For many people with strong opinions about Israel/Palestine, the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates don’t offer much in the way of new ideas.
Although Donald Trump made a headline or two this winter saying he’d be a neutral arbiter between Israelis and Palestinians, he soon after backtracked, delivering a well received, if uncreative, speech to standing ovations at AIPAC. Appointees of Hillary Clinton to the Democratic National Committee’s platform drafting committee successfully smacked down a bid to include language even acknowledging the existence Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
With that in mind, a voter might wonder what the Libertarian Party has to offer concerning Israel/Palestine.
The Libertarians argue, as they do across the board, for disentangling the U.S. from onerous aid arrangements, but their reasons have less to do with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and more to do with the party’s promise to make government smaller in general. There isn’t a plank for Israel in the Libertarian platform, but in speaking with a Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, Alex Merced, it appears that the party is the most open to new ideas, for better or worse, of all the parties running this year.
The Presidential ticket
On Saturday, Libertarian vice presidential candidate William Weld, a former Massachusetts governor, told NPR the party is making a bid for jilted Bernie Sanders voters. Weld described the Libertarian foreign policy philosophy as “to the left” of Clinton. As Secretary of State, Clinton oversaw the most violent period of Barack Obama’s presidency, when the U.S. surged soldiers into Afghanistan, funneled “supplies” to armed groups in Syria and bombed Muammar Gaddafi’s regime into the dustbin of history, and Gaddafi into the hands of his fellow Libyans, who tortured him to death. (“We came. We saw. He died,” Clinton quipped.) Weld and other Libertarians wouldn’t go down this road, and consider U.S. intervention as a cause of danger for the world, not a solution to it.
“The one place where I think we probably are to the left of Mrs. Clinton is on boots on the ground in foreign countries or spilling blood on – American blood on foreign soil,” Weld told NPR on Saturday. “Both Governor Johnson and I think that the instinct towards regime change can have a lot of unfortunate, unintended consequences, and they can be moral and they can also be economic and they can be military. The strikes that Syria and Libya – the people we wound up signing up with turned out to have very close links with ISIS. So that’s been enormously destabilizing in those countries and enormously counterproductive in terms of our interests, however good it might have felt at the time to those deploying that tremendous American power.”
During the primary campaign, Sanders offered a conflicting hodge podge of both Obama-era foreign policy, like an endorsement of drone strikes, but his main theme was to be more cautious in the application of American military might. Johnson has tried to play to Sanders voters, citing an isidewith.com test he took to see which candidate he agreed with the most, and boasted about it in May. The online quiz told the candidate he and Sanders agreed 73 percent of the time, especially on social issues.
“Now, that’s the side of Bernie that has to do with pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, let’s stop with the military interventions, that there is crony capitalism, that government really isn’t fair when it comes to this level playing field, legalize marijuana,” he said, according to the Washington Free Beacon. “Look, 73 percent of what Bernie says I agree with. We come to a T in the road when it comes to economics.”
Johnson has played his specific foreign policy positions somewhat close to the chest, and his campaign did not reply to requests for comment for this story. However, he did publish one answer on isidewith.com, which compared Sanders and Johnson on the issue of Israel.
“Bernie Sanders’ answer: We should give equal support to Israel and Palestine,” with a link to the Brooklyn debate transcript where Sanders distinguished his position on Israel.
Gary Johnson submitted his own answer, directly to ISideWith. It shows how he agrees with Sanders, at least by saying “Yes” to the equal support notion.
“Gary Johnson’s answer: Yes, but respect Israel’s sovereignty and do not dictate how it should interact with its neighbors.”
That’s pretty much all there is out there for Johnson’s thoughts on Israel/Palestine. And if respecting sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ foreign affairs sounds like special pleading for Israel, remember that Libertarians say the same thing for any country. What’s most important is Johnson’s subtle but elided “Yes” agreement with Sanders on neutral arbitration. That’s common sense, but the simple wisdom of the real world sounds like radical talk to policymakers nowadays.
A Libertarian in New York
To get some more fleshed out answers to what a Libertarian candidate would do in office, I contacted Alex Merced, the Libertarian Party’s senate candidate to represent New York. He’s running against Republican Wendy Long, a Trump loyalist, and Democrat Chuck Schumer, a Hillary acolyte, who has come out against the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, and stands on the right wing side of the Democratic when it comes to Israel/Palestine.
Merced said some pretty remarkable things about Israel/Palestine, including words one never hears from a politician: “I don’t know.”
Merced said that whatever the United States has been doing in the region, hasn’t been making Israelis or Palestinians suffer any less or be any safer. The irony is that our adventures in the Middle East have been carried out in the alleged interest of Israeli security.
“Lot of times our interventions in the Middle East have been partly in defense of Israel and we’ve actually made the region more dangerous for Israel,” Merced said.
“As a Libertarian, we’re definitely more hands off. We want the world to be a safer place, but we don’t feel that U.S. intervention makes the world a safer place. So for example I have a lot of Muslim friends I have a lot of Jewish friends so I do care about the conflict and I do care about a peaceful resolution. There’s actually a very diverse range of opinions on this particular issue. There’s no official statement in the Libertarian Party platform on this issue.”
While Libertarians usually agree that U.S. military force should only be used for defense of the country itself, according to Merced, the Israel/Palestine question falls outside of the range of Libertarian thought.
“How people feel about the Israel/Palestine conflict is not dictated by Libertarian philosophy, there’s no natural lib position on that, because it’s a personal view on a conflict between two other parties. You have people who are pro-Israel, people who are pro-Palestine and people in the middle who feel it is a conflict that should be resolved by both parties,” Merced said, identifying himself with the third group.
“I sympathize with both sides. I care about the Middle East. It’s something that those two parties have to figure out on their own, but U.S. policies have made things more dangerous for both sides, in my opinion,” he said.“The foreign policy in terms of regime change has made the region more unstable.”
One hot-button issue in New York state this year has been how the Empire State relates to the BDS movement. Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this year signed into law legislations that denies state funding to companies boycotting Israel over its human rights abuses. Critics called it an affront to free speech. Merced said that it was an example of oversized government having too much say in private life, something the Libertarian Party wants to fix by making government smaller.
“If there’s a voter who feels there is no place for my BDS views, would the Libertarian Party be that?” I asked.
“Well basically from a Libertarian perspective people can express their values in voluntary ways. If people voluntarily choose not to spend their money in a particular way, that’s on them. It’s not what the values are, what matters is if the person wants to choose to give money to xyz. That’s their personal values. But if people want to stop others from spending their money in certain ways, that would be a problem no matter what the values are.”
I asked about his rivals in New York State, who have supported anti-BDS efforts.
“Schumer and Cuomo and other Hillary-aligned Democrats…”
Merced finished my sentence for me: “…actively boycotted the BDS movement from a policy standpoint. And while I understand their values and should be able to encourage people to act on their values, I don’t think they should use policy to basically signal, for values signaling. I’d rather have policy be as value free as possible. Policy is supposed to represent everybody.”
Infusing policy with values creates “more hostility and division in society, when people are playing favorites.”
In general, Merced would like to see less money from government going to causes like Israel’s or anybody else’s. The more government gets involved in expenditures, the more complex those expenditures become which make issues that should be straightforward…government should just be doing the basics. Values shouldn’t play into paving a road.”
“Do you think Cuomo’s BDS law qualifies as a blacklist?” I asked.
“Yeah, kind of,” Merced said, then returning to his main point. “I don’t think government spending should be making those qualifications.”
But some of the Libertarian philosophy allows Americans to decide “who they want to give aid to,” on their own, and not through the government.
“I think it would be a much better world that if countries that wanted aid had to make their case to the American people, instead of the American politicians,” he said.
“But then someone could ask ‘How could that stop Sheldon Adelson,’” an American who owns media outlets in Israel and champions the occupation.
“If he wants to personally donate, he should be able to donate as much as he wants. He can do what he wants with his money,” Merced explained.
Adelson is wealthy, but he’s not $40 billion over 10 years wealthy, like the government expects the American taxpayer to be to fund Israel’s bleak business.
I asked what withdrawing foreign aid would do to Palestinians, whose daily lives rely on money from the U.S and Europe going to fund infrastructure projects, for simple civic duties like water delivery, road maintenance and garbage disposal. Withdrawing that money would be a big shock to an already fragile system.
Merced explained that he wouldn’t remove all aid all at once.
“The value-free government policy world is the one I want to get to, it’s also you don’t get there overnight. Turn off the spigot and hope for the best, we try to think of compassionate, humane ways to move towards that. I don’t think there are easy answers, and that’s why I don’t have clear answers for you. It’s something that would have to be part of a discussion. And if I am U.S. Senator, I’m not going to show up and say this is going to happen over night, I would engage people who care about both sides of this issue and say ‘Alright, we agree we want to get to X, what’s the best way we can get everybody to the table to get to that point.’”
But the problem is that nobody knows where they want to go. I asked Merced what he thought of a two state versus single state solution to the conflict.
“I personally would probably say a two-state solution. I assume that in the end it would be a two-state solution,” he said. “But I don’t particularly have a horse either way. Whatever can bring the two sides to the table and bring peace the earliest, I’m for that.”