Tel Aviv Diary: Bernie's Gaza Blunder Worries Israelis

Palestinian terrorists of the National Resistance Brigades and Abdel Qader al Husseini Brigades in Khan Younis with a homemade rocket in the southern Gaza Strip on March 25. Bernie Sanders says he sticks by his remark that Israel has used disproportionate force in its response to the missile fire from Gaza. Suhaib Salem/reuters

The lead item in the news in Israel today is that police have received the go-ahead to conduct a criminal probe into the opposition leader, MK Yitzhak Herzog, about his election campaign fundraising. This revelation follows last week's announcement that Shas Party leader, MK Aryeh Deri, is also being investigated for corruption.

In the meantime, during a routine visit to the Golan Heights, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu changed the long-standing Israeli policy of not commenting on attacks in Syria on Hezbollah weapons shipments by confirming that Israel has indeed struck inside Syria dozens of times over the past few years.

Finally, Egypt is handing over two strategic islands in the Tiran Straits (which provide Israel with an outlet to the Indian Ocean) to Saudi Arabia. All this is taking place against a dramatic drop in Palestinian knife and vehicular attacks on Israelis.

Despite these local news stories, updates from the American presidential campaign trail continue to lead news broadcasts here. It is impossible to have any conversation in Tel Aviv about politics these days without a question about the U.S. campaign. Newscasts often lead with the latest primary results.

Over the course of the last few days, attention here has been focused on presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders and his mistaken remarks last week that over 10,000 Palestinians had been killed in Israel's 2014 Gaza War. Sanders attempted to correct himself, saying that though he was mistaken about the exact number, he sticks by his earlier remark that Israelis used disproportionate force in their response to the missile fire from Gaza.

Sanders did go on to reiterate his support for a secure Israel and stated that Israel had the right of self-defense. However, to most Israelis, including many left-leaning Tel Aviv residents, those words, combined with his statement that the United States must be "more balanced in its approach to the conflict," were not well received.

After Sanders's initial remarks, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current MK from the Kulanu party, called on Sanders to apologize for what Oren called a "blood libel." When Jack Tapper of CNN asked Sanders about the accusation, he seemed unaware who Oren was.

While the senator's misstatement about the number of deaths in Gaza was problematic (the United Nations recorded 2,205 Palestinians, including 1,483 civilians, killed), it was Sanders's contention that the Israeli response was disproportionate that was disconcerting to the average Israeli.

When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2009, the withdrawal was widely supported by most Israelis. Many believed that once Israel had withdrawn from Gaza there would be no excuse for the Palestinians living there to attack Israel—and if in the event they did resume their attacks, Israel would have the right to respond with overwhelming force.

The reality did not work out that way. When Hamas seized power in Gaza they renounced the agreements Israel had reached with the Palestinian Authority to end violence. In subsequent years, every time Israel responded to missile attacks from Gaza with limited military force, it was widely criticized for causing more casualties than Hamas inflicted on Israelis (a scale most Israelis reject).

In fact, it has been the continued attacks by both Hezbollah in the north, and Hamas in the south—after Israeli withdrawals—that have caused most Israelis to become skeptical of the notion that withdrawing from territory achieves peace.

Most Israelis no doubt wish that Tapper had followed up Sanders's assertion that Israel had used disproportionate force when its major cities were under constant missile attack with a question to the senator: "What would you have done, Senator, if American cities were being subjected to a daily barrage of missile attacks?"

Israelis are deeply uneasy about this year's U.S. presidential elections, not because of one candidate or another but rather the fear that most of today's front-runners are more isolationist than any of the mainstream U.S. leadership over the course of the last 80 years.

To Israelis, regardless of their political leanings, a strong America is essential in this very turbulent world. While they do not vote in American elections, Israelis (like many people in many parts of the globe) have a great deal at stake, as the nomination process reaches its conclusion and Americans go to the polls in November.

Marc Schulman is the editor of