During last week’s Democratic debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took similar positions on a multitude of issues. But when it came to the Middle East, there were two major talking points where the candidates diverged: Palestine and Syria.
On Palestine, Sanders’ and Clinton’s policies are actually not that different. Both agree on a two-state solution, reject illegal settlements, and oppose moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
But Clinton and Sanders rhetorically clashed on the Palestinian issue during the last debate. Whereas Clinton doubled down on past statements concerning Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s right to defend itself and live in peace, Sanders spoke about a need to respect the Palestinians. He also did what Clinton would not, characterizing the 2014 offensive on Gaza as “disproportionate.”
“I can never remember a candidate, not only saying these things, but when criticized saying them with a greater vigor,” Jim Zogby, the President of the Arab American Instititute and a Sanders endorser, told ThinkProgress in a phone call.
As for Clinton, Zogby said her statements defending the Israeli reaction was “not her finest moment.”
“It is not the position to take on the issue, even politically,” Zogby, who is also a noted pollster, said. “It’s not even where most Americans are [on this issue.]”
Zogby noted that Clinton was among the first American political figures to call for a Palestinian state while she was First Lady — but her stance during last week’s debate was quite different. “I’m tired of trying to figure out who she is on the Middle East,” he said.
“While [Sanders’] rhetoric is different and is a significant break from the past, the policies have so far fit with the mainstream views of the Democratic Party,” Al-Hayat Correspondent Joyce Karam told ThinkProgress in an email.
The same cannot be said, however, of the candidates’ policies on Syria. During the debate, Clinton spoke of her recommendation to the Obama administration to set up a safe zone in Syria. Sanders countered by recalling the ghosts of Iraq and Libya, where he said regime change has not improved conditions on the ground.
“The Arab world does not want American military involvement,” Zogby said, adding that polls he had conducted across the Middle East show that Arabs want more diplomacy, peace, and assistance with refugees from the United States rather than military intervention.
“All this stuff about a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors — this is not a video game,” he said. “The Pentagon says it requires at least 75,000 ground troops and in two to three weeks the U.S. will be in a full scale war.”
Karam agreed that recent Russian involvement in the Syrian war complicates calls for humanitarian corridors or no fly zones, but said that Sanders is doing a disservice to the Syrian people by focusing solely on the notion of regime change instead of other actions the United States could take.
“That shows lack of understanding of the conflict in Syria, and little consideration to its humanitarian toll, while it remains the heaviest in Arabs’ recent history,” Karam said. “Explaining proposals whether humanitarian corridors or safe zones as means for regime change while supporting bombing ISIS, ignores the humanitarian costs of the conflict. Senator Sanders did not offer in the last debate any strategies beyond bombing ISIS and calling Assad a dictator, to address the war. The roots of the conflict that exacerbate these problems are ignored.”
During the debate, Sanders said he would continue Obama’s policy of focusing the fight in Syria on ISIS, even though the majority of deaths have been at the hands of the Assad regime.
“You have today 470000 dead in Syria and children drowning trying to get to European shores,” Karam said. “Boiling it down to a regime change debate does not do them justice. Ironically some Syrians have escaped to Gaza to find refuge. How can we address the suffering in one and ignore the other?”