Alan Dershowitz: Bernie Sanders Must Clarify Where He Stands on Israel
Bernie Sanders’ ignorance and bias with regards to Israel have been on full view lately. In an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, Sanders grossly misstated the number of Palestinian civilians killed during Israel’s intervention in the Gaza strip in August and September 2014, generally referred to as Operation Protective Edge.
Here’s what he said:
Sanders: “Help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?”
Daily News: “I think it’s probably high, but we can look at that.”
Sanders: “I don’t have it in my number… but I think it’s over 10,000. My understanding is that a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled. Hospitals, I think, were bombed. So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”
Mr. Sanders’ campaign has since attempted to clarify his remarks by claiming that the media distorted Mr. Sanders’ comments, and that he was in fact referring to the total number of casualties sustained by the Palestinians over the course of the conflict. Regardless of whether Mr. Sanders was referring to total casualties or to the death toll, he should apologize for propagating this blatant mistruth. His comments seemed to confirm the wild delusions of anti-Israel zealots, who often seek to delegitimize the nation state of the Jewish people by accusing its military of deliberately murdering large numbers of innocent Palestinians.
While the media has focused on Bernie Sanders’ egregious overstatement of the specific number of innocent Palestinians killed in Operation Protective Edge, the more revealing aspect of what he told the Daily News is his generalization that Israel indiscriminately leveled hospitals and apartment buildings. Although he did not explicitly say that the Israeli Defense Forces deliberately targeted civilians and civilian structures, his canard can certainly be understood that way by those Israel haters who are actively supporting his campaign. The word “indiscriminate,” especially applied to Israeli military actions, has acted as a code word among Israel bashers for war crimes and even genocide. The reality is that the Israeli military’s efforts to stop Hamas from indiscriminately killing Israeli citizens with rockets and through terror tunnels has been the opposite of indiscriminate, as Colonel Richard Kemp and other military experts have attested. No other country in history has gone to such lengths in trying to distinguish between military and civilian targets, even in the face of an enemy that regularly uses its own population as human shields, and that hides military equipment in schools and hospitals. Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens compare favorably to the U.S. and NATO led military bombing campaigns in Iraq, Syria, and other areas, in which civilians have also been used as human shields.
At best, Mr. Sanders’ comments on Operation Protective Edge reflect a disappointing lack of interest in the specifics of what happened during the course of the seven-week war. As has been noted by several commentators, Senator Sanders is a long-term elected official who deals with some frequency with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and who should be expected to avoid gross misstatements on the topic. Mr. Sanders has done nothing to assuage these concerns: in two recent interviews, Mr. Sanders mistakenly put the number of civilians killed at “over 2,000” and again described the Israeli response as “disproportionate.”
In one of those same interviews, it emerged that apparently, Mr. Sanders had never heard of Michael Oren, the well-known Israeli ambassador to the United States during President Obama’s first term. Mr. Sanders would be well advised to seek out the assistance of experts such as Mr. Oren, instead of the group of radical left-wing ideologues who currently advise him on Middle East policy. Among them, Mr. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute once described the motivations behind Israel’s interventions in Gaza as “putting the natives back in their place.” Professor Cornell West, who is a strong advocate of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement directed against Israel, has acted as a Sanders surrogate on the campaign trail, and Mr. Sanders’ national Jewish outreach coordinator, Simone Zimmerman, is a long-standing Israel critic. Other aspects of Mr. Sanders’ approach to Israel also seem influenced by far left organizations. I was disappointed by Mr. Sanders’ decision not to attend AIPAC this year, following pressure by far left groups like Move On. I also thought his refusal to listen in person to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress in March of last year was a serious mistake.
That said, and in spite of some of the suggestions by the right wing punditry, I do not believe that Mr. Sanders himself is anti-Israel. He may yearn for the Israel of the 1960s and 1970s, dominated by Labour governments, and defined by the Kibbutz. He is also clearly opposed to new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and to the politics of Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, I have no doubt that Mr. Sanders is sincere when he says that he is a friend of Israel. At various points during his career, he has condemned Hamas, rejected BDS, refused to endorse Palestinian attempts to prosecute Israel in front of the International Criminal Court, backed legislation calling on the United Nations to rescind the hopelessly biased Goldstone report, and stated that Israel’s security concerns are paramount to restarting negotiations between the parties.
But in an obvious effort to avoid alienating those among his supporters who are rabidly anti-Israel, he has remained studiously ambiguous during the campaign about these and other contentious issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The time has come for Bernie Sanders to be unambiguous on where he stands, so that voters can accurately assess his Middle East policies.
Alan Dershowitz is the author of Abraham: The World’s First (but Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer.