Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) came on Face the Nation Sunday. In the course of the interview, Sanders lashed out at the new, extremist government in Israel, which includes a minister once convicted of incitement to racial violence and more than one figure belonging to Kahanist organizations of a sort that were at some points on the U.S. terrorism list.
Sanders, who is Jewish, has several beefs with the current government in Israel, not least that he is “embarrassed” by it. Israel should not reflect on Jewish Americans, who are only responsible for their own individual actions and speech. The world is unfair that way, though, and for some people the fascist takeover in Israel will raise questions about what sort of person would not only support it but also try to silence anyone who speaks out against it. Sanders clearly feels that it is an albatross about his neck.
For Sanders, a true Mensch, however, it isn’t only about Israel. He says he is worried about “what may happen to the Palestinian people.” The hate-filled Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir of the extremist Religious Zionism bloc have been put in charge of the three million occupied Palestinians in the West Bank, and are now in charge of the blockade against the 2 million besieged Palestinians of the occupied Gaza Strip. It is as though the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan were put in charge of millions of African-Americans.
Sanders, moreover, doesn’t just want to complain about this alarming state of affairs, which the CIA believes could result in a new round of violence. He said,
- “I mean, I haven’t said this publicly. But I think the United States gives billions of dollars in aid to Israel. And I think we’ve got to put some strings attached to that and say you cannot run a racist government. You cannot turn your back on a two-state solution. You cannot demean the Palestinian people there. You just can’t do it and then come to America and ask for money.”
In Congress, Israel is the most sacred of sacred cows. Its lobbyists (who ought to have to register as foreign agents but who seldom do) don’t win every fight and they aren’t almighty or “in control.” But they are very, very powerful, as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee boasts at its web site. So the Israeli government routinely violates international and U.S. law with impunity.
So for Sanders to suggest holding the some $4 billion in direct aid the US gives Israel every year over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s head to make him back off his racist rhetoric and alliances, and to make him stop doing everything he can to forestall the rise of a Palestinian state, is bold indeed. So far, it is not entirely clear that Sanders and other critics of Netanyahu could get the votes in Congress that would be necessary to rein the prime minister in.
Margaret Brennan, the anchor, asked Sanders if he had discussed this issue with the Biden administration. He said he had not. Brennan observed that Biden and his team have been “very careful in criticism of the Netanyahu government.”
Sanders shot back, insisting, “Well, I am not careful about it. I’m embarrassed that – that in Israel, you have a government of that nature right now.”
He said he “may well” introduce a bill to put strings on US aid to Israel. He went on to say that neither Saudi Arabia nor any other country acting in a racist way should expect billions in US aid, paid for by the American taxpayer.
Actually, I don’t think the US gives Saudi Arabia any money, though Washington does sell Riyadh high-tech weaponry.
Sanders added that “if a government is acting in a racist way” and wants billions of dollars from American taxpayers, “I think you say, “Sorry, but it’s not acceptable. You want our money? Fine. This is what you got to do to get it.'”
At Brennan’s prompting, Sanders also reprised his bitter complaints against the preeminent lobby for Israel, AIPAC, which has supported Republican election-deniers but also intervened in Democratic Party primaries to defeat a whole raft of promising young progressives.
Sanders lambasted AIPAC as having become a “corporate PAC” more than it is a pro-Israel group:
- “The way I look at AIPAC now, in terms of their political activities – this is not even just a pro-Israel group. This is a corporate PAC, sometimes getting money from Republicans, sometimes supporting extreme right-wing Republicans. So what really upset me very much is that in many of these primaries, we had great candidates, young people, often people of color, and yet AIPAC and other super PACs spending millions of dollars trying to defeat them. And as you may know, I tried to get the Democratic Party to pass a resolution that in Democratic primaries, super PAC money should not be allowed to be used.”
When Brennan pressed him again about the Biden administration’s apparent reluctance to come out against the extremist Israeli government and implied that they are afraid of the Israel lobbies, Bernie replied that “any president” is constrained by our corrupt political system, in which “Big Money plays an enormous role.”
Interestingly, Sanders avoids antisemitic tropes about the power of “Jewish” lobbies by pointing out that AIPAC and other Israel lobbies are not manifestations of Jewish politics but of plutocracy and the corporate sector’s dark money donations. That is, what is wrong with AIPAC is what is wrong with American politics in general.
Sanders is perhaps the first mainstream US politician to speak the truth about the current Netanyahu government and to seek a means of calling it to account for its extremist racism. His interview was potentially a major turning point in US-Israeli relations.
It remains to be seen if he can really hold up billions in aid to Israel, and if he were able to do so, whether that would push Netanyahu to moderate his policies.