Bernie Sanders’s recent interview with the New York Daily News editorial board revealed gaps in his knowledge of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that suggest, at a minimum, he isn't paying attention. Instead he is relying on old Socialist memories of the Israel he visited decades ago.
Sanders famously lived on a kibbutz for three months in the mid 1960s, and he appears to believe this gives him special expertise. He told the Daily News, "I lived in Israel," but think about that: that's fifty years ago. Would living in Mao's China back then make you much of an expert on today's China? Israel in those days had about 2.5 million people, not the 8.5 million of today; the gigantic Russian immigration had not yet occurred; Labor Party rule was unchallenged; the economy depended on agriculture and textiles; Gaza was ruled by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan. Sanders's familiarity is with an Israel that is long gone, and he is not a frequent visitor who has updated his memories.
Sanders appears to have internalized several leftist myths about Israel, above all the myth that it used indiscriminate force in the 2014 Gaza war. Consider these exchanges with the newspaper:
Daily News: Okay. Now, you have obviously condemned Hamas for indiscriminate rocket attacks and the construction of the military tunnels. But you've also criticized Israel for what you described as a disproportionate response. Sanders: Yep. Daily News: And I'm going to look at 2014, which was the latest conflict. What should Israel have done instead? Sanders: You're asking me now to make not only decisions for the Israeli government but for the Israeli military, and I don't quite think I'm qualified to make decisions. But I think it is fair to say that the level of attacks against civilian areas...and I do know that the Palestinians, some of them, were using civilian areas to launch missiles. Makes it very difficult. But I think most international observers would say that the attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate and that a lot of innocent people were killed who should not have been killed…. 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.
That criticism of Israel was common on the left, but it is false. The then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said after the war that Israel had gone to "extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and prevent civilian casualties in the Gaza conflict."
A more recent assessment by the High Level Military Group, consisting of U.S. and allied military officers, reached these conclusions: "We can further be categorically clear that Israel's conduct in the 2014 Gaza Conflict met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations' militaries. It is our view that Israel fought an exemplary campaign, adequately conceived with appropriately limited objectives, displaying both a very high level of operational capability as well as a total commitment to the Law of Armed Conflict. The IDF not only met its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict, but often exceeded these on the battlefield at significant tactical cost, as well as in the humanitarian relief efforts that accompanied its operation."
As to the numbers, Sanders's 10,000 is 400 percent high: the number of deaths was 2,125, according to Israel, and 2,251, according to the U.N. It is also worth noting that the dead were disproportionately fighting-age young men, suggesting that the notion of "indiscriminate" killing is simply false. That's what makes it so striking that Sanders still believes it.
When it came to the settlement issue, Sanders said, "I happen to think that those expansions were illegal." This is a reference to all settlements, and Sanders added that "I think if the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate."
Even the Obama administration has not used the term "illegal" with respect to settlements, favoring the vaguer "illegitimate," so Sanders's stance is pretty harsh. Its implications are unclear. All negotiations since Camp David in 2000 have acknowledged that Israel will keep some of the settlements, swapping land to the Palestinians. Is Sanders's really suggesting that he opposes swaps, and that every single settler must leave? Is he unfamiliar with the negotiating record of the last two decades?
Does any of this matter? Consider this exchange:
Daily News: Okay, so if we were to find Israeli settlements, so-called settlements, in places that has been designated to be illegal, you would expect Israel to be pulling them back? Sanders: Israel will make their own decisions. They are a government, an independent nation. But to the degree that they want us to have a positive relationship, I think they're going to have to improve their relationship with the Palestinians.
The final phrase suggests that U.S.-Israel relations depends on whether the Israelis "improve their relationship with the Palestinians," rather than on—for example—Israeli-Egyptian or Israeli-Jordanian cooperation, U.S.-Israel cooperation against international terrorism, U.S.-Israel economic ties, or the shared values of two democracies.
Sanders does not appear to view the Palestinians as independent actors. He does say there will be demands on them: "the absolute condemnation of all terrorist attacks. 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." Of course, Sanders is mixing up here what Hamas did in Gaza with the broader issue of what the Palestinian Authority must do. And note that while they must condemn terror; absent is any call for them to fight terror with more than words.
Sanders added this: "from the United States' point of view, I think, long-term, we cannot ignore the reality that you have large numbers of Palestinians who are suffering now, poverty rate off the charts, unemployment off the charts, Gaza remaining a destroyed area." This is odd. For one thing, the United States is the largest donor to the Palestinians, so we are hardly "ignoring the reality." For another, why does Sanders blame Israel? West Bank and Egyptian GNI per capita are very similar, at near $3,000. And as to Gaza, Sanders does not seem to think of blaming Hamas for its economic problems.
What do we make of all this? For someone who claims familiarity with Israel, Sanders does not appear to know much. He told the Daily News, "I lived in Israel. I have family in Israel. I believe 100 percent not only in Israel's right to exist, a right to exist in peace and security without having to face terrorist attacks." And as the interview shows, he does not express hostility and understands some of the problems Israel faces. But he's a United States senator, and a Jew, so having no idea of what happened during the last war—in 2014—is surprising and reflects above all uninterest.
And the gaps in his knowledge are filled, unsurprisingly, by standard lefty claptrap—10,000 killed, indiscriminate bombing, illegal settlements. No doubt he longs for the days when Israel was young, and he lived for a summer on a left-wing kibbutz, practicing real socialism. This was in 1963, before the wars of 1967 and 1973, before the intifadas, before the rise of terrorism in the world after 1979—and before Israel's efforts to negotiate a peace agreement were rejected by Yasser Arafat in 2000 after Camp David and by Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 after Annapolis. From his sojourn in Socialist Israel, Sanders' attitudes remind us of what Talleyrand said of the Bourbons: he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Sympathy, inattention, and leftist leanings have left him with a combination of good will, outdated memories, and plain misinformation.