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Bernie Sanders and the French initiative

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Wednesday, 15 June 2016


Following the 2016 US presidential elections, the next administration must adopt a new and realistically balanced policy toward Israel and the Palestinians to bring an end to their conflict in the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace based on the Arab Peace Initiative. Throughout the primary campaign, only Senator Bernie Sanders had a position on this consuming conflict that was fresh, balanced, and welcome, especially given the increased intractability of the conflict and its dangerous implications not only for Israel and the Palestinians, but also for the US's strategic interests in the Middle East.

The continuation of the conflict also has direct consequences on the security of the EU, precisely because it feeds into the region's extremism from which the EU suffers greatly. In this regard, France's initiative to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is timely and should be pursued despite the initial lack of consensus at a recent meeting in Paris between the European, American, and Arab foreign ministers on convening an international conference at the end of the year to address the conflict in earnest.

Throughout the primary campaign, Sanders articulated his position concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stating that: "I read Secretary Clinton's speech before AIPAC, I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people... Of course Israel has a right to defend itself, but long term there will never be peace in that region, unless the United States plays... an even-handed role in trying to bring people together and recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people ... There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time." [emphasis added]

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What is admirable about his stand is not that it is new, but that it is articulated by a significant presidential candidate. Although he has failed to secure the nomination of the Democratic Party, he has become a major political force and the presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, must seriously take into account his position on this critical issue.

Many Israeli and American Jews cynically accuse Senator Sanders of being an apologetic, self-hating Jew who is willing to bend backwards only to demonstrate that he is even-handed, when in fact he is undermining, from their perspective, Israel's national security concerns.

On the contrary, I maintain that Sanders has taken this even-handed position precisely because he is committed to Israel's security and well-being; he fully understands that time is against Israel, and those who really care about Israel's future must speak out.

Sanders recognizes that Israel has no future as a Jewish, democratic, and secure state unless it recognizes the Palestinians' right to a state of their own and "treat[s] the Palestinian people with respect and dignity."

Many American politicians who support the policy of successive Israeli governments are, in fact, exploiting Israel for their own benefit. They want to draw not so much the votes of the Jewish community and their financial contributions, but the tens of millions of votes of the critically important evangelical constituency, whose support of Israel, for religious reasons, is unwavering.

Due to its traditional one-sided policy, the US has become the enabler of Israel's addiction to the occupation and settlements by allowing successive Israeli governments to pursue a disastrous policy of expansionism, even though such a policy was and still is to Israel's detriment.

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As a result, the US's involuntary acquiescence has allowed Israel to defy the international community with impunity, further strengthening Israel's resolve against making any significant concession and rendering peace ever more elusive. Ironically, instead of protecting Israel's national security, the US has inadvertently exposed it to constant threats and violence.

The fact that the Palestinians and the international community have failed to compel Israel to change direction does not suggest that the Israelis are winning. Israel is, in fact, only digging itself into an ever deeper hole from which it will be unable to climb unscathed.

This is what both Sanders and the French initiative want to avoid, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be wished away. Direct involvement of the US and the EU continues to be essential to changing the dynamic of the conflict, provided that careful lessons are drawn from past failures.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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