A look at Sanders on Israel

Berl Falbaum

It is the obvious question, but few, if anyone, have asked it: What is Sen. Bernie Sanders’ position on Israel? After all, Sanders is the first Jew to be a major candidate for the presidency of the United States so that question seems to be newsworthy.

Indeed, not one question has been posed in all the debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with celebrity moderators preferring at times — too many times — to focus on the latest Trump controversy. The void is noteworthy since, in the liberal press especially, Israel is blamed for blocking a resolution of the dispute with Palestinians and causing unrest throughout the Middle East.

Regarding Sanders, we may have had a hint about his views on Israel when the senator appeared on “Meet the Press” earlier this month. Sanders was challenged about his credentials in foreign affairs.

As proof that he has been working with foreign affairs experts, Sanders cited meetings he has held with “the people on J Street” and Jim Zogby, (president and founder of the Arab American Institute). He met with these people “to get a broad perspective on the Middle East,” he said.

Why would Sanders cite two entities which are critical of Israeli policies? Zogby is a vocal critic of Israel, and J Street, the left-of-center “pro” Israel political action organization misses no opportunity to flay Israeli policies.

(To be fair, Sanders cited a third party with whom he has met: Dr. Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, 1981-85).

J Street and Zogby are partisans, not independent scholars on the Middle East, or even Israel. One would think that Sanders would seek out the most objective, scholarly thinkers on not just the Middle East but other issues as well.

So what are we to make of Sanders’ response? His record on Israel as an independent senator from Vermont is sparse. But here are some of the positions he has taken, beginning with the latest, as reported by various media outlets:

■He boycotted the speech to Congress on the Iran nuclear deal by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

■He favors the Iran nuclear deal, and also putting Iranian troops on the ground to fight in Syria which, some believe, would endanger Israel. Also, he favors moving “as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”

■Politico Magazine reported that when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he described the Israeli treatment of Palestinian protesters as “an absolute outrage.”

■Politico also reported that in 1991 Sanders voted to withhold $82.5 million in U.S. aid for Israel unless settlement activity was halted in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

■In early 2000, he was the only Jewish member of Congress who did not support a House resolution which condemned Palestinians and expressed support for Israel after suicide attacks killed dozens of Israelis.

■After the most recent war in Gaza, he said Israel “overreacted” but acknowledged that Israel faced constant rocket attacks from Hamas, which fired from populated areas.

It appears that Sanders’ politics are well left of center, and more critical of Israel than the Palestinians. Sanders’ spokespeople have been quoted as stating that he supports Israel and its right to exist with secure borders, and favors a two-state solution.

The hope is that Sanders will articulate his views clearly not just on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but many other international crises as well. Breaking up the major banks and cleaning up a corrupt Wall Street will not solve the world’s problems or bring peace to many war-torn countries.

Sanders owes voters a clear explanation on where he stands on a host of foreign affairs issues, and he might consider seek to broaden the sphere of experts from whom he takes advice.

Berl Falbaum is a West Bloomfield resident.