WASHINGTON – Advocating for a secure and prosperous Israel compels Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to highlight the plight of the Palestinians and the importance of a two-state solution to the conflict, he said over the weekend.The underdog in the race for the US Democratic presidential nomination characterized himself as “more balanced” between the two sides of the conflict, asked by Jake Tapper of CNN whether he – as the first Jewish contender ever to win delegates to a national convention – felt out of step with the American political consensus on the issue.“I’m taking a more balanced position,” Sanders said.“Whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, I would hope that every person in this country wants to see the misery of never-ending war and conflict ended in the Middle East.”“Of course we are going to support Israel, but you cannot ignore the needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza right now,” he continued. “Poverty, unemployment – their community has been decimated.”Sanders came under criticism from American Jewish groups last week over his statement that 10,000 Palestinian civilians were killed in Israel’s war (Operation Cast Lead) with Hamas in the Gaza Strip two years ago. An estimated 2,130 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, more than half of them combatants.Several Israeli officials – including MK Michael Oren, who was ambassador to Washington during US President Barack Obama’s first term – called on Sanders to apologize. Sanders doubled down on his statement, noting that he was immediately corrected by his interviewer when he made the remark – a correction he swiftly accepted. In his discussion with Tapper, he appeared unaware of who Oren was.“Was Israel’s response disproportionate? I think it was,” Sanders said. “Israel has a 100 percent – and no one will fight for that principle more strongly than I will – has the right to live in freedom, independently and in security without having to be subjected to terrorist attacks,” he said. “But I think that we will not succeed to ever bring peace into that region unless we also treat the Palestinians with dignity and respect, and that is my view.”In a separate interview by Tapper, Sanders’s rival, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, declined to criticize him over the remark. But she unequivocally defended Israel’s conduct of the 2014 war.“When you are being attacked with rockets raining down on your people and your soldiers are under attack, you have to respond,” Clinton said.She added that Israel had not asked for the conflict, and that in her experience at the State Department, she learned that Hamas “provokes” Israel and hides its operatives among the civilian population.Sanders won the Democratic caucuses in Wyoming over the weekend, extending his streak of victories in small states over the course of the last month.But he remains far beyond in pledged delegates to the Democratic convention set for July, and would have to win every state going forward by more than 10 points to overcome Clinton’s lead.MK Itzik Shmuly, currently in the US as part of a State Department- sponsored delegation, called Sanders’s comments “baseless” and “disturbing. “The Middle East is very complex, and one has to be prepared to deal with it. Knowing the details is important,” he said.Still, Shmuly said he was glad to hear Sanders say he is committed to Israel’s existence and security, as well as to trying to bring about a Palestinian state.“I hope this mistake is just one of numbers and that there isn’t something else behind it,” he added.Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.