It’s one thing when Bernie Sanders goes off on Bibi Netanyahu. It’s quite another when Ben Cardin takes on the Israeli prime minister.
Yet the veteran Maryland senator and pro-Israel stalwart in the Democratic Party did just that, lashing out at Netanyahu at a J Street conference and breaking with a party tradition of avoiding heated confrontations with Israel’s leaders.
Cardin in his speech Monday stood by his bill that would criminalize some forms of boycotting Israel, which the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group opposes on free speech grounds. He also extolled the closeness of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The most rapturous cheers on Monday were reserved for Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) who was — as has been his custom — sharply critical of Netanyahu.
But Cardin’s remarks about the Israeli leader were more unexpected. Cardin noted that he had opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — a key policy win for J Street and its allies — but nonetheless decried Netanyahu for using Congress as a platform to speak out against it.
“When the prime minister accepted an invitation to address the joint session of Congress creating a partisan division in our own country, we speak out against that decision,” said Cardin. Democrats saw Netanyahu’s March 3, 2015 speech, coordinated solely with Republicans, as an unseemly attack on then-President Barack Obama and Democrats.
Cardin also likened Netanyahu’s plan to deport African asylum seekers to President Donald Trump’s policies severely restricting refugees arriving from some Muslim majority countries. He also noted Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn white supremacists during the demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. In each case, he said his objections arose from “a responsibility to speak out against the policies of Israel or the United States that are not consistent with our Jewish and Democratic values.”
“We speak out!” he said in a call and response that earned applause.
Cardin said he was still open to modifying his bill targeting the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, but defended it as a necessary means of countering pressure on companies to boycott Israel. He also defended the bill’s inclusion of boycotts targeting Israeli settlements. That policy is very unpopular at J Street, which opposes BDS overall, but does not oppose settlement boycotts.
Sanders in his speech especially decried Israel’s actions recently on the Gaza Strip border, where 30 Palestinian protesters were killed and hundreds were wounded in clashes with Israeli soldiers.
“Though the overwhelming majority of these protesters were nonviolent, we know that some of them were not, and when Israeli soldiers are in danger we can all agree that they have a right to defend themselves,” Sanders said. “I don’t think that any objective person can disagree that Israel has massively overreacted to these demonstrations.”
Sanders and Cardin are both Jewish, and so is Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who called for more openness among Democrats to different expressions of being pro-Israel. He said his views on Israel, emphasizing a two-state outcome, should be considered centrist, but, “In Congress I am at the left edge and that cannot hold.”