Israel and Palestine came up in the second hour of last night’s Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in Los Angeles, and four leading candidates used a question about whether we should condition aid to Israel based on its actions in the occupied West Bank to distinguish their positions.
If there was one takeaway from the exchange, it is that the Israel brand is not exceedingly popular in the Democratic Party. The embraces were lukewarm.
Bernie Sanders said Benjamin Netanyahu is a racist and if elected, Sanders would have an even-handed policy, including being “pro-Palestinian.” He also spoke up for human rights in Gaza.
Pete Buttigieg used the question to highlight Trump’s intolerance and “domestic” political use of Israel, saying that Trump is using Israel to make himself look “pro-Israel and pro-Jewish, while welcoming white nationalists into the White House.” He said nothing about Netanyahu.
Joe Biden was not asked the question but returned to it to say he would not condition aid, he supports a Jewish state, and that his old friend Netanyahu is endangering Israel’s status as such.
Elizabeth Warren appeared to avoid the question. Though she was not asked it, she followed Sanders and Buttigieg and turned a foreign policy question to her support for the U.S. military.
Here are those answers. (Transcript from the Washington Post with my adjustments from video below, at 1:18:00.)
Yamiche Alcindor of PBS News Hour opened the discussion: “Senator Sanders, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently declared that the United States believes Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law. That broke decades-long U.S. precedent. How would you respond to Israeli expansion of settlements? Would you link that to foreign aid to Israel?”
Israel has — and I say this as somebody who lived in Israel as a kid, proudly Jewish — Israel has the right not only to exist, but to exist in peace and security. (smattering of applause). But what, but what U.S. foreign policy must be about is not just being pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian, as well. (Larger applause)
And whether, in my view — we must understand that right now in Israel we have leadership under Netanyahu, who has recently, as you know, been indicted for bribery, who, in my view, is a racist — what we need is a level playing field in terms of the Middle East, which addresses the terrible crisis in Gaza, where 60 percent or 70 percent of the young people are unemployed.
So what my foreign policy will be about is human rights, is democracy, is bringing people together in a peaceful way, trying to negotiate agreements, not endless wars with trillions of dollars of expenses.
Alcindor then posed the question to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
What we are seeing in the Middle East and around the world are the consequences of this president’s failure, this president’s refusal to lead. It’s particularly disturbing in the case of Israel because he has infused domestic politics, making U.S. foreign policy choices in order to effectively interfere in Israeli domestic politics, acting as though that somehow makes him pro-Israel and pro-Jewish, while welcoming white nationalists into the White House.
But it’s not only in the Middle East that we see the consequences of the disappearance of U.S. leadership. We see among our allies and among our adversaries case after case where the world is making plans on what to do, ignoring the United States, because we’re no longer considered reliable.
It’s not just the mockery at a cocktail party on the sidelines of a conference. It’s the looks on the faces of the leaders at the U.N. as they looked at the United States president with a mixture of contempt and pity.
As an American, I never again want to see the American president looked at that way by the leaders of the world. The world needs America right now. But it can’t be just any America. It has to be one that is actually living up to the values that make us who we are: supporting peace, supporting democracy, supporting human rights, and supporting stability around the world.
Alcindor then asked Elizabeth Warren if she would close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which still holds 40 prisoners. “And if elected, how will you do it?” Warren turned the question to the importance of the American military in the Middle East in backing the Kurds, and our mistaken support for dictators. She seemed to echo Buttigieg and Sanders on Netanyahu, but vaguely.
Yes. It is time to close this detention facility. It not only costs us money, it is an international embarrassment. We have to be an America that lives our values every single day. We can’t be an America that stands up and asks people to fight alongside us, as we did with the Kurds in fighting ISIS, and then turn around in the blink of a tweet and say that we’re turning our backs on the people who stood beside us. After that, who wants to be an ally of the United States?
We have to be an America that understands the difference and recognizes the difference between our allies, the people who will work alongside us, and the dictators who would do us harm. And we need to treat our allies better than we treat the dictators. That needs to be our job as an America– (applause) We have the finest military on Earth. All three of my brothers served. And we have people on this stage who have served, and I am deeply grateful for that. Our military is strong and important, but we need to be an America that relies on our State Department, that relies on diplomacy, that relies on our economic power and that relies on working together with the rest of the world to build a world that is sustainable environmentally and economically for everyone.
Then Joe Biden was asked why the Obama administration failed to close Guantanamo Bay, when he was vice president, and he made a point of bringing up Israel.
We attempted to close Guantanamo Bay, but you have to have congressional authority to do it. They’ve kept it open. And the fact is that we, in fact, think it’s greatest — it is an advertisement for creating terror.
Look, what we have done around the world in terms of keeping Guantanamo open or what Trump has done by no longer being an honest broker in Israel, there’s no solution for Israel other than a two-state solution. It does not exist. It’s not possible to have a Jewish state in the Middle East without there being a two-state solution. And he has played to all the same fears and all the prejudices that exist in this country and in Israel. Bibi Netanyahu and I know one another well. He knows that I think what he’s doing is outrageous.
What we do is, we have to put pressure constantly on the Israelis to move to a two-state solution, not withdraw physical aid from them in terms of their security.
And lastly, I think that… Senator Warren is correct. We have led by not the example of our power, but the power of our example. And the example we’re demonstrating now is horrible. It’s hurting us badly.
Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg have all said in recent months that they are open to the idea of conditioning aid to Israel because of its unending settlement project in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. None of them mentioned that position last night, though the direct question was raised. Biden did address the issue, to say No.
Biden’s position would seem to be in line with House Resolution 326, passed two weeks ago with a large Democratic Party majority, that called on the United States to work for a two state solution to preserve Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state and to oppose any steps toward annexing portions of the West Bank– and to oppose the idea of conditioning military aid to Israel.
It should be noted that that resolve by the Democrats appears to have influenced the political opposition to Netanyahu in Israel, the center-right Blue and White Party, to state that it opposes the annexation of the West Bank. Biden sent that message loud and clear last night.
Lastly, note that Sanders’s call for being pro-Palestinian got a lot of applause, more than his affirmation of Israel’s right to exist. The Democratic base speaks.