Letter to Bernie, II

by Joel Beinin | published February 15, 2016 - 12:13pm

Dear Sen. Sanders,

I’m a contributor to your campaign and enthusiastically support your bold, relentless critique of the billionaire class that is undermining democracy and making a decent life impossible for millions of people. I’d like you to speak more about how big money has been a destructive force in shaping our foreign policy as much, if not more, than our domestic policies. Perhaps no issue exemplifies this problem like Israel-Palestine.

Consider the shameful spectacle of the Republican presidential candidates traipsing to Las Vegas to compete in the “Sheldon Adelson primary.” Adelson, whose $25 billion fortune makes him the thirteenth richest person in the country according to Forbes, is one of the most prominent members of the “billionaire class” you have been righteously attacking. But Adelson’s interests are not primarily in domestic politics. As one confidant quipped, “Sheldon is all about Israel….”

The free Hebrew- and English-language daily established and funded by Adelson, Israel Today, is such an ostentatious promoter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally and the settlement enterprise in the West Bank more broadly that Israelis popularly refer to it as the “Bibi paper” (Bibiton). So the Republican hopefuls seeking campaign contributions had to swear fealty to Adelson’s super-hawkish views, even though pursuing his desired policies would guarantee that the Palestine-Israel conflict would remain unresolved.

It’s not only the Republicans whose policy on Israel-Palestine is unduly shaped by campaign contributions. Haim Saban, whose net worth of merely $3.5 billion makes him only the 171st richest American according to Forbes is one of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s largest campaign contributors. Over the years, Saban has contributed an estimated $30 million to the campaigns of both your primary opponent and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Saban has promised to “spend whatever it takes” to make Hillary Clinton president.

Like Adelson, Saban admits that his main political commitment is to Israel: “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” You strongly supported the Iran nuclear agreement. Saban urged Prime Minister Netanyahu, if he found the deal unacceptable, to “bomb the living daylights out of these sons of bitches.” Do we want our future president to be taking advice on Middle East policy from the likes of Haim Saban?

Saban has also advocated constraining the civil liberties of Americans and refugees seeking asylum in our country. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Saban opined that things that “are unacceptable in times of peace—such as profiling, listening in on anyone and everybody who looks suspicious, or interviewing Muslims in a more intense way than interviewing Christian refugees—is all acceptable.”

Unlike Adelson, Saban nominally supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But his notion of a two-state solution, which he shares with many Democratic and Republican party leaders, is hedged with concessions to Israeli settlers, an overly expansive notion of Israel’s security needs and insistence that Jerusalem is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people.” Moreover, Saban supports Adelson’s view that the Palestinians are an “invented people.” At the summit they convened to battle the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), Saban announced, “When it comes to Israel, we are absolutely on the same page.” The Adelson-Saban partnership has since run on the rocks.

In her July 2, 2015 letter to Saban affirming her opposition to the BDS campaign and seeking his advice on how to combat it, Hillary Clinton wrote that, while she supports a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “that outcome…cannot be imposed from outside or by uniltateral actions.” As Peter Beinart wrote, “This is nonsense. An outcome is being imposed, every day, by Israel’s unilateral expropriation of land in the West Bank, much of it owned by individual Palestinians, which Israel then doles out to Jewish settlers, thus making a viable Palestinian state harder and harder to achieve.”

My own view is that when there is such a broad consensus across the political elite to align with Israel and defend it in international forums against all criticism despite the obvious disastrous results of that alliance for the Palestinian people, for the peace of the region and for the majority of the people of Israel itself, much more is at play than campaign contributions from people like Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban and a host of other mere millionaires. That alliance is a central component of the policy of perpetual war in the Middle East. In its post-September 11, 2001 phase, that policy was the brainchild of the administration of President George W. Bush.

You have rightly opposed much of that policy. I ask you to broaden your opposition. The United States should join the international community in demanding that Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and effectively, the Gaza Strip, forthwith. If it continues to refuse to do so, Israel should be made to pay a price. Our government should speak out forthrightly against Israel’s repeated egregious violations of Palestinian human rights, including its three major assaults on the Gaza Strip since 2008. We should unequivocally condemn the Israeli government’s intensifying attacks on democratic values and its structural discrimination against the Palestinian Arab population of Israel, who comprise 20 percent of the state’s citizens.

“Realists” among your advisers will undoubtedly tell you that embracing these positions is one of those proverbial third rails of politics. They are wrong. You haven’t gotten as far as you have by being “realistic.” You’ve done it by inspiring and mobilizing people around the belief that things can be different in this country. Things can be different in the Middle East as well.

An increasing number of Americans, especially youth, people of color and even younger Jews, no longer support Israel uncritically and are repelled by its denial of Palestinian rights. Many of them are among your supporters. We will thank you for speaking out on these issues and redouble our efforts on your behalf. 

Thomas Friedman’s announcement of the death of the two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, even though other journalists who know the issues better than he does would say that he is late to the game, heralds the possibility of new terms of discussion on Israel-Palestine among the chattering classes. I urge you to be a leader in this discussion. Speak out for equality and justice in Israel-Palestine as you have on domestic issues.

Sincerely,

Joel Beinin
Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History
Professor of Middle East History
Stanford University

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