The fallout from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ interview with the New York Daily News has reached Israel. The Democratic presidential candidate has been pilloried in many quarters for his waffling answers during the sit-down with the tabloid’s editors. But an Israeli politician took the condemnation to a new level.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, angrily reacted to comments Sanders made about the 2014 Israeli war in the Gaza Strip. In his conversation with the Daily News, the senator from Vermont had admitted that he wasn’t sure about the figures but suggested that “over 10,000 innocent people” perished in the conflict.
Sanders, the only Jewish presidential candidate in the race, was trying to make a larger point about the many costs of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“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,” he said.
This incensed Oren. In August 2014, the United Nations put the Palestinian death toll in the conflict at 2,104, including 1,462 civilians. That is a figure that the Israelis still dispute, arguing that there were fewer civilian casualties and that more “terrorists” were killed.
“First of all, he should get his facts right. Secondly, he owes Israel an apology,” Oren told the Times of Israel in an interview. He then dropped an incendiary charge against Sanders.
“He accused us of a blood libel. He accused us of bombing hospitals. He accused us of killing 10,000 Palestinian civilians. Don’t you think that merits an apology?” Oren said.
The phrase “blood libel” is particularly loaded, with deep historic roots in the Jewish experience. It has its origins in the medieval era or perhaps even earlier, dating to a time when violence against Jewish communities was sometimes rationalized with myriad false rumors of Jews stealing Christian babies, eating a gentile’s entrails and participating in various grisly, sordid blood rituals.
Among the field of U.S. presidential candidates, Sanders has stood out for his dovish positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was the only one not to speak at a conference organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a prominent pro-Israel lobby group.
And, more than any other candidate, he has been adamant about the need to halt Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank to give life to the moribund two-state solution, something he also discussed with the New York Daily News.
In his interview with the Times of Israel, Oren focused his ire on what he thought was Sanders’ apologia for Palestinian militancy.
“He doesn’t mention the many thousands of Hamas rockets fired at us,” Oren said. “He doesn’t mention the fact that Hamas hides behind civilians…. He doesn’t mention any of that. That, to me, is libelous.”
On this front, Oren is wrong. If he had looked at the transcript, it’s clear that Sanders did address the issue of militant attacks and groups such as Hamas operating within civilian areas.
Sanders said the first thing he would demand of the Palestinians would be “the absolute condemnation of all terrorist attacks.” He went on: “The idea that in Gaza there were buildings being used to construct missiles and bombs and tunnels, that is not where foreign aid should go. Foreign aid should go to housing and schools, not the development of bombs and missiles.”
The Israeli offensive in Gaza caused widespread devastation, and the impoverished coastal territory is still struggling to recover almost two years later.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Ishaan Tharoor