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Bernie Sanders transformed debate around Palestine. What comes next?

Arab-American activists pay homage to Sanders' campaign and vow to continue organising for justice at home and abroad
Bernie Sanders speaks at rally in Dearborn, Michigan, in March (MEE/Ali Harb)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Bernie Sanders has called Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu a "reactionary racist" and blasted Saudi Arabia's rulers as "murderous thugs" while calling for an even-handed US diplomacy that prioritises human rights and multilateralism.

His presidential campaign, which he suspended on Wednesday, transformed US politics domestically and challenged the bipartisan consensus around several key foreign policy issues, including unconditional support for Israel.

Arab-American activists paid homage to Sanders' campaign vowing to grow the political momentum they built around his candidacy.

"We stood with Bernie Sanders because of ideas, not because of a political party or because of one particular election," said Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American activist and comedian and a national surrogate for the Sanders campaign.

"And so while I'm obviously sad today, I'm very optimistic about the gains that our movement has achieved since 2016."

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The end of Sanders' bid for the presidency paves the way for former Vice President Joe Biden to become the Democratic nominee and take on Donald Trump in November. Still, many of Sanders' supporters see the campaign as an ongoing struggle that has already succeeded in promoting major political and economic changes once seen as radical.

Challenging the mainstream

Biden's campaign acknowledged the fact that Sanders and his supporters moved the margins of debate within mainstream American politics. 

"Senator Sanders and his supporters have changed the dialogue in America. Issues which had been given little attention - or little hope of ever passing - are now at the center of the political debate," Biden said in a statement on Wednesday. 

'Bernie came along, seemingly out of nowhere in 2015, and spoke directly to us'

- Wihad al-Tawil, graduate student

"Income inequality, universal health care, climate change, free college, relieving students from the crushing debt of student loans. These are just a few of the issues Bernie and his supporters have given life to."

Many of Sanders' supporters would add Palestinian human rights to that list. 

The Vermont senator proposed conditioning US military aid for Israel to push it to end its occupation of Palestinian territories. He also called for lifting the blockade on Gaza and addressing the humanitarian crisis there. 

In the Senate, he was one of the leading voices working to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and he was one of two legislators to reject a bill to impose sanctions against Iran in 2017.

Wihad al-Tawil, a graduate student of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago, said Sanders has been able to speak to Arab-American issues and concerns - not merely paying lip service to them - since he announced his first presidential campaign.

"Bernie came along, seemingly out of nowhere in 2015, and spoke directly to us. He was vociferously against the Iraq War. He was against the US involvement in destabilising regime-change invasions in the Middle East," Tawil told MEE. 

"He gave a voice to Yemenis suffering at the hands of Saudi Arabia. He gave a voice to Palestinians targeted by the inhumane policies of the right-wing Israeli government. 

"And in fact he has normalised this discussion, and even mobilised young Jewish-American activists to take powerful stands against the occupation, which is historic in itself."

Stark contrast

Sanders' domestic and foreign policy proposals, many of which challenge current realities, stand in stark contrast with the approach of the last man standing in the Democratic field - Biden. The former vice president ran a campaign promising to heal the nation by returning to pre-Trump normalcy. 

That distinction makes itself clear in Biden's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The presumptive nominee follows the policy of previous administrations of rejecting the occupation and settlement expansion verbally, while pledging to maintain Washington's political and financial support for Israel.

'There is a clear example of hypocrisy in claiming to oppose Israeli occupation and settlement expansion, but insisting that there can never be accountability for Israel that actually pushes it in that direction'

- Omar Baddar, political analyst

"What Joe Biden is advocating for is a return to the status quo. And when it comes to Palestine, we need anything but a return to the way things have been for the last 70 years," Zahr told MEE.

Biden, who describes himself as a Zionist, has been a staunch supporter of Israel throughout his political career, which started as a senator in 1973. Last December, he dismissed Sanders' pledge to condition aid to Israel as "bizarre". 

The former vice president also sent a video message to the conference of the Israeli lobby AIPAC in March, breaking with his more liberal opponents who boycotted the event. 

Omar Baddar, a Palestinian-American political analyst who supported Sanders, said Biden's policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represent an "old mentality" that ignores the progressive shift in the base of the Democratic party on the issue.

"There is a contradiction. There is a clear example of hypocrisy in claiming to oppose Israeli occupation and settlement expansion, but insisting that there can never be accountability for Israel that actually pushes it in that direction," Baddar told MEE.

For her part, Tawil, the graduate student, said Biden's views, particularly on foreign policy and Palestine "represent the failure of the Democratic Party as a whole".

"Biden is a weak candidate that actively lobbied for the Iraq War, and is part of the corrupt infrastructure that has damaged our world at home and abroad," she said. "Biden is a vigorous proponent of the Israeli lobby, and has never extended compassion or concern to the Palestinian people or their struggle."

Engaging Arab community

Narissa Ayoub, who served as a community laison for the Sanders' campaign in Michigan, also said that Biden's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not sufficient.

Ayoub hailed the way the Sanders' campaign engaged Arab-American voters, particularly in Michigan, where he won upwards of 90 percent of the votes in some predominantly Arab neighbourhoods. 

'It's really important and imperative that Arabs and Muslims across the United States continue to fight for the causes that Senator Sanders was fighting for them so forcefully'

- Sami Scheetz, former outreach director for Sanders' campaign

"Bernie brought a unique approach to our community. It was very important that a campaign of this scale took our community into account, and did it well. He listened to our concerns and what we had to say," Ayoub said.

"Bernie went out of his way to appoint surrogates and employees to his campaign who were Arab and who were Muslim."

In Michigan and in other states, Arab and Muslim voters rewarded Sanders' outreach and policy proposals by overwhelmingly backing him. At several caucus sites at mosques in Iowa in February, almost all voters went for Sanders. 

"Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign was one of the first campaigns - if not the first - to exclusively do outreach and focus on Muslim and Arab voters," said Sami Scheetz, a former constituency outreach director for the Sanders' campaign in Iowa.

Scheetz added that Sanders had an entire team dedicated to engaging Arab and Muslim voters, who came out in large numbers "almost exclusively" for him on caucus day.

What comes next?

There is consensus among Sanders' supporters that the "struggle continues", as the senator himself said in his announcement about suspending the campaign on Wednesday.

"It's really important and imperative that Arabs and Muslims across the United States continue to fight for the causes that Senator Sanders was fighting for them so forcefully," Scheetz told MEE. 

He warned against feeling "disheartened and discouraged" to the point of giving up on the political process.

Still, a debate is begining to flare up on whether left-wing progressives should fully put their political weight behind Biden in the general election.

"If you give me the option between President Trump who instituted a racist Muslim ban - an Arab ban against people from the Middle East - and the vice president, the choice is clear for me," Scheetz said. 

"The vice president is somebody who's on day one going to be able to at least mitigate some of the damage that Trump's racist policies have caused to Muslim Americans and across the country."

Baddar, the Palestinian-American analyst, is also of the opinion that Sanders' supporters can vote for Biden while still pushing him closer to their views. He cited Trump's aggressive policies against Palestinians.

Over the past three and a half years, the US president has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, cut aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and proposed a plan that would allow Israel to keep all of its West Bank settlement.

"I personally think that it makes perfect sense to say when it comes to election day, we vote for the lesser of two evils and then continue the hard work of holding whoever is in that position accountable," he told MEE.

Baddar decried Biden's approach of returning to mainstream politics as "grossly inadequate", but said there will be a choice between two men in November and a lifetime to organise afterwards.

"It's critically important to remember that movement-building does not happen only on election day," he said.

Still, Zahr is holding out on backing the former vice president. 

He urged pressuring Biden to change his stance on Palestine as well as the conflict in Yemen, which started with the backing of former President Barack Obama. He said Arab Americans should not automatically vote for Biden simply because he's not Trump.

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"If we did that, it would be immediately surrendering all the political capital that we have built up in our movement here with Bernie Sanders," Zahr said. 

"What we've shown with the Bernie Sanders movement is that Arab Americans are more organised and more united than ever, behind a set of ideas when a candidate expresses solidarity with us."

He acknowledged that Trump is a "disaster", but said a return to the status quo is not the answer. "I'm a firm believer that somebody has to win our votes, that somebody has to come with ideas. 'I'm not Trump' is not an idea."

Even from a Palestinian rights perspective, Zahr says if Biden doesn't change his status quo approach, it is not a given that it will be an improvement compared with Trump's shaking things up in favour of Israel.

"From the point of view of the struggle for Palestinian freedom, best case scenario would have been a Bernie Sanders presidency. I'm not sure that the second-best case scenario is a Joe Biden presidency," Zahr said.

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