Democratic contender Beto O’Rourke knocks Netanyahu for ‘siding with racists’

Former Texan congressman becomes latest in crowded field to speak out against prime minister, says neither Netanyahu nor Abbas is a good negotiating partner

Joshua Davidovich is The Times of Israel's Deputy Editor

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke arrives at a meet and greet at Tuckerman Brewing on March 20, 2019 in Conway, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images/AFP)
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke arrives at a meet and greet at Tuckerman Brewing on March 20, 2019 in Conway, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images/AFP)

Texan Beto O’Rourke has become the latest Democrat running for the party’s presidential nomination to take aim at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing him of “openly siding with racists” at campaign events this week.

O’Rourke, speaking in Keene, New Hampshire, was seemingly referring to Netanyahu’s role in securing a deal to merge the extremist Oztma Yehudit party with far-right Jewish Home, thus increasing the chances the party will place a lawmaker in the Knesset.

“We have a prime minister in Israel who has openly sided with racists, who, in a previous election, warned that the Arabs were coming to the polls,” he said Tuesday when asked a question about whether he had taken money from pro-Israel lobbyists during his failed Senate bid last year.

On Wednesday, he repeated the statement at another event when asked about support for boycotts of Israel, according to a Washington Post reporter there.

O’Rourke also dismissed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s ability to negotiate a peace deal, calling him on Tuesday an “ineffectual leader … who has not been very effective in bringing his side to the table either as a viable peace negotiator.”

“Right now we don’t have the best negotiating partners on either side,” he said.

He said a two-state formula was the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “I believe in peace and dignity and full human rights for the Palestinian people and the Israeli people.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A number of contenders in the crowded Democratic field running for the White House have spoken out against Netanyahu over the Otzma Yehudit deal, including Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

On Sunday, the High Court disqualified the party’s top candidate from running for Knesset over his overtly racist views. The party is seen as the ideological successor of late anti-Arab rabbi Meir Kahane and his banned Kach party.

The merger with Otzma Yehudit and Netanyahu’s role in engineering it were widely condemned in Israel and abroad, including by many staunch allies of Israel’s government, such as the America Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Otzma Yehudit candidates Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Michael Ben-Ari, right, carry a mock coffin with a man wearing a Benjamin Netanyahu face mask during a protest in Jerusalem on July 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

O’Rourke’s comments underlined growing openness among Democrats to express unease with the Netanyahu government’s policies. Analysts have pointed to a shift within the party away from its formerly traditional unflinching support of Israel, especially among the party’s more progressive flank, which has grown in stature and size in recent months.

On Wednesday, MoveOn, the progressive advocacy movement, asked Democratic presidential candidates not to attend next week’s AIPAC conference in Washington.

No declared presidential candidates are scheduled to speak at the conference, and AIPAC’s policy is that presidential candidates are invited to speak only in election years. However, candidates have in past years circulated at the conference and have held private parlors to meet with activists.

On Monday, candidate Bernie Sanders posted a campaign video showing a supporter praising him for condemning “apartheid-like” conditions among Palestinians.

US Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Democrat of Texas, left, and US Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican ofTexas, right, take part in a debate for the Texas US Senate, October 16, 2018, in San Antonio. (Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News via AP, Pool)

In 2014, O’Rourke drew fire from pro-Israel groups and others when he was one of eight House members to vote against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. He later said he opposed the fact that there was no debate over the aid, and took a J Street-sponsored trip to Israel a year later as he sought to re-burnish his pro-Israel bona fides.

His campaign literature touted him as pro-Israel during a failed bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.

As a presidential candidate, O’Rourke has tried to position himself as a consensus-maker, shifting between liberal and moderate positions depending on the topic.

The former congressman had called for impeaching US President Donald Trump but has since backtracked. He also once endorsed Sanders’ “Medicare for All,” but now backs a more moderate House plan known as “Medicare for America.”

“If there’s an issue he might be more centrist on, he’s honest about that,” said New York Rep. Kathleen Rice. “He doesn’t try to pander to a certain base.”

JTA and AP contributed to this report.

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