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Is Clinton Moving to the Right of Trump on Israel-Palestine? A Debate on the Candidates & AIPAC

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All three remaining Republican candidates and Democrat Hillary Clinton addressed the pro-Israel AIPAC conference Monday. Clinton sought to cast herself as a stronger ally to Israel than Republican front-runner Donald Trump, repeatedly alluding to Trump’s recent declaration he would be “neutral” when negotiating a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Many saw Clinton’s address as an attempt to cast herself to Trump’s right on Israel. During his address, Trump sought to cast himself as a strong ally of Israel. Democratic candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders skipped the AIPAC conference to continue campaigning ahead of primaries today in Arizona and Utah and the Democratic caucus in Idaho, but addressed the issue on the campaign trail. For a debate on the candidates’ speeches, we speak with Yousef Munayyer, executive director of U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and Robert Freedman, visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and the former president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn right now to what took place yesterday in Washington. All three remaining Republican candidates and Democrat Hillary Clinton addressed the pro-Israel AIPAC conference on Monday. Clinton sought to cast herself as a stronger ally to Israel than Republican front-runner Donald Trump, repeatedly alluding to Trump’s recent declaration he would be, quote, “neutral” when negotiating a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Many saw Clinton’s address as an attempt to cast herself to Trump’s right on Israel.

HILLARY CLINTON: It’s also why, as president, I will make a firm commitment to ensure Israel maintains its qualitative military edge. The United States should provide Israel with the most sophisticated defense technology so it can deter and stop any threats. That includes bolstering Israeli missile defenses with new systems like the Arrow 3 and David’s Sling. And we should work together to develop better tunnel detection, technology to prevent armed smuggling, kidnapping and terrorist attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Hillary Clinton yesterday addressing AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Donald Trump faced a boycott by rabbis who said they were offended by Trump’s remarks against Mexicans, Muslims and Jews and wanted to, quote, “shine a moral light on the darkness that has enveloped Mr. Trump’s campaign,” unquote. During his address, Trump sought to cast himself as a strong ally of Israel.

DONALD TRUMP: The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is absolutely, totally unbreakable. They must come to the table willing and able to stop the terror being committed on a daily basis against Israel. … We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was the only top candidate to skip the AIPAC conference, saying he needed to continue campaigning ahead of today’s primaries in Arizona and Utah and the Democratic caucus in Idaho, but he did address the issue on the campaign trail.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I am here to tell the American people that, if elected president, I will work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend to Israel. But to be successful, we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people, where in Gaza unemployment today is 44 percent, and we have there a poverty rate which is almost as high.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bernie Sanders speaking in Salt Lake City.

For a debate on the candidates’ speeches, we continue with Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and Robert Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, the former president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

Let’s begin with you, Robert Freedman. Professor Freedman, talk about the candidates yesterday before AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: Sure. There were six issues, which cut across all the candidates: the deal with Iran; the question of moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem; the issue of Palestinian terrorism; the issue of supporting Israeli security; relations with Israel, and especially Netanyahu; and the U.N. Security Council resolution, if it takes place, on an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Now, if you look at the main candidates—and here I’m looking not only at the speeches, but also of the two-hour discussion on CNN following the speeches—I think you find the following.

On the Iran deal, Clinton, keep the deal, but mistrust and verify it; Trump, abolish it, negotiate a new deal; Kasich, suspend it because of the missile tests; Cruz, flat-out abolish it; and Sanders, keep it.

On moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Clinton said no, because of the negative effect on the Middle East; Trump, Kasich and Cruz—well, Trump said yes, Kasich said he would study it, Cruz said yes; and Sanders said no.

On Palestinian terrorism and incitement, that it’s so-called the culture of martyrdom and death taught in Palestinian schools, everybody was critical. Clinton, Trump, Kasich and Cruz denounced it. Sanders said, “But you have to look at,” as we heard on the clip, “the very negative situation in Gaza economically.”

On the question of supporting Israeli security, again, Clinton, Trump, Kasich and Cruz all supported it strongly. Sanders was a bit weaker on this.

On relations with Netanyahu and Israel, Clinton, again, Trump, Kasich and Cruz all moved to say they want to improve it. But Sanders, in his CNN talk, said, “Well, you have to look at Netanyahu, who’s a lot of the cause of the problems.”

On settlements, Clinton criticized it. Sanders strongly criticized it. Trump, Kasich and Cruz didn’t discuss it at all.

And finally, on the U.N. Security Council resolution on the Arab-Israeli conflict, assuming the French initiative comes through, Clinton said she would veto, Trump said he would veto, Kasich said he would veto, Cruz said he would veto, and Sanders didn’t discuss it but said he would work very hard for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

So, I mean, those are six or seven issues where they really differed. What I took away from this, interestingly enough, was that Kasich and Clinton were actually fairly close on a lot of the issues. And I wouldn’t say so much that Clinton was the right—to the right of Trump; I would say, rather, that Trump was to the left of Cruz, and Kasich was to the left of both of the others. Now, how this works out in reality following the election, of course—it’s one thing to make promises before the election, it’s another thing to make promises and carry them out afterwards.

And very quickly, in response to Yousef, killing civilians deliberately for political reasons is terrorism whether it takes place in Jerusalem or whether it takes place in Brussels. Claiming that this is a reaction, it’s OK for a young lady or a young man to go and kill Israeli civilians because this is, you know, protesting the occupation, is simply wrong. And this is why the main candidates all denounced it—and denounced it loudly.

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Munayyer, your response?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: I don’t think anyone is justifying the murder of anyone else. What I was responding to, though, was the mischaracterization of the type of political violence that we see in Israel and Palestine as something similar to the type of violence that we saw today in Brussels. There is clearly a context of occupation, the denial of people’s rights that are going on in Palestine, which is fomenting and allowing this system of inequality to continue, is allowing the incentives for violence to remain in place. And I don’t think that is in any way the same as the type of terrorism and the type of worldview and the type of extremism that is involved in ISIS.

And I would like to say, as well, while I appreciate the nuanced enumeration of the different positions of the candidate that our interlocutor has presented, I really don’t see that great of a difference between all of these candidates. And I think, frankly, one of the biggest problems that was on display was the ritual obeisance of the candidates for president before a pro-Israel interest group, essentially lining up one after the other to outbid each other in their support for Israel, a state which is conducting a military occupation over the lives of millions of people, denying millions more basic rights to return to their homes and villages as refugees, all while collecting billions of dollars of American military aid and then using those very weapons to commit heinous human rights violations and violations of international law through the expansion of these settlements, that were, you know, almost not mentioned there. You know, we heard maybe a brief, brief comment from Hillary Clinton about it, which was quickly wrapped up in another line about how she would make sure that the United Nations would never be allowed to act on Israeli settlements if she was—if she was to be president. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to a clip, Yousef, and get your response—


AMY GOODMAN: —to Hillary Clinton addressing AIPAC yesterday, speaking out against settlements, but said she would not support any solutions enforced by the United Nations, the one you’re referring to.

HILLARY CLINTON: Everyone has to do their part by avoiding damaging actions, including with respect to settlements. Now, America has an important role to play in supporting peace efforts. And as president, I would continue the pursuit of direct negotiations. And let me be clear: I would vigorously oppose any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution, including by the U.N. Security Council.

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Munayyer?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: These are extremely empty words. And I think it really highlights the corruption of U.S. policy on this very issue, specifically the issue of settlements. You know, in the late 1960s, in 1968, there was a National Intelligence Estimate that was put together regarding Israel, after they had began their occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza. And it said that if the Israelis continue to occupy this territory for two to three years and build settlements there, it will be impossible for them to turn back the land. That was in 1968. As recently as last week, the Israelis continued again to expropriate land deep inside the West Bank, this time outside of Jericho in an area that’s nowhere near the Green Line, and the response from the State Department was simply, “Well, you know, we find this troubling, and it leads us to question the intentions of the Israelis and whether or not they’re committed.” If all you can do over the course of five decades is respond to Israeli settlement expansion and colonialism with empty words, while continuing to fork over billions of dollars to ensure that the status quo continues, then you’re really only giving the green light to the Israelis that this is A-OK. And so, you know, for Clinton to make a comment like that, I think, is really just a reminder of the corruption of American policy on this issue, which, frankly, transcends the American political divide in the United States, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Freedman, your response?

ROBERT FREEDMAN: Well, I agree, actually, with Yousef on one issue, and that is the problem caused by the settlements. I happen to be—this program is called Democracy Now! I happen to be a member of an organization called Peace Now, which has been deploring the settlements from the beginning, and I deplore them, as well, whether it’s Ariel, which is sort of like a bone in the mouth of any future Palestinian state, which—since I’m a supporter of the two-state solution, strongly, as, by the way, is Mrs. Clinton, which she also said in her presentation, I share the problem of the settlement expansion.

Yet Yousef tends to overlook a few issues of history. Palestinians were offered a state by the U.N. in 1947, rejected it. Olmert in 1968 came up with a plan, really a very good two-state solution, including sharing Jerusalem; Palestinians rejected it—in 2008. And then, this most recent effort by the United States during a Kerry—a nine-month effort, the Palestinians and Mr. Abbas didn’t even respond to the American plan. So, one can talk about occupation and occupation, but unless and until the Palestinians are willing to come out with an agreement on a two-state solution, number one—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, let’s take each of your points at a time. Yousef Munayyer, on this point?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, and look, there’s a lot of things to respond to here, which I think are patently incorrect, starting in 1947 with the claim that the U.N. offered the Palestinians a state. The reality is that they imposed, wanted to impose an outcome that would actually deny the Palestinians sovereignty over land in which they lived, and offer them a fraction of the territory in which they constituted a majority of the population. So, you know, we can go through all the history. I think the history is very clear. If you look at the trend over time, the trend is simply this: Palestinians have been continually removed from their land from 1948 until today. That trend continues largely uninterrupted.

But let’s focus on the issue in which we ostensibly agree here, which is on this question of settlements. And Mr. Freedman has said he’s a supporter of Peace Now. You know, the problem I have with this line of advocacy is that it is never followed up with any sort of policy prescriptions which would actually change Israeli behavior as it relates to settlements. We hear lots of empty words when it comes to “the settlements are not good,” “the settlements are a problem,” “the settlements pose a challenge to a two-state solution.” And yet, the actions that follow that, both from the United States government and in terms of the advocacy of people even in groups that oppose these settlements, is almost never to call for different policies in relation to the support for Israel that enables this kind of settlement expansion to happen. If you are saying that settlements are wrong, but at the same time support unending military aid to Israel, you are saying one thing with your mouth and something very different with your actions. And over the course of 50 years—50 years—the occupation, this June, is entering its 50th year—we have seen a huge growth in the number of settlers, we’ve seen a huge growth in the number of settlements. The West Bank looks like Swiss cheese. And yet we have people who are still talking about creating an independent Palestinian state here and not doing anything to actually change Israeli behavior which is destroying that. So, if Mr. Freedman or anyone else, for that matter, wants to be taken seriously and at their word when they say that they agree that settlements are a problem when it comes to the two-state solution, we want to hear, at the same time, policy prescriptions, U.S. policy prescriptions, that would change Israeli behavior as it relates to these settlements. Otherwise, just talking about it like this is providing cover for these settlements, providing cover for the occupation and providing cover for the status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Hillary Clinton again in her speech before AIPAC, slamming BDS, the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement.

HILLARY CLINTON: Many of the young people here today are on the front lines of the battle to oppose the alarming boycott, divestment and sanctions movement known as BDS. Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, we must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate and undermine Israel and the Jewish people. I’ve been sounding the alarm for a while now. As I wrote last year in a letter to the heads of major American Jewish organizations, we have to be united in fighting back against BDS. Many of its proponents have demonized Israeli scientists and intellectuals, even students. To all the college students who may have encountered this on campus, I hope you stay strong. Keep speaking out. Don’t let anyone silence you, bully you or try to shut down debate, especially in places of learning like colleges and universities. Anti-Semitism has no place in any civilized society—not in America, not in Europe, not anywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Hillary Clinton yesterday addressing AIPAC. Professor Robert Freedman, your response to the issue of BDS, the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement?

ROBERT FREEDMAN: OK, there are two related issues here. First of all, I’ve got to respond to Yousef, because his view of history obviously does not coincide with mine. But in one area where he seems to be unaware of what’s going on, there are regular protests in Israel against the settlements, led by Shalom Achshav, or Peace Now. There is attempts—lobbying of the Knesset. Unfortunately for the future of a two-state solution, the Peace Now people are not in the majority in the Israeli Parliament, but that’s a democracy. They continue to advocate. They continue to oppose the settlements. That’s number one.

Number two, this $3 billion-plus a year in military aid—perhaps Yousef hasn’t been in Israel or in Gaza when rockets continue to fly from Gaza into Israel, killing Israeli civilians. Now, Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, 2006, under Ariel Sharon. And what has moved the Israeli body politic to the right is the fact that instead of peace, Israel got rocketed in return for pulling out of Gaza. Now, that should be noted. And hence, the United States, in supplying aid for Iron Dome, now David’s Sling, Arrow 3, which would be used against the threat from Iran, which has called for the destruction of Israel, most recently inscribed in Farsi on the rockets—and this was pointed out by a number of the speakers at AIPAC yesterday. But this is the first thing. Second thing, BDS—


ROBERT FREEDMAN: Let me answer—let me answer the BDS—

AMY GOODMAN: OK, very quickly.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: —because BDS is—it’s very, very important. The people who support BDS seem to be ignorant of other problems in the Middle East. More than a quarter-million people have died in Syria. Forty thousand-plus are dying at—in Kurds in Turkey. But not only that, countries like China support Syria, as well as attacking their own Muslim populations. Russia has slaughtered people in Chechnya. But nobody is talking about stopping educational ties with China, Chinese universities, or with Russian universities or with Turkish universities. The concentration seems to be, “Well, Israel is bad; we’ve got to stop educational ties with Israel.” Now, folks, there’s a lot of crying about Islamophobia that one hears every day. But singling out Israel, when there are so many worse things happening in the world, I think, is in fact anti-Semitism, and there’s no other way of looking at it.

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Munayyer, you have the last word here.

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, there’s a lot to respond to there. Let me just say a couple things. First of all, not only have I been to Israel, I was born in Israel. I have family throughout Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and refugee camps around the area. Nobody has a deep—as a deep appreciation of what American weaponry does in the Middle East as I do, precisely because I’ve seen it in both directions. And I understand what it means when one-ton American-made bombs drop on apartment buildings in the Gaza Strip, killing scores of civilians.

So, I think, you know, one of the reasons that BDS exists is precisely because of folks like Professor Freedman, who talk a certain game about settlements but refuse to actually call for any change in policy that would change Israeli behavior. The failure of governments to address the violations of international law and human rights abuses that the Israeli state carries out is the reason why civil society has taken up this objective and is working to use boycott, divestment and sanctions to make that change happen.

And let me just say one last thing about the argument that Mr.—that Professor Freedman put forward here. It’s the same exact argument, and you can go back and read the op-ed pieces that were written by the apologists for South African apartheid. It’s the same argument that we used to hear back in the '70s and ’80s. When people were saying it's time to divest from the apartheid system in South Africa, the apologists for apartheid were saying, “Look, there’s all kinds of horrible things going on in Africa and elsewhere. Why are you singling out South Africa? Don’t you understand the blacks in South Africa have it so much better than blacks elsewhere in Africa?” I mean, the arguments are almost word for word the same. And the reality is that the outcome has to be the same, as well, and the apologists for apartheid cannot be allowed to win. It’s only through the efforts—the nonviolent efforts—of civil society to hold Israel accountable for its violations of abuses—and abuses of Palestinian human rights that we are going to see any kind of change on the ground, especially if governments like the United States government, which is playing such a large role, continue to abdicate in their responsibility of doing something.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and Robert Freedman, visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, former head of Baltimore Hebrew University.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Arizona, one of the primary states, to find out what happened to a U.S. citizen. Why was she put in the hands of ICE? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Nunca Más,” “No More,” by La Santa Cecilia, performing here at our Democracy Now! studios. To see our whole interview with them, as well as many of their performances, go to democracynow.org.

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