Where do top 2020 Democratic hopefuls stand on Israel?

Each of the presidential contenders promises a radically different Israel policy to Trump’s. But some are more radical than others

Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders (All images AP)
Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders (All images AP)

WASHINGTON — The Democratic Party is at a crossroads. As it seeks to select the 2020 nominee — the candidate who will have the unique opportunity of unseating US President Donald Trump — its leaders and voters must make fundamental decisions about the party’s identity.

As the Democratic primary unfolds, the push-and-pull between the party’s more progressive and centrists wings will have reverberations on every issue under the sun, but on no foreign policy issue will those differences be more pronounced than on the debate over America’s approach toward Israel.

The high prominence of maverick House lawmakers who have been deeply critical of the Jewish state, including Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, alongside the polarizing Mideast policies of US President Donald Trump — foremost among them: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and cutting aid to the Palestinians — means the “Israel issue” is likely to be litigated among Democrats in 2020.

And with the Trump administration set to unveil its highly anticipated peace proposal this summer, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and the US role in trying to solve it — will be increasingly thrust into the spotlight. The first debates will take place June 26 and 27 in Miami, Florida, right around the time Jared Kushner has said he will release the Trump team’s plan.

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, DC, on March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Looking ahead to what will surely be an all-consuming campaign season, The Times of Israel has examined how the top Democratic candidates stack up on Israel.

According to recent polling, the leading five hopefuls are former vice president Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Below is a primer on their histories and stated positions on American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, along with those from a few of the many other candidates trying to break through the crowded field.

Former vice president Joe Biden, 76

Out of all the Democratic presidential hopefuls, the former vice president has the longest record on Israel. He first traveled to the Jewish state as a freshmen senator in 1973, when he met prime minister Golda Meir on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. Their interaction became the basis of a story he tells virtually every time he addresses a Jewish audience.

After touring the country, Biden, 76, met with Meir, who said he looked nervous. He told her he was thinking about Israel’s military vulnerability. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “We have a secret weapon in our conflict with the Arabs: We have no place else to go.”

But along with a sense of expressed empathy for Israel’s plight of being located in a volatile region where many of its neighbors would like to see the state disappear, Biden brings the legacy of the administration in which he served faithfully.

If there was an overriding doctrine to the Obama White House’s philosophy toward managing US-Israel relations, it was that Netanyahu’s government was driving drunk with its settlement expansion, making it America’s obligation to take away the keys. Hence the administration allowed the passage of a 2016 UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Biden has indicated his own exasperation with the current Israeli leader, with whom his boss, Barack Obama, had a notoriously tumultuous relationship.

“We have an overwhelming obligation — notwithstanding our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government — we have an obligation to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only solution: a two-state solution,” Biden told J Street in April 2016.

Israel’s survival as a Jewish democracy, he argued, rested on the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. Otherwise, Israel will have to either absorb all the Arabs living in between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and give up its Jewish character, or deprive them of equal rights and give up its democratic foundation. “The present course Israel’s on is not one that’s likely to secure its existence as a Jewish, democratic state, and we have to make sure that happens,” Biden added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with US Vice President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

One of the first snafus of the Obama-Netanyahu years was when Netanyahu announced a plan for new settlement units while Biden was visiting Israel in 2010 — a major embarrassment to Washington at the time, which was pushing to jumpstart peace talks.

At the same time, the Scranton, Pennsylvania, native has been a consistent critic of Palestinian terrorism. On another trip to Israel in March 2016, in which he met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed and killed American Army veteran Taylor Force in Tel Aviv. Biden was a mile away from the attack.

Biden castigated the assailant — and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who did not denounce the violence. “Let me say in no uncertain terms: The United States of America condemns these acts and condemns the failure to condemn these acts,” Biden said. “This cannot be viewed by civilized leaders as an appropriate way in which to behave.”

Force’s murder later became the impetus for the Taylor Force Act, legislation that mandated the United States withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority until it stops issuing social welfare payments to the families of terrorists who kill Israelis. It was signed into law last year by Trump. Biden himself has never expressed support for it.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, 77

Arguably, no one on the American left has had more influence on the insurgency of growing progressive sympathy for the Palestinians than Bernie Sanders.

Longtime Democratic National Committee member James Zogby said that the senator’s blistering criticism of Israeli policy under Netanyahu during a 2016 Democratic primary debate with Hillary Clinton — and the enthusiastic reception it received from the crowd, and from liberals on social media — showed the Democratic Party that “there is a constituency that wants to hear about this.”

Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) debates Hillary Clinton during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 14, 2016 in New York City. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP)

During the campaign, Sanders, 77, was often criticized for not prioritizing, nor knowing much about, foreign policy. He admitted as much in a recent April CNN town hall: “I was rightfully criticized the last time around because I didn’t pay as much attention as I might.”

Since 2016, he’s tried to make up for that previous shortcoming. He hired progressive Middle East analyst Matt Duss as a foreign policy adviser in his Senate office and developed a close relationship with J Street; he’s since spoken at their last two annual confabs.

Beyond his intense focus on ending the war in Yemen and striking new global trade arrangements, Sanders has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a central theme of his foreign policy message.

He has been a vociferous critic of Netanyahu — in that same CNN town hall, he referred to him as a “racist” — and a strong proponent of the two-state solution. He’s also repeatedly excoriated Israeli operations in Gaza, including saying Israel “overreacted” to border protests last year.

Sanders has often called for taking a fundamentally different approach to the intractable Middle East conflict. The United States, he has said, should play a more “even-handed role” and be more amenable to Palestinian political desires and less deferential to Israel.

“I am not anti-Israel. But the fact of the matter is Netanyahu is a right-wing politician who I think is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly,” Sanders said during the New Hampshire town hall last month. “What I believe is not radical. I just believe that the United States should deal with the Middle East on a level playing field basis.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, 69

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was once a more vigorous defender of Israel than she is today.

During the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, Warren told an angry constituent that Israel was justified in launching its offensive as Hamas fired rockets from Gaza, and stood by her support for increasing US aid to Israel.

“Israel has been attacked, and they were attacked indiscriminately… not aimed at military targets but aimed at anybody they can hit in Israel, the fundamental notion of terrorism,” she said. “Israel has a right to defend itself and we have an interest in Israel defending itself and surviving.”

“Having said that,” she added, “I recognize that we need a long-term solution that provides two states here; that there is a state here and that there is another state, a separate state for the Palestinian people.”

In the years since, Warren has maintained her stance on the two-state outcome but has been more critical of how Israel has conducted itself during flare-ups in the Gaza Strip.

As violence broke out last spring when Hamas orchestrated the March of Return protests, Warren called on Israel to exercise more “restraint” as Palestinian casualties were mounting.

“I am deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries in Gaza,” she said. “As additional protests are planned for the coming days, the Israel Defense Forces should exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.”

Since March 2018, Palestinians have been holding weekly “March of Return” protests on the border, which Israel has accused Hamas, an Islamist group the seeks to destroy Israel, of using to carry out attacks on troops and attempt to breach the security fence.

Warren has also been vehemently against the BDS movement, but just as vehemently against legislative efforts to criminalize it.

“I oppose the boycott,” she said in a statement last February. “But I think penalizing free speech activity violates our Constitution, so I oppose this bill.”

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37

The small-town mayor making a big-time splash on the American political scene has no reason to have well developed views on Israel. As the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a town of roughly 100,000, Pete Buttigieg hasn’t had to make foreign policy decisions in any official capacity. But the 37-year-old Afghanistan veteran has made some highly supportive — and nuanced — statements on the Jewish state and its conflict with the Palestinians.

Last year, he visited Israel 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.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, South Bend, Ind. mayor, address the National Action Network (NAN) convention, Thursday April 4, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

“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, and said the current Palestinian political situation made it more difficult for an agreement to be reached.

“There really is not a unified or single voice for the Palestinian people,” Buttigieg said. “Most people aren’t aware of the difference between what’s happening in Gaza — run by Hamas in a way that is contributing to a lot of misery there — but also totally different than an environment where you’d have a negotiating partner across the table. 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.”

Buttigieg’s comments came at a time when the Democratic Party is moving in an increasingly critical direction toward Israel.

Some progressive activists have already let the Democratic rising star — often referred to simply as Mayor Pete — know their dissatisfaction. At a recent campaign rally, several protestors showed up wearing shirts that asked him to “Open your heart to Palestine & Golan.”

Buttigieg has spoken in support of the two-state solution and lambasted Netanyahu’s campaign pledge to annex West Bank settlements.

“This provocation is harmful to Israeli, Palestinian and American interests,” he tweeted. “Supporting Israel does not have to mean agreeing with Netanyahu’s politics. This calls for a president willing to counsel our ally against abandoning a two-state solution.”

California Senator Kamala Harris, 54

Like Buttigieg, Kamala Harris has not bucked the Democratic Party’s traditionally supportive posture toward Israel. In April, the California senator’s campaign communications director Lily Adams told McClatchy that her “support for Israel is central to who she is.”

Even as insurgent progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been deeply critical of Israel’s tactics targeting Hamas terrorists in Gaza — and of its response to protests at the border — Adams told McClatchy that the California lawmaker is “firm in her belief that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself, including against rocket attacks from Gaza.”

The former prosecutor also was very public about her private meetings with AIPAC officials in March amid the powerful pro-Israel lobby’s annual conference. At the time, there were rumblings that none of the major Democratic candidates, or prospective candidates, were planning on attending.

While Harris had spoken at the annual event in 2018, she was not scheduled to speak this year, arguably as part of a mini-boycott called by liberal group Move-On. The public announcement of the private meeting was seen as a tactic to dispel such rumors.

“Great to meet today in my office with California AIPAC leaders to discuss the need for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance, the right of Israel to defend itself, and my commitment to combat anti-Semitism in our country and around the world,” Harris, 54, tweeted.

The one point on which Harris has diverged from Washington’s pro-Israel lobby is on the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, legislation that would criminalize boycotting the Jewish state. Harris opposed the bill on the grounds that it would infringe on speech rights.

All of Harris’s Senate colleagues running for president took the same stance, except for one: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who voted in favor of the bill.

It’s still a crowded field

As of this writing, 21 candidates have officially entered the race and more are potentially on the way. These include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a staunchly pro-Israel politician whose city encompasses the largest Jewish population in the country.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has also already launched her bid. Traditionally supportive of Israel, she penned an op-ed in The Forward in August 2017 explaining her decision to oppose the Israel Anti-Boycott Act — after initially backing it.

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

“I signed onto it because I have always supported Israel and opposed BDS. But when constitutional lawyers expressed alarm that the bill could have a chilling effect on the First Amendment, I took their concerns seriously,” she wrote, later adding that “we should never have to choose between supporting Israel and supporting the First Amendment.”

As a member of Congress from 2013 to 2019, Texan Beto O’Rourke was a solid vote in the pro-Israel corner — except once. In the middle of the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, he was one of eight Democratic House lawmakers to vote against increased funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system.

On the campaign trail, he has said he supports a two-state solution, called the US-Israel relationship “one of the most important on the planet” and blasted Netanyahu as a bigot.

“That relationship, if it is to be successful, must transcend partisanship in the United States, and it must be able to transcend a prime minister who is racist, as he warns about 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 the day before the Israeli election last month.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke speaks during a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, April 4, 2019. (Justin Wan/Sioux City Journal via AP)

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is polling poorly at this stage, but he has deep ties to the Jewish community.

As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he was known to frequently hang out at the university’s Jewish house, where he befriended the politically conservative Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Booker is known to be well versed in Jewish liturgy — and he apparently enjoys quoting the Jewish sage Hillel. He recently told David Axelrod during a podcast interview that he had “the blessing of discovering Israel before I was a politician,” having visited when he was 24 after studying Torah for two years.

Like Gillibrand, Booker flipped on the anti-BDS Senate bill, having once said he would vote for it but then announced his opposition shortly before the vote was scheduled. (He did, however, support the Taylor Force Act.)

Booker has, like all of his Democratic rivals, warned against Trump destroying the possibility of a two-state solution, and criticized his cutting aid from the Palestinians to bring them back to the negotiating table.

“To pull money from NGOs and other[s]— often led by Americans trying to get access to clean water, that’s wrong to me. And so this is a perilous time that I think we as a government, and we as a nation, need to recommit ourselves to a two-state solution,” he told Axelrod on the podcast.

Sen. Cory Booker addresses the crowd during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Dome event on January 21, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/AFP)

All of the presidential hopefuls have one major position in common that’s of acute interest to Netanyahu: All of them support the Iran nuclear deal, and many have vowed to re-enter the pact if elected, including Sanders, Harris, and Warren.

Jerusalem has already expressed its discomfort with this proposition.

Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer told a crowd at AIPAC in March that such a stance “has to be seen as totally unacceptable,” without specifically calling out Democrats.

Nevertheless, if any of the Democratic would-be presidents ascend 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they are likely to take a vastly different approach toward Israel than Trump, who has been more unequivocally aligned with Israel than any other president in American history.

If nothing else, that should keep Netanyahu, and perhaps most Israelis, following the 2020 US election with special interest.

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