By Eugen Schoenfeld
Unable, perhaps unwilling, to appear personally before AIPAC like the other presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders issued a brief explanation about his relationship with Israel and his views on Israeli-Palestinian problems. His essay raised doubts about his claim to have a personal commitment to that land because of his knowledge about Israel.
Sanders spent a few months in his youth on a kibbutz, but some time on a kibbutz doesn’t make anyone an expert on a hostility that has almost a two millennia history.
Moreover, while he proposes to speak of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, most of his essay deals with Middle East issues in general. No doubt both issues are important, but if someone is directing his comments to AIPAC members, I would assume he would focus on issues directly concerning Israel rather than the Middle East in general.
Right at the onset in his paper, Sanders sought to appear as an evenhanded judge with regard to Arab-Israeli issues. As I was reading his statement, it reminded me of an old tale about a Hasidic rebbe (a term used to denote a charismatic Hasidic rabbi) who was thought of as a great jurist.
His fame as a great judge spread over the land. As usual in a Hasidic tale, there always is one person, a mitnaged, who opposes Hasidism, its spirit and the learnedness of the rebbe.
This story has a mitnaged who doubts the greatness of the rebbe and decides to see the rabbi in action. He wishes to see whether the rebbe as a judge merits the laudatory comments for his jurisprudence. He writes the rebbe, invites himself to his house and receives permission to be present when the rebbe sits in judgment of a case.
After spending Shabbat in the rebbe’s home, on Sunday morning he visits the beit din (the Jewish court) to see the rebbe in action.
Two litigants appear in court. The rebbe turns to one and tells him to present his case. The man does as instructed. Immediately after his presentation, the rebbe turns to the first litigant and proclaims, “You are right.”
The other litigant becomes upset. “Rebbe,” he says, “you haven’t heard my side yet, and you already made a judgment? Is that fair?”
The rebbe agrees to the second litigant’s objection and requests that he present his case. Patiently, the rebbe listens to this litigant’s statement, then turns to him and proclaims, “You are right too.”
Now the guest observing all this tells the rebbe: “This is very interesting. How can you proclaim both litigants to be right? This is unheard of.”
To which the rebbe responds: “You know something — you too are right.”
This is essentially Sanders’ point of view on the Arab-Israeli conflict of the past 68 years. In his desire to be evenhanded, he accomplishes nothing. He wishes both sides to be right, but that is not the case.
The main problem, as I see it, is that Sanders does not differentiate between what he hopes Palestinian leaders should be and what they are. Instead of looking at reality, he imposes his own hopes in his desire to seek a solution. Thus, Sanders declares that both sides are wonderful and well-intended people.
I am unsure how Sanders comes to this conclusion. Do well-intended people maintain a philosophy that continues to threaten another people’s existence? Hitler did it, and in no way can anyone call him a well-intended person. Sanders sees the Palestinian leaders as reasonable people with whom Israel can negotiate; really?
In the past 67-plus years Israel has successfully negotiated treaties with two countries with which it has maintained a working peace. Israel has shown its willingness to give up land for peace. Negotiation requires the ability to be able to change views, to alter and bargain.
Negotiations that are based not on give and take but on a dictatorial perspective will never lead to solutions. So far Palestinian leaders are dictatorial in their view: They believe in the adage “my way or the highway.” To begin with, they reject the idea of Israel’s legitimacy or the right of Jews to live in peace in their own state, which is a sine qua non to peace.
Sanders proposes that Israel give up new settlements; well, OK. Israel did so in Gaza, and with what result? Negotiations are by their nature a give and take.
What did Israel get in return for pulling out of Gaza? As I remember, Israel’s population got more rockets. Sanders proposes that Israel stop its economic blockade of Gaza. But free access to goods merely increased Gaza’s facility for acquiring weapons. Isn’t Sanders aware of the tunnels and of their purpose?
Of course, water is the most precious commodity in Israel. There is enough water if Lebanon would agree to give access to its unused rivers. But even pre-Syrian Lebanon believed in the philosophy of hatred and deprived Israel of water that could have benefited Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories; I am referring to the waters of the Litani River.
Let me clearly state: I am not a believer in Benjamin Netanyahu’s political philosophy. My commitment to Israel, like my father’s before me, was rooted in Herzl and the early Zionist leaders, who were adamant believers of the Palestinians’ rights as citizens.
But, Mr. Sanders, only reasonable people can reason together. So far, unlike you, I do not see a reasonable Palestinian leadership who will reject rigidity in favor of collective human existence.
I do not deny that there are unreasonable persons on the Jewish side, but the history of the last 67 years has shown that Israel is willing and able to negotiate a lasting peace if given an opportunity.
It is time, Mr. Sanders, to face reality and not be influenced by a sophomoric idealism. Until the time that Palestinians become reasonable, Israel must have unquestioned help in a world that seeks to devour it.