A war of words between Israeli officials and U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders continued Sunday evening, with the Jewish senator hitting back at criticism for his decision not to attend the annual conference of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.
"I am pro-Israel. I am pro-Palestinian," Sanders said on CBS' "Face the Nation' program.
"I want to bring people together to finally achieve peace in that region," he said, insisting that he would do everything he could "to protect the independence and the security and the freedom of the Israeli people."
He added: "What we need in this country is a foreign policy that not only protects Israel, but deals with the suffering of the Palestinian people as well."
Earlier Sunday, Israel's Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon lambasted the senator from the AIPAC conference in Washington.
"We don’t want Sanders at AIPAC. We don’t want him in Israel," Danon said.
Danon also slammed Sanders for calling Netanyahu a "reactionary racist" at the recent Democratic debate in South Carolina.
"Whoever calls the prime minister of Israel a ‘racist’ is either a liar, an ignorant fool, or both," Danon said.
Netanyahu himself last week appeared to shrug off Sanders' comments, saying that he was "wrong" about the prime minister.
Sanders' rivals for the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, sent video messages to the conference while Mike Bloomberg was to appear in person alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue & White leader Benny Gantz also sent video messages; the usual appearance by Israeli leaders has this year was scuppered by the Knesset election.
Writing on Twitter last Sunday, Sanders accused AIPAC of providing a platform to leaders who "express bigotry" against the Palestinian people.
“The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people,” Sanders tweeted. “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.”
In response, AIPAC called the Vermont senator's comment "outrageous."
"Senator Sanders has never attended our conference and that is evident from his outrageous comment," AIPAC said.
"In fact, many of his own Senate and House Democratic colleagues and leaders speak from our platform to the over 18,000 Americans from widely diverse backgrounds - Democrats, Republicans, Jews, Christians, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, progressives, Veterans, students, members of the LGBTQ+ community - who participate in the conference to proclaim their support for the US-Israel relationship."
Out of all the Democratic candidates running for president, Sanders has been the most outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, calling for an “even-handed” approach more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
That has included openly considering cutting American aid to Israel to pressure the nation to curb its settlement enterprise, enter peace talks with the Palestinians and improve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
“I would use the leverage of $3.8 billion,” he said last October. “It is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government, or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.”
Sanders, who is Jewish, has long ties to Israel. He spent months living on a kibbutz in the 1960s — an experience he has cited in the past to affirm his commitment to Israel’s security.
“I am very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president,” he said at a J Street conference in October 2019. “I spent many months on a kibbutz in Israel. I believe absolutely not only in the right of Israel to exist but the right to exist in peace and security. That’s not a question.”
“But what I also believe,” he continued, “is the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace and security as well.”
AP and i24NEWS contributed to this report