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Sanders’ balanced Israel-Palestine views are very American

by Rami G. KhouriReleased: 16 Apr 2016

BEIRUT — As a symbol of the incremental changes occurring in the public debate in the United States on the Israel-Palestine conflict and how the U.S. should be involved in finding a just and permanent resolution, the Democratic Party presidential debate in New York City Thursday night was worth noting. The reason for this is that candidate Bernie Sanders explicitly and repeatedly talked about the need to treat Palestinians with the same kind of empathy and support that the United States routinely gives Israel.

That should not be a very controversial statement, given two important realities that often get pushed aside in the discussion of Israel-Palestine in the United States. The first is that significant numbers, in some cases small majorities, of Americans, American Democratic Party members, or Jewish Americans feel that the United States should be even-handed in its approach to the conflict. The second is that any mediator that seeks to push the parties towards a negotiated permanent peace settlement must be seen as even-handedly respecting both of their rights and sentiments.

These two realities have been routinely ignored in the United States for many years, as the government generally supports the vast majority of Israeli policies, even when offering broadly meaningless slaps on the wrist for Israeli criminal acts like expanding or establishing new settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. So it is meaningful when Sanders openly challenges the Israeli government and asks for evenhanded treatment of Palestinians. In his own words: “If we are ever going to bring peace to that region, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”

He also made the point that this position, “…does not make me anti-Israel,” which is very much in line with the thinking of most Americans. He is certainly in tune with the thinking of a majority of Democrats, and even a small majority of Republicans. According to a recent poll by the respect political science professor Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland, 75 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans believe the United States should be even-handed, and not lean to either side, in mediating the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Another recent poll in 2015 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 61 percent of Democrats across the United States favored the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (though only 42 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans took this position). Overall, the same study found, a plurality of all Americans (42 percent) supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, while 38 percent does not — another sign of relative even-handedness in responding to the rights of both sides.

Such findings have been relatively consistent for many decades, because Americans as a rule want their country to be even-handed in foreign disputes and conflicts, and feel that all people should enjoy the same rights. The policies of the U.S. government often have been out of synch with this more reasonable position. So Sanders’ forceful call for even-handed treatment of the Palestinians, and criticism of Israel’s disproportionate attacks against the Palestinians, signals something new and meaningful in the public discussion of this issue in the United States.

The contrast between Sanders and Hillary Clinton on this issue is striking, given her record of disproportionately pro-Israel positions, which she affirmed yet again in her recent speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Sanders said during the debate that Clinton was “evading” the issue of whether Israel responded disproportionately to Palestinian attacks against Israelis, and he also said that he had, “…heard almost no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people,” in her AIPAC comments.

The irony here is that the U.S. government itself has formally accused Israel of using excessive force against Palestinians in many cases, according to the annual report by the U.S. State Department on human rights abuses around the world. The latest report for 2015 noted that Israeli forces made “excessive use of force” in the Palestinian territories, and criticized Israeli security forces, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas for “arbitrary arrest and associated torture and abuse, often with impunity.” The report noted that of 149 Palestinians killed in 2015 by Israeli security forces, only 77 were killed while they were attacking Israelis.

These are serious issues that deserve widespread and honest debate, especially in American political arenas where such an even-handed willingness even to simply consider the views of both sides has usually been impossible to achieve. Bernie Sanders deserves our thanks — and the thanks of the American people — for trying to rectify this situation. Resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict remains a top priority for anyone interested in reducing the levels of political violence, state fragmentation, refugee flows, and chaos and terrorism across the Middle East. A good starting point towards this goal is to have an open, healthy and honest debate about the policies and the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global

Released: 16 April 2016
Word Count: 825

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