Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Democratic presidential candidate front-runner, said during the Feb. 25 Democratic candidates’ debate in South Carolina that he would consider moving the United States Embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, its original location, if he is elected president.
CBS News reporter Major Garrett, one of the debate moderators, asked Sanders: “Would you move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv?” Sanders replied, “It’s something that we would take into consideration.”
The question also was posed to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Bloomberg said that the embassy move should have happened only if Israel had agreed to a concession as part of a peace process with Palestinians, but now that the embassy has moved to Jerusalem, “you’re going to have to leave it there.” Warren said that the Israelis and the Palestinians should determine their respective capitals.
The American Embassy’s move was controversial from the outset. It had been located in Tel Aviv since the 1960s. In December 2017, President Donald Trump announced the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Soon afterward, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson walked back the president’s declaration. The embassy’s move to Jerusalem took place in May 2018.
Jerusalem is home to sacred sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians. The Knesset and prime minister’s residence are in West Jerusalem, which Israel has controlled since 1949. Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed half of the city. The international community considers East Jerusalem occupied territory.
The Palestinians want to officially divide the city and make East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state.
In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the U.S. peace plan, unveiled that month, envisions the proposed capital of the Palestinian state to be in Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Sanders said during the debate that he views Netanyahu as “a reactionary racist.” When Netanyahu was asked about Sanders’ remarks during a Feb. 26 Israeli Army Radio appearance, he said that while he won’t intervene in the election, Sanders “is definitely wrong. No question about it.”
Sanders also said that it’s important to ensure Israel’s safety and security while also addressing “the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
The Vermont senator has been under fire from various Jewish groups since he announced in a couple of Feb. 23 tweets that he will not attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference from March 1-3 in Washington, D.C. Nearly 350 rabbis signed a letter condemning Sanders’ decision.
“The AIPAC Policy Conference may be the largest political gathering of Democrats and Republicans in the entire country,” the letter stated. “We’ve seen presidents and prime ministers, members of Congress and members of Knesset, policy analysts and military experts, religious leaders and cultural icons, from across the political spectrum address the conference. We embrace the opportunity to be challenged to think constructively, and appreciate that people on the other end of the political divide are doing this sacred work alongside us.”
The U.S. Embassy was officially opened in Jerusalem in May 2018; that day, Israeli forces killed more than 55 Palestinian protesters and wounded thousands of others protesting the move in Hamas-led riots in the Gaza Strip.
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris tweeted that he had been hoping that one of the Democratic presidential candidates would say regarding the Jerusalem embassy, “As President, I’ll keep our embassy there. Like every other nation, #Israel has a right to choose its capital, all the more so when rooted in 3000+ yrs of history. No, it doesn’t prevent 2-state deal w/ Palestinians.”
Jerusalem answer I hoped to hear from the Democratic debate:
“As President, I’ll keep our embassy there. Like every other nation, #Israel has a right to choose its capital, all the more so when rooted in 3000+ yrs of history. No, it doesn’t prevent 2-state deal w/ Palestinians.” pic.twitter.com/cLJ9XXfRIj
— David Harris (@DavidHarrisAJC) February 26, 2020