Last May, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg went to Israel with the American Jewish Committee and two weeks later discussed his trip with that organization. At the time Israel was killing Palestinian protesters at the Gaza fence– 60 on one day within days of Buttigieg’s visit, getting global attention — yet Buttigieg repeatedly praised Israel’s security arrangements as “moving” and “clear-eyed”, said the U.S. could learn something from them, and blamed Palestinians and Hamas for the “misery” in Gaza.
He also faulted fellow Democrats for making snap judgments based on “90-second cable news versions of what’s going on over there.”
Buttigieg, 37, a former Navy intelligence officer, is today a rising star in the Democratic presidential field as a midwestern mayor with a reputation for intelligence and pragmatism. In his 22-minute discussion with the AJC’s Seffi Kogen last May, Buttigieg never mentioned the Gaza protests directly. But he said that if you only visited Israel, you’d see what wise judgments Israelis are making.
He went to Israel last May for the first time at the behest of strong Israel supporters, the Jewish Federations of Indiana and the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. “I’d always been interested [in going]. But when the Jewish Federation reached out and told me how special this opportunity was, I thought ‘Now’s the time.'” (It helps to be planning to run for president.)
Rockets fell from Syria on his visit and Buttigieg was impressed that Israeli society did not “grind to a halt.” He went on to justify every choice Israel has made on its security in a “challenging neighborhood,” offered those choices as a “moving” model for the U.S., and said the U.S. is not doing enough to pressure Egypt and the Palestinians.
Seeing the way that a country can be on one hand very intentional, very serious and very effective when it comes to security and on the other hand not allow concerns about security to dominate your consciousness– I think there’s a very important lesson in that that hopefully Americans can look to as we think about how to navigate a world that unfortunately has become smaller and more dangerous for all of us…
I was in a very modern city surrounded by people going about their lives. Seeing how people fit those things together was illuminating and in many ways moving. There’s a sense there that no matter what challenges there are in the community or in the society, they can’t wait for security issues to be resolved. People live their lives, they’re pretty clear-eyed about what is going on around them. And at the same time, you don’t let that take over… The sense that we were in a very safe and very peaceful place– some of the numbers we’ve been shown on violence of any kind in many of the cities we visited, even in Jerusalem, whether you’re looking at political violence or petty crime, those statistics would frankly be the envy of a lot of our midwestern cities….
Kogen asked what Buttigieg would want Americans to understand about Israel. The mayor said, How exciting Israel is, not the cable TV images:
Certainly just understanding the complexity and nuance of the issues. Also understanding the level of modernity there….So often you only see coverage of international tension. 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 spoke of keeping Israel a bipartisan cause, and keeping the focus on Iran.
I think there’s a risk that Israel could come to be regarded as a partisan issue, and I think that would be really unfortunate.
One of the first things you realize when you get on the ground is this is not a left versus right issue. At least it shouldn’t be. We met a lot of people from the Israeli left who have complicated and nuanced views of what is going on [including the]…. relationship with Iran. Unfortunately these things are reduced into a black and white picture sometimes in the American media.
Buttigieg also visited the occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. And he faulted Palestinian leadership and Hamas for Palestinian misery, and said Democrats just don’t get it cause they’re watching cable news:
[We got] a more nuanced idea of what is happening on the Palestinian side. So one of the first things that was very clear to us was the extent to which there really is not a unified or single voice for the Palestinian … people. 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 would have a negotiating partner across the table is really important. I don’t think that’s widely understood and I think if it were you would see more Democrats would be asking more questions as we face these kind of 90-second cable news versions of what’s going on over there.
Remember that many progressives responded to the shock of the May 14 slaughter by pronouncing it a massacre. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
This is a massacre. I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.
In his interview, Buttigieg issued one mild criticism of the Trump administration policy, as consisting of “sweeping gestures that may move public opinion, but not so committed to peace.” Everyone over there wants peace, but people here reach easy judgments, he said.
Those who seem to have the most clearcut answers and the most strident opinions seem to be the one on the outside looking in. That’s another reason the trip was so valuable.
Buttigieg says the region needs for the U.S. to be an “honest broker” of peace, but we’re losing “credibility.” But when asked how we’d go about doing that, it’s building the alliance with Israel and putting more pressure on Palestinians and Arabs.
I think the security and intelligence cooperation [between the U.S. and Israel] is obviously vital, certainly something that is as important for American interests as much as Israeli interests.
There may be some opportunities perhaps not under the present administration but over time to be a constructive voice in inducing some of the other players in the region to accept greater responsibility. You think for example about the Egyptian role when it comes to the situation in Gaza, and you think of some of the leverage the US has over Egypt. Before you even get to the Iran issue and what’s going on in some of the Gulf States, there’s certainly a chance for the U.S. to exert influence and be a constructive player when it comes to a lot of states in the region that frankly just haven’t lived up to their responsibilities.
So Israel has lived up to its responsibilities, but Egypt hasn’t.
Buttigieg is a quick study; and what leaps out from these remarks is how completely the Rhodes Scholar imbibed the official pro-Israel version of events, and showed contempt for Palestinian understanding. There is no sense in Buttigieg’s remarks that Israel is a militarized, rightwing country that adores Donald Trump and that is led by a strongman and that answers resistance to the existing order with overwhelming force that international human rights organizations said at the time of his remarks were likely war crimes.
Buttigieg did not meet with AIPAC last week; but we can expect Buttigieg to take a centrist pro-Israel position in opposition to the Democratic base, which is highly critical of Israel.
Thanks to Adam Horowitz.