Democratic White House hopeful O’Rourke calls Netanyahu ‘racist’

Former Texas lawmaker tells Iowa crowd that bilateral, bipartisan relationship must ‘transcend’ prime minister, who he says does not represent Israelis

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks during a campaign rally at the University of Iowa on April 7, 2019 in Iowa City, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks during a campaign rally at the University of Iowa on April 7, 2019 in Iowa City, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)

Democratic 2020 hopeful Beto O’Rourke lashed out against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday, calling him a racist and saying the US-Israel relationship needed to find a way to ‘transcend’ him.

The comment by O’Rourke was the second time the former Texas lawmaker has spoken out against Netanyahu, who is running for a fifth term as prime minister on Tuesday.

“The US-Israel relationship is one of the most important relationships that we have on the planet, and that relationship, if it is successful, must transcend partisanship in the United States, and it must be able to transcend a prime minister who is racist, as he warns against Arabs coming to the polls, who wants to defy any prospect for peace as he threatens to annex the West Bank, and who has sided with a far-right racist party in order to maintain his hold on power,” O’Rourke said, according to reports in US media.

He was referring to rhetoric used by Netanyahu against Arab voters in the last election, the prime minister’s recent comments about annexing West Bank settlements and his efforts to engineer a political partnership with the extremist Otzma Yehudit party.

Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir (L) argues with Israeli Arab candidate Ata Abu Madighem after a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 14, 2019. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

O’Rourke, at a campaign event in Iowa City, had been asked about whether his previous comments about Netanyahu risked alienating voters.

In March, O’Rourke said Netanyahu was “openly siding with racists,” and said neither he nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were “the best negotiating partners.”

On Sunday, O’Rourke said he did not think Netanyahu “represents the true will of the Israeli people.”

“We must be able to transcend his current leadership to make sure that that alliance is strong, that we continue to push for and settle for nothing less than a two-state solution, because that is the best opportunity for peace for the people of Israel and the people of Palestine,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, April 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for a decade, had a combative relationship with former US president Barack Obama, but has since forged a close relationship with US President Donald Trump and other top Republicans, leading to concerns that support for Israel has become increasingly partisan in reaction.

On Tuesday, Israeli voters will cast ballots in an election that is largely viewed as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership. Polls have shown his Likud party neck and neck with chief rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White faction.

O’Rourke is polling fourth in a Democratic field of at least 17 candidates vying for the White House, including liberal Senator Bernie Sanders, and which may soon see former vice president Joe Biden enter the race.

Sanders has spoken out against Israeli policies and others in the crowded field have criticized Netanyahu over the Otzma Yehudit deal, including Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, though O’Rourke’s comments seemed to be the most pointed to date.

On Thursday, O’Rourke compared US President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants to Nazi German rhetoric.

“Now we would not be surprised if, in the Third Reich, other human beings were described as an infestation, as a cockroach or a pest that you would want to kill,” he told a town hall event in Carroll, Iowa.

US President Donald Trump smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, after signing a proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The criticism of Netanyahu underlined growing openness among Democrats to express unease with the right-wing Israeli 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.

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.

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