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Story highlights

Bernie Sanders prodded Israeli leaders over their treatment of Palestinians in a speech Monday

Sanders skipped the AIPAC conference in Washington, instead delivering his speech in Utah

Salt Lake City, Utah CNN —  

Bernie Sanders criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, condemning the expansion of West Bank settlements and blasting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s withholding of tax dollars from Palestinian authorities, in a speech Monday in Utah.

The Vermont senator was the only 2016 presidential candidate to skip an 18,000-attendee pro-Israel conference in Washington. Instead, he delivered his foreign policy speech in Salt Lake City, capital of a state which, along with Arizona and Idaho, will vote in Democratic nominating contests on Tuesday.

Sanders is the only Jewish candidate in the race – though he didn’t mention that in his speech and rarely does on the campaign trail. He did, however, discuss living in a kibbutz as a young man.

Still, much of what Sanders had to say wouldn’t have gone over well at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s gathering.

Sanders promised to be a friend to both Israel and the Palestinians – but didn’t shy away from criticizing the U.S. ally.

“We are obligated to speak the truth as we see it. This is what real friendship demands, especially in difficult times,” Sanders said, according to a copy of his remarks provided by his campaign.

“If elected president, I will work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend to Israel. But to be successful, we have to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people,” he said.

He criticized Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank, saying it “undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well.”

“It is absurd for elements within the Netanyahu government to suggest that building more settlements in the West Bank is the appropriate response to the most recent violence. It is also not acceptable that the Netanyahu government decided to withhold hundreds of millions of Shekels in tax revenue from the Palestinians, which it is supposed to collect on their behalf,” Sanders said.

He called for an end to the economic blockade of Gaza and a “sustainable and equitable distribution of precious water resources so that Israel and Palestine can both thrive as neighbors.”

And he criticized Israel by suggesting it has overreacted to attacks.

“Peace will require strict adherence by both sides to the tenets of international humanitarian law. This includes Israeli ending disproportionate responses to being attacked, even though any attack on Israel is unacceptable,” Sanders said.

Sanders segued into a broader discussion of the region and American’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The senator rarely brings up issues of foreign policy on the trail, and when he does, it is usually framed in the context of the Iraq war, hitting President George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton’s “disastrous” vote on the military action.

He agreed with Secretary of State John Kerry’s assessment that ISIS is committing genocide, adding that “the United States must continue to participate in an international coalition to destroy this barbaric organization.”

Sanders admitted that the domestic politics of Iraq and Syria present challenges that make it difficult for those nations to overcome ISIS, and presented several paths towards defeating ISIS. One of the proposals he made included “disrupting the financing of ISIS.”

Sanders also expressed concern over ISIS’ online recruiting efforts for disaffected youth.

However, his overarching message on defeating ISIS includes something more diplomatically challenging: It must be lead by a coalition of countries in the region. Sanders, who has made this appeal before, doubled down on Monday, saying he knows countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have different interests.

Sanders managed to tie the centerpiece of his platform, economic inequality, into the message too, adding that if oil-rich countries like Qatar have enough money to spend building World Cup stadiums, they can afford to fight ISIS.