21 Dems were asked where they’d go first as president, 1 said Israel

21 Dems were asked where they’d go first as president, 1 said Israel

While most presidential hopefuls tell NYT their maiden international trip would be where relations have soured under Trump, only Kirsten Gillibrand wants to head to Mideast

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaking at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, March 14, 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaking at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, March 14, 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON —  A seminal choice for a US president is where they will go for their first trip abroad. Donald Trump notably traveled to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican on his maiden presidential voyage overseas. The majority of the Democratic candidates hoping to replace him don’t plan to follow in his footsteps.

The New York Times on Wednesday published a series of video interviews asking 21 of the 22 Democrats in the 2020 field — former vice president Joe Biden declined to participate — the same 18 questions. One of them was where would they go on their first international trip?

While their answers were varied, only one candidate said her first stop would be the Jewish state: New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “I would go to Israel,” she said, “and I would travel throughout the Middle East.”

The 52-year-old said she would use that excursion to promote peace and initiate an international dialogue around achieving it.

“I think the next president really has to focus on bringing peace in the world, so any first trip would be to the Middle East,” she said, adding that she wanted to “have a worldwide conversation about what it takes to have peace.”

She also said she would want to focus on Syria and engage with America’s NATO allies.

Gillibrand, who has been lagging in recent polling, differed from her competitors, many of whom said they would use the occasion to restore relations with allies that Trump has soured, or who said they simply didn’t know.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar vowed to visit Canada and America’s NATO allies; former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke said he would visit Mexico; Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper all said they would go to Europe; and California Senator Kamala Harris said she would go wherever American troops were.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., takes part in a Fox News town-hall style event, Monday April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pa. (AP/Matt Rourke)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg each said they didn’t know. “I have no idea,” said Sanders. “There are a lot of hotspots around the world.” Buttigieg quipped: “Probably better become president before finalizing that decision.”

The New York Times videos were also noteworthy for including a question on whether “Israel meets international standards of human rights?”

The candidates’ answers to that also varied, but they were less critical of the Jewish state’s conduct than the reporters expected.

“Democratic views of Israel are in flux,” the newspaper explained. “President Trump has redefined the American role in the region and a younger generation of liberals are questioning Democrats’ longstanding support of Israel’s security policies. We thought this question would gauge Democrats’ willingness to criticize Israel, and found few candidates who would do so.”

While certain candidates, like Sanders and Buttigieg, warned against the direction of the country under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, others defended Israel, such as Harris and former Maryland congressman John Delaney.

Several, like de Blasio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, were empathetic of Israel’s plight in a dangerous neighborhood, and called for a two-state solution.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the ceremony for a new town named for US President Donald Trump, in Kela Alon in the northwestern Golan, on June 16, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, Democrats have appeared divided on how the US should approach its relationship with Israel.

Insurgent progressives like newly elected House members Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — the first two Muslim women in Congress — have been outspoken critics of Israel in general, whereas Sanders and other left-wing politicians have been mostly critical of the Netanyahu government but have defended Israel’s right to exist and opposed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

Establishment Democrats like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, however, have remained strongly supportive of Israel.

Trump, who moved the US embassy to Israel, cut aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the PLO office in DC, is seen as favoring Israel in the conflict, which pundits have cited as contributing to the reason liberals are becoming more dubious of the close nature of the US-Israel alliance.

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