Why the two presidential nominees left Israel in the backseat at their party conventions
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Analysis

Why the two presidential nominees left Israel in the backseat at their party conventions

Both candidates briefly pledged firm support for Israel in their lengthy acceptance speeches, but neither so much as mentioned the divisive, potentially alienating issue of peace-making with the Palestinians

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

This file photo combination shows Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (left) on April 4, 2016, and Republican challenger Donald Trump on February 16, 2016. (AFP/dsk)
This file photo combination shows Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (left) on April 4, 2016, and Republican challenger Donald Trump on February 16, 2016. (AFP/dsk)

WASHINGTON — At both the Republican and Democratic parties’ nominating conventions last week, each candidate rolled out their general election campaign with high-profile addresses to their respective party’s confab.

While presenting vastly different visions for America and its role in the world, Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic choice Hillary Clinton each devoted just one sentence to Israel. Both indicated they believe strongly in the importance of the US-Israel alliance, but said little else — each for their own reasons.

In his speech, Trump called Israel America’s “greatest ally in the region” and described the relationship as one that would be instrumental in achieving his goal of making the US safer and repairing its standing in the international arena.

“We must have the best intelligence gathering operation in the world,” he said. “We must abandon the failed policy of nation building and regime change that Hillary Clinton pushed in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria. Instead, we must work with all of our allies who share our goal of destroying ISIS and stamping out Islamic terror.”

“This includes working with our greatest ally in the region, the State of Israel,” he added.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump looks on during the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump looks on during the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

That was the extent of what Trump said on Israel — no mention of maintaining a robust commitment to its security, of defending it from Iranian aggression, of pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

The last of these omissions was no great surprise. The real estate tycoon has said repeatedly on the campaign trail he would attempt to forge the elusive two-state solution to the conflict, while the GOP withdrew its support for such an outcome in its party platform. No need, then, to harp on that contested area.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia

A week later at the Democratic National Convention, Clinton gave her most important speech of the past year, and also mentioned Israel only once: she cited the Jewish state while underlining her leadership skills and ability to preserve America’s security and advance its interests abroad.

‘I’m proud that we put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot. Now we have to enforce it, and keep supporting Israel’s security’

“You want a leader who understands we are stronger when we work with our allies around the world and care for our veterans here at home,” she said. “Keeping our nation safe and honoring the people who do it will be my highest priority.”

“I’m proud that we put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot,” she added. “Now we have to enforce it, and keep supporting Israel’s security.”

As a member of President Obama’s cabinet — secretary of state from 2009 to 2013 — Clinton was sometimes forced into the position of fixing the bad blood between her old boss and Israel’s current leadership and segments of the Jewish community. Vowing to stringently enforce the Iran deal and protect Israel from Tehran’s regional activities is something she has done before and is bound to do again.

Hillary Clinton acknowledging the crowd during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images/JTA)
Hillary Clinton acknowledging the crowd during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images/JTA)

But even her passing comment on Israel was more risky than Trump’s, with the threat of turning off a chunk of Bernie Sanders supporters who are hostile to the nature of America’s close relationship with Israel.

Throughout the convention, Sanders-backing delegates could be seen sporting “I support Palestinian human rights” signs and buttons. Several CodePink protesters were spotted holding a sign that said “Free Palestine.” And outside the arena, protesters burned an Israeli flag.

But other than the activists, one of the most contentious moments over Israel came during a primary debate between Clinton and Sanders. While Sanders labels himself “100 percent pro-Israel in the long run,” he also said the US should not be “one-sided” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, and Hillary Clinton speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Thursday, April 14, 2016 in New York (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, and Hillary Clinton speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Thursday, April 14, 2016 in New York (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

He further called Israel’s military operation during the 2014 Gaza war “disproportionate” and said, “There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that [Prime Minister] Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”

The Vermont senator also riled much of the pro-Israel community by appointing Arab American Institute president James Zogby and philosopher Cornell West to the platform committee. West is a full-throated supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Clinton has taken a different approach to Israel and the region throughout her life in elected office and on the campaign trail. During her address at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference she repeatedly called to “take our alliance to the next level,” and to crack down on Palestinian terrorism, while also stressing the need to improve the quality of life for Palestinians and create an environment conducive to peacemaking.

So her expression of support for Israel in Philadelphia was certainly expected. But at the convention where she needed to project an image of party unity and draw members of the Sanders base into her coalition, it did draw the possibility of alienating some — so it is also no surprise that she left Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians out of it.

For Clinton, as for Trump, divisions in both their parties meant there was little to be gained, and more that could have been lost, by mention of the Palestinians.

In an election season where Israel has already featured as a partisan football, it’s telling that neither of them felt compelled to even say something generic about Israel’s pursuit of peace with its Arab neighbors. The fact is, though, both were in a position where there was no winning if they did.

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