Bernie Sanders criticizes Netanyahu as Democratic presidential debate turns to Israel


(JTA) — When Tuesday night’s Democratic debate turned to Israel, Sen. Bernie Sanders stood out by criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I am very proud of being Jewish,” Sanders said. “I actually lived in Israel for some months. But what I happen to believe, right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel through Bibi Netanyahu you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country.”

The Democratic front-runner was responding to CBS correspondent Major Garrett, who noted that Sanders would be the first Jewish president and then asked the senator what he would say to American Jews who think he is not supportive enough of Israel. Garrett also asked: “Specifically, sir, would you move the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv?”

Sanders’ condemnation of Netanyahu came just two days after the presidential candidate tweeted that he would not be attending this year’s AIPAC conference over his concerns that the Israel lobby provides a “platform” for “leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”

Sanders stressed that he believed that “what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel.” But, he added, “you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.” 

On the question of moving the embassy back to Tel Aviv, Sanders said it was “something that we would take into consideration.” (He has previously said a move would not be “a first step” but would be an option “if Israel continues to take steps … that undermine the chances for a peace agreement.”)

Garrett then turned to former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the other Jewish candidate on the stage. Bloomberg started out by saying it was a mistake to move the embassy without “getting something back from the Israel government.” But, he added, “it was done, so you’re going to have to leave it there.”

Bloomberg also stressed the need for a two-state solution.

“The real problem here is you have two groups of people, both of whom think God gave them the same piece of land,” Bloomberg said. “And the answer is to obviously split it up.” 

Bloomberg also said the United States should “push” Israel to “pull back” some “new communities,” an apparent reference to Jewish settlements. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren also called for a two-state solution — and said President Donald Trump had made it more difficult to achieve one.

“Donald Trump’s big mistake is he keeps putting a thumb on the scale on just one side and that moves the parties further away from working out their own solution here,” Warren said.

On the question of moving back the embassy, Warren said that “we should let the parties determine the capitals themselves.”

The Israel segment of the debate, which came near its conclusion, was one of the only moments where candidates took a break from attacking each other. The debate was the last before Saturday’s South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states will hold nominating contests.

It was also the last debate before Israelis go to the polls March 2 to decide whether Netanyahu should remain prime minister — a post he has held since 2009 as well as for several years in the late 1990s.

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