AJC CEO, David Harris Responds to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders

Responding to Senator Bernie Sanders

The Times of Israel
By David Harris
May 16, 2021


In the The New York Times (May 14), U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders wrote an essay entitled “The U.S. Must Support an Evenhanded Approach in the Middle East” (and, unusually, 24 hours later, retitled “The U.S. Must Stop Being an Apologist for the Netanyahu Government”).

Whatever the title, the thrust of the senator’s comments remains exactly the same. Given the timing, this presumably means an appeal to the United States to move to the 50-yard line in the latest round of Hamas-triggered conflict with Israel. Forgive me, an evenhanded approach?

To become evenhanded between the aggressor and the victim?

Between the arsonist and the firefighter?

Between the tyranny and the democracy?

Between Iran’s proxy and the country Iran seeks to annihilate?

Between the group initially designated as a terrorist organization by the Clinton Administration and the staunch American ally?

Between the group that calls for “Death to America” and the country that built a memorial to the 9/11 victims?

Between one of the most regressive groups on earth and one of the world’s most progressive countries?

Between the group that denies rights to women, LGBTQ, and minorities and the country that protects those rights?

Between the group that openly seeks Israel’s annihilation and the country that won’t let it happen?

Between the group that uses civilians as human shields and the country that seeks to shield civilians?

Between the group that squanders precious funds to build cross-border tunnels and deadly missiles and the country that allocates precious funds to build tunnel-defense and missile-defense systems?

No, this shouldn’t be about “evenhandedness.” When it comes to American values and interests, it’s abundantly clear where they lie.

Whether the senator knows it or not, American evenhandedness has long been a goal of Israel’s relentless foes.

Their view is straightforward: Drive a wedge between Washington and Jerusalem. Undermine Israel’s key pillar of international support. End the special U.S.-Israel relationship.

That will significantly weaken Israel, the thinking goes, since there’s no other obvious candidate on the global stage — nor in the all-important UN Security Council — to fill any American-created vacuum.

Of course, such a move would have calamitous implications.

It would be an affront to who we are as a nation and what our core interests are. As I suggested, the fundamental dichotomy, for instance, between Hamas and Israel couldn’t be starker from an American perspective.

It turns a blind eye to history and reality. Gaza had a chance, the first in its history, to rule itself in 2005. Israel, which has a profound stake in Gaza’s moderate path, cannot be held responsible for the violent takeover by Hamas in 2007 and the tragic course it’s charted in the ensuing 14 years.

And it would set back the larger quest for peace.

Roughly the size of Sanders’ Vermont, but without gentle neighbors, Israel has achieved peace accords in the region because it felt it had the full backing of the U.S. It could, therefore, afford to take unprecedented territorial risks, as in the 1979 treaty with Egypt, as well as enjoy other tangible outcomes, such as the four normalization deals last year, in which, again, Washington was key.

Let’s be clear: The primary beneficiaries of “evenhandedness” would be Iran and other extremist forces in the region, which ought to be the last thing Washington wants.

At the end of the day, though, the name of the game is the unquenchable search for peace — real, enduring peace.

Here, disappointingly, the senator has no serious answers for how to get us there, other than a lot of red-meat, woke-heavy, one-sided, and incendiary invocations for his base.

Israel’s early leaders, who were inspired by a vision of enlightened socialism, came to an inescapable conclusion in the months leading up to the nation’s rebirth in 1948.

Just three years after the trauma of the Holocaust, peace, alas, was not going to be quick and easy, in spite of Israel’s outstretched hand on day one.

If peace were ever to come, Israel would first have to survive the military campaign to eliminate it — five Arab armies attacked on May, 15, 1948, Israel’s first full day of independence —and then prove again and again that it was there to stay.

Only when its neighbors came to the realization that it was permanent — and, I might add, that Jews were indeed indigenous, not interlopers, in the Middle East — could the seeds of possible peace be planted.

And that’s meant, alas, the projection of power when needed, and exercised as responsibly as humanly possible, something the senator seems to lament.

In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be needed. Indeed, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah was among the first to articulate a vision of that ideal world — “And nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.”

That vision is not just a convenient talking point. It’s in the Jewish genetic code, as is the Jewish prayer for peace, sung at every service, “Oseh shalom bimromav…

Similarly, the revolutionary notion of “B’tselem Elohim” — all human beings are created in the image of God — is equally part of that genetic code. It means we mourn, not celebrate, the loss of innocent lives, whether in Gaza or elsewhere.

But the Middle East, regrettably, is not Sanders’ New England. The weak don’t survive. The naive don’t prosper. The powerless don’t make peace. The songs, prayers, and campfires too often fall on deaf ears.

I have been to Israel perhaps 100 times. I have never, not once, met an Israeli soldier or veteran who spoke gleefully about war, or victories, or casualties inflicted on the other side. Nor have I personally ever met an Israeli who didn’t yearn, and I mean yearn, for peace.

Unlike Egypt, Hamas has not made a fundamental shift in its thinking from warmonger to peacemaker. Rather, it’s a ruthless, theocratic regime that seeks to expand its power and has as its goal the removal of Israel and its replacement by a caliphate.

So what’s the basis for any dialogue? The terms of Israel’s disappearance?

To be sure, one makes peace with one’s enemies, not friends. But either one side surrenders and raises the white flag, or a radical shift in thinking takes place, as was the case with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Neither has occurred to date.

So, Israel has little choice but to live uneasily with Hamas on its border, seek as best it can to deter it from missile barrages and terrorist attacks, make clear its battle is not with the people of Gaza but their leaders, and hope that one day the current regime will be replaced by something more forward-looking. If so, the region might actually then move a step closer to peace.

David Harris is CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC). Please join 91,200 others and follow him on Twitter @DavidHarrisAJC.

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