach is the dismal standard in American politics, which made Sanders' honesty even more refreshing. What a surprise to hear a Jewish candidate for president—the first with a realistic shot at his party's nomination—speak so candidly and courageously about the country where he worked on a kibbutz as a young man. With those words Bernie made a bit of history, and earned a lot of respect.