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Democratic debate: US must be 'pro-Palestinian,' Bernie Sanders says

Vermont senator also calls Benjamin Netanyahu a 'racist' as all seven candidates slam Donald Trump's foreign policy
Biden, left, and Sanders presented different approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Reuters)

The foreign policy questions have finally landed at the Democratic debate.

After five debates that largely focused on domestic issues, moderators asked pinpointed questions on foreign policy to presidential candidates on Thursday evening. 

It was the first time that candidates were asked directly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the debate stage. 

The sixth democratic debate, held at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, came less than two months before the first primary contest in Iowa.

The crowded primary field initially saw dozens of candidates vying for the party's nomination to challenge US President Donald Trump in November 2020. 

Thursday's debate was the smallest of this election season so far, with only seven candidates meeting the Democratic National Committee's criteria to appear on the stage.

Without exception, all the candidates slammed Trump's foreign policy, pledging to pursue a more composed and collaborative approach to global affairs.

Below are some highlights of what the candidates said on foreign policy: 

Bernie Sanders: 'We must be pro-Palestinian as well'

The self-described democratic-socialist senator called for a more even-handed approach to Israelis and Palestinians, calling Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "racist".

"Israel has the right to not only exist, but to exist in peace and security," Sanders, who was the only Jewish candidate on the stage, said.

"But what US foreign policy has to be about is not only being pro-Israel, we must be pro-Palestinian as well."

He went on to highlight the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

"What we need is a level playing field in terms of the Middle East which addresses the terrible crisis in Gaza, where 60 or 70 percent of the young people are unemployed," Sanders said.

"So what my foreign policy will be about is human rights, is democracy, is bring people together in a peaceful way - trying to negotiate agreements - not endless wars with trillions of dollars in expenses."


Biden stresses two-state solution, rejects withdrawing aid to Israel

Former Vice President Joe Biden stressed the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for putting pressure on Israel to move towards a negotiated agreement with Palestinians.

However, he said the US should not pull aid to Israel. Biden's Democratic rivals, including Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, had said they would consider conditioning the annual $3.8bn military assistance to Israel to stop the continued settlement growth. 

"There's no solution for Israel other than the two-state solution," said Biden. "It does not exist. It's not possible to have a Jewish state in the Middle East without there being a two-state solution."

He added that Trump has played to the "same fears" and prejudices that exist in Israel and the US.

"Bibi Netanyahu and I know one another well," Biden said. "He knows that I think what he's doing is outrageous.

"What we do is we have to put pressure constantly on the Israelis to move to a two-state solution, not withdraw physical aid from them in terms of their security."


Pete Buttigieg blames Trump

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has been gaining momentum in the polls, pointed the finger at Trump for the crisis in the Middle East.

"What we are seeing in the Middle East and around the world are the consequences of this president's failure, this president's refusal to lead," the 37-year-old small town mayor said.

He went on to accuse Trump of enacting policies to boost Netanyahu domestically in Israel.

Over the past three years, the US president had taken a series of steps against Palestinians, including moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and cutting funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

Most recently, the Trump administration declared that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are not necessarily illegal.

"He has infused domestic politics making US foreign policy choices in order to effectively interfere in Israeli domestic politics," Buttigieg said of Trump.

"Acting as though that somehow makes him pro-Israel and pro-Jewish, while welcoming white nationalists into the White House."


Elizabeth Warren (Reuters)
'It's time to close this detention facility. It not only costs us money, it's an international embarrassment,' Warren, right, says of Guantanamo Bay (Reuters)

Elizabeth Warren calls for closing Guantanamo

Senator Elizabeth Warren called for closing the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, which still houses 40 detained suspected militants without full legal rights.

The facility was established in 2002 after then-President George W Bush embarked on the so-called war on terror following the 9/11 attacks on the US.

For years, rights groups have decried the treatment of prisoners - who are not afforded due process - in Guantanamo.

Former US President Barack Obama had pledged to close down the prison while in office, but failed to deliver on his promise amid opposition from Congress. In 2018, Trump signed an executive order to keep the facility open. 

"It's time to close this detention facility. It not only costs us money, it's an international embarrassment," Warren said on Thursday. "We have to be an America that lives our values every day."

Biden, who was Obama's vice president, also lamented his administration's failure to shut down the detention centre because of lack of congressional authorisation. He called the detention centre "an advertisement for creating terror".

For his part, Sanders called for rethinking the "entire war on terror" altogether. 

"It is time right now, to bring this world together to try to end these endless wars and address the root causes," he said.