Aiming at Authoritarians, Sanders Misfire

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made a major foreign policy speech last week in which he identified an emerging authoritarian strain around the world. The topic is an important one for a once and perhaps future presidential candidate to address. He correctly pointed out that authoritarianism is growing around the world, but not just in Russia, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere; he argued that it is growing here at home, as well.

“While this authoritarian trend certainly did not begin with Donald Trump, there’s no question that other authoritarian leaders around the world have drawn inspiration from the fact that the president of the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy is shattering democratic norms,” Sanders said.

Reasonable people can differ about the validity of Sanders’ underlying observation. But he went off the rails when he asserted that an example of Trump inspiring anti-democratic moves is Israel’s controversial nation-state law.

It’s “hard to imagine,” he said, that the government under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “would have taken a number of steps — including passing the recent nation-state law, which essentially codifies the second-class status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, aggressively undermining the longstanding goal of a two-state solution, and ignoring the economic catastrophe in Gaza — if Netanyahu wasn’t confident that Trump would support him,” Sanders told his audience at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington on Oct. 9.

We’ve noted our problems with the nation-state law. Before it passed, we said it states the obvious while managing to denigrate Israel’s Arab citizens and their culture — and after its passage we have been critical of its divisiveness. But Sanders’ criticism displays a troubling lack of understanding about Israel that is reminiscent of his shortcomings during his 2016 presidential run, which served to dismay many pro-Israel voters who were otherwise attracted to his progressive views.

What is missing from Sanders’ analysis is the recognition that the law was birthed locally. It was passed to satisfy the ultranationalists and haredi-Orthodox parties who support Netanyahu’s government. In fact, Israel has a long record of following its own interests, despite U.S. concerns. And Sanders offered no insight or perspective to support his accusation of Trumpian influence or acquiescence concerning the controversial law.

We have no problem with Sanders calling out “authoritarian leaders like Putin, like Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un,” as well as the suspected murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the U.S.-backed bombing of Yemen. We just don’t follow his logic in including Netanyahu in the rogues’ gallery and then in offering the nation-state law as proof of his claim.

Israel is not an international authoritarian regime, and Netanyahu is not a totalitarian dictator. Sanders should know better. And if he really doesn’t understand how misguided his accusations were, he is even more lacking in what it takes to be a leader than we thought.

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