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Sanders Inflated the Gaza Death Toll, But It’s Not Because He’s Anti-Israel

Contrary to the fulminations of the radical anti-Zionist left and hawkish pro-Israel right, Sanders’s mistake had nothing to do with his being anti-Israel, and everything to do with his not knowing much about foreign policy

Yair Rosenberg
April 06, 2016
Darren Hauck/Getty Images
Democratic Presidential Candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at the Founders Day Dinner in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 2, 2016. Darren Hauck/Getty Images
Darren Hauck/Getty Images
Democratic Presidential Candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at the Founders Day Dinner in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 2, 2016. Darren Hauck/Getty Images

In a lengthy interview with The New York Daily News published this week, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders raised some eyebrows when he massively inflated the death toll in the 2014 Gaza conflict, saying “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza.” This remark sparked a firestorm of criticism, given that even Palestinian authorities put the civilian casualties at 1,462 out of the total 2,251 dead, while Israel puts the number at significantly less than that, and blames the deaths on Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields.

Contrary to the fantastical imaginings of some on the radical anti-Israel left and the hysterics on the pro-Israel right, however, this interview did not demonstrate that Sanders is anti-Zionist or anti-Israel. In fact, he explicitly affirmed his support for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in peace and security in the same interview:

Daily News: Good, thank you. So I want to focus you on some international issues, starting with Israel. While speaking forcefully of Israel’s need for security, you said that peace will require an end to attacks of all kinds and recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Just to be clear, does that mean recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state?

Sanders: Of course…that’s the status quo.

Sanders: Here’s the main point that I want to make. I lived in Israel. I have family in Israel. I believe 100% not only in Israel’s right to exist, a right to exist in peace and security without having to face terrorist attacks.

Much as he did when he defended Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war to constituents during a 2014 town hall, the Vermont Senator also strongly criticized Hamas:

The idea that in Gaza there were buildings being used to construct missiles and bombs and tunnels, that is not where foreign aid should go. Foreign aid should go to housing and schools, not the development of bombs and missiles.

Why, then, did Sanders completely misstate the number of dead in Gaza? As Hanlon’s razor says, “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Simply put, Sanders has demonstrated throughout his campaign—and indeed throughout his Daily News interview—that he knows very little about foreign policy. He has no real foreign policy team, he has focused his entire candidacy on domestic issues, and he has actively avoided discussions of foreign affairs and terrorism.

This is not something Sanders concealed in the Daily News interview. His statements on the Gaza death toll are telling in this regard:

Sanders: Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world? I’m just telling you that I happen to believe…anybody help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?

Daily News: I think it’s probably high, but we can look at that.

Sanders: I don’t have it in my number…but I think it’s over 10,000.

In other words, Sanders openly admitted that he was unfamiliar with the facts of the case, and then not only vastly overestimated the civilian death toll in Gaza, but the entire death toll of the war. And this wasn’t the only time he professed ignorance of foreign policy matters in the interview.

When asked how he would interrogate terrorist suspects post-Guantanamo Bay, he said, “Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.” When queried whether he approved of Obama’s anti-ISIS drone strategy, Sanders replied, “I don’t know the answer to that.” When asked how exactly he’d like Israel to pull back from settlements, he demurred, “If I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer.”

In the end, then, Sanders’s interview is less worrying for what he said about Israel than for what it says about his ability to serve as President of the United States and conduct the country’s foreign policy.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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