How Buttigieg’s Israel stance falls in between Biden and Sanders
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How Buttigieg’s Israel stance falls in between Biden and Sanders

South Bend mayor, now the Iowa front-runner, has expressed willingness to leverage aid for Israeli cooperation; but he’s also spoken out strongly against Hamas, rocket attacks

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Democratic US presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner, on June 9, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)
Democratic US presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner, on June 9, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — US presidential primary campaigns are fickle: one day, a party candidate could be on the rise; the next, on the decline. A, early lead does not promise eventual victory, nor does a dark horse candidate’s sudden boost in polls necessarily indicate a meaningful shift.

In short, it’s a long road to the nomination.

That said, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the latest candidate to disrupt some of the conventional wisdom about how primaries might play out. Over the weekend, new polling revealed him in first place among Democratic voters in Iowa, the nation’s first caucuses ahead of the 2020 nomination.

The poll released by CNN, the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found Buttigieg’s support at 25 percent among likely caucus-goers in the Hawkeye State, who will cast ballots in February. His main opponents — former vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — are all in a three-way tie for second place at 15%.

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden at Hillside High School in Durham, NC on October 27, 2019. Approximately 850 people attended the rally in Durham. (Bryan Cereijo/The News & Observer via AP)

Buttigieg’s surge from relatively unknown political commodity to leader in the pivotal early-voting state also reflects a development for the Democratic primary’s Israel watchers: the rise of a candidate whose views on the Jewish state fall somewhere along the ideological spectrum between Biden and his more left-leaning rivals Warren and Sanders.

Whereas Sanders has openly considered cutting American aid to Israel to pressure the nation to roll back its settlement enterprise, enter peace talks with the Palestinians and improve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Biden has called the idea “outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake.”

Warren has promised to pressure Jerusalem to “end the occupation” and has said that “everything is on the table” when it comes to moving Israel away from a permanent one-state reality.

Buttigieg has also eschewed unconditionally guaranteeing Israel the same levels of US assistance, no matter its behavior or policy choices, and called for applying concrete forms of pressure to guide Israel in a direction that could yield to more progress on the peace front.

Democratic presidential candidates former vice president Joe Biden, left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, center, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg at a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, October 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Last month, the mayor said he would consider using American aid to “leverage” Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians, but would not commit to taking any specific actions.

“I’m not going to commit now to all of the ways that that leverage can and should be used, but I will say that our policy goal will be to do what we do when a friend is moving in a way that you’re worried about, which is to put your arm around them and guide them somewhere better,” he said.

The main goal, he insisted, was to prevent Israel from annexing West Bank settlements, in order to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.

Speaking at the University of Chicago, Buttigieg, 37, said he would not allow the US to grant the same amount of aid to Israel were it to take that action — as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to do.

“It is in the American interest, as well as the Palestinian and ultimately the Israeli Jewish interest, that Israel not reach the point where there will have to be a choice between either being a Jewish state or a democracy,” he said, “and there is a trajectory toward that going on right now.”

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at the J Street National Conference, with the ‘Pod Save the World’ hosts Tommy Vietor, left, and Ben Rhodes, October 28, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

However that’s a decidedly lighter posture than the one espoused by Sanders, who has also suggested giving a chunk of the $3.8 billion the United States provides Israel in military assistance to Gaza instead.

In the past, the Vermont senator has also criticized Israel for its “disproportionate” use of military force during flareups in the coastal enclave.

Buttigieg defended Israel during its recent skirmish with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as the Islamist terror organization launched hundreds of rockets into Israel  last week after the Israel Defense Forces killed a senior leader of the terrorist group.

“I strongly condemn the rocket attacks on the citizens of southern and central Israel,” he tweeted. “Israel has a right to defend itself against acts of terror that set back any progress towards peace and will only serve to inflame the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”

Buttigieg has also in the past expressed a sympathetic view of Israel’s plight and spoken admiringly of the Jewish state.

Last year, he visited the country with a group of US mayors and appeared on the American Jewish Committee’s podcast afterward to discuss the trip, which he said helped him understand the country beyond what he reads in media headlines.

“You only see what’s maybe going on with the prime minister and the Palestinian Authority and you’re not seeing nearly enough I think about the energy, the dynamism, the creativity, the innovation that’s happening at the local level and how some of that is also feeding up to the national context in a positive way,” he said.

He was also deeply critical of Hamas, the terror group that controls the Gaza Strip, and said the current Palestinian political situation made it more difficult for peace talks.

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a gun safety forum, October 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

“There really is not a unified or single voice for the Palestinian people,” Buttigieg said on the AJC podcast. Stating that Hamas’s rule over Gaza was “contributing to a lot of misery there” and noting the lack of a single entity for Israel to deal with, he said: “I don’t think that’s widely understood and I think, if it were, you would see more Democrats… asking more questions as we face these kind of 90-second cable news versions of what’s going on over there.”

The Iowa caucuses will take place on February 3, 2020. The new poll, conducted with 500 likely Democratic caucus-goers, had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. It showed Buttigieg consistently growing his base of support.

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