WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg told Jewish leaders Thursday that the Palestinians don’t have the necessary leadership to be a partner for peace, but that the US should “guide” Israel to less destructive policies.
The South Bend, Indiana, mayor, a popular dark horse candidate in a crowded Democratic field, said he felt a sense of commitment to Israel’s security, but that his affection for Israel meant that he felt an obligation to challenge the current government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The way I think about our relationship with Israel … is in some ways the way I think about my relationship with the United States,” Buttigieg said, according to multiple people in the room. “As a loyal, patriotic American, I do not believe that means I have to be loyal to the political agenda of the current administration in Washington.”
The Democratic upstart candidate spoke with more than 40 prominent Jewish activists, organizational leaders and former government officials.
The event was hosted by Bluelight Strategies, a communications firm run by Democratic operatives Steve Rabinowitz and Aaron Keyak, as part of a series of frank, off-the-record conversations between 2020 Democratic candidates and the Jewish community.
Buttigieg, 37, implicitly dissed the approach of US President Donald Trump, who has acted simpatico with Jerusalem and has given Israel a number of diplomatic gifts, including moving the US embassy to Israel, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and slashing aid to the Palestinians.
“I do not believe that the right approach is to endorse wholesale the agenda of the current government,” Buttigieg said. “The right approach comes about when you have an ally or a friend [who] is taking steps that you think are harmful and you put your arm around your friend and try to guide them somewhere else. That’s part of how our alliance works. And I think American leadership is needed, in particular, with respect to our ally Israel at a moment like this.”
While the mayor didn’t refer to any specific Israeli policies, he spoke out in March after Netanyahu proposed to annex West Bank settlements ahead of the election, calling that “harmful” and saying the US needed a president “willing to counsel our ally against abandoning a two-state solution.”
But Buttigieg added Thursday that Israel was not the only obstacle to striking a peace accord. “One of the biggest problems is we don’t have the right kinds of partners in leadership on the Palestinian side,” he told the US Jewish leaders.
Sources told The Times of Israel that a number of influential American Jews were in attendance, including former Mideast peace negotiator Amb. Dennis Ross, Executive Director of the Washington Institute Rob Satloff, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and Alan Gross, the former USAID contractor who was detained in Cuba for five years.
Buttigieg told those gathered that a recent trip he took to Israel with the American Jewish Committee solidified his connection to the Jewish state.
“I saw with great admiration the achievements and the just physically compact nature of this piece of land and the security implications of that,” he said, “making me feel more motivated than ever to make sure the US is an ally.
The former Rhodes Scholar also excoriated Republicans who say that Jews “en masse should leave the Democratic Party.”
“It’s pretty rich to see a White House that has welcomed in people who I think are blatantly anti-Semitic,” he said. “The White House has made excuses for people who walk the streets chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’”
Trump himself has tweeted multiple times that Democrats are leaving the party to which they have historically been overwhelmingly aligned, after controversial comments from freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar last winter.
“Fighting anti-Semitism, like fighting all forms of hate, must be a bipartisan cause,” Buttigieg said.