U.S. Jews and Presidential Elections: Q&A With Haaretz's Peter Beinart

Our columnist answers your questions on anything to do with the candidates' ties with the Jewish community and Israel, to race issues in the race to the White House, and the future of liberal American Judaism.

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Peter Beinart addresses the Israel Conference for Peace, November 12, 2015.
Peter Beinart addresses the Israel Conference for Peace, November 12, 2015.Credit: David Bachar

Ahead of Haaretz Q, Haaretz's columnist Peter Beinart answered readers' questions about American Jews and the presidential elections.

From Peter: Good morning, or afternoon, depending on where you’re reading this. Appreciate the questions. We'll start with questions on the "Jewish vote," followed by Israel-U.S. ties. Then, we'll look at the candidates you asked about, and finish up with questions on Middle East peace and foreign policy.

The "Jewish vote"

In 2012, we saw Jewish support for the Democrats ebb and some defection to the GOP. It wasn't a sea change, but it wasn't statistically negligible either. Do you think this is a trend that will continue in 2016, or just an aberration connected more to Barack Obama than the Democratic Party? 

Eventually, support for the GOP may go up as Orthodox Jews, who lean Republican, become a larger share of the Jewish population. But for quite a while to come, the cultural liberalism of American Jews—abortion, gay rights, gun control—will give the Democratic Party somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters, if not more, of their votes. Very few American Jews vote primarily on Israel, despite what some in the media would have you believe.

Presidential candidates seem to relate to the American Jewish community as monolithically supportive of Netanyahu (see, for example, Hillary Clinton's recent op-ed in the Forward). What, if anything, can liberal American Jews do to help make these candidates' views on this issue more nuanced?

J Street has been trying, partly by getting dovish donors to give to Democratic candidates and thus win J Street a voice inside their campaigns. The problem is that Democrats can take J Street for granted because J Street has nowhere to go. It’s not going to endorse a Republican. There are also a lot of influential hawkish Jews still in the Democratic Party. For instance, Haim Saban, who is close to Hillary. The dog that hasn’t barked is Bernie Sanders, whose supporters would probably appreciate more criticism of Netanyahu but just doesn’t seem that comfortable talking about Israel, or foreign policy at all.

Conventional wisdom holds that, despite Democrats' more assertive approach to Israel, American Jews won't vote Republican in significant numbers. Do you think the rightward swing of the GOP field will actually influence Jews to vote Democrat in even greater numbers?

The key thing to understand about Jews politically is that they are secular. And secular Americans vote Democratic because of cultural issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun control. Until the GOP nominates a more moderate candidate on these cultural issues, the Democrats are pretty much guaranteed 70-80 percent of the Jewish vote. And that change won’t happen in 2016.

At the end of your book "The Crisis of Zionism" you made a pitch for a school voucher program which is an anathema to much of the Democratic Party. With the rising cost of Jewish education and the changing demographics in the Jewish US community to be more Orthodox - to what extent do you think your idea of school vouchers will be a driving factor (rather than Israel) in slowly changing the voting face of the Jewish community.

Orthodox Jews do support the idea, and in general don’t share the worries about church-state separation than more secular Jews too, so it’s one factor that makes them more sympathetic to the GOP. But Israel is a much bigger reason. Orthodox Jews are just much more tied to Israel—and much more hawkish about it—than other Jews and that’s the bigger influence on their vote.

Are American Jews becoming more pro- or anti-Israeli policy and will this affect how they vote?

American Jews care about Israel but most don’t vote on it. They vote as secular Americans on cultural issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control. That’s not changing. Orthodox Jews, who do vote on Israel, are growing demographically but younger, non-Orthodox Jews are even more wedded than their parents to a liberal cultural agenda.

Can the shift among U.S. Jews away from the Democratic Party toward the Republican Party in recent years attested to foreign policies or the Democratic Party's departure from value-based politics? 

There’s been no real shift. Obama’s number among Jews dipped slightly from 2008 to 2012 but they dipped among Americans as a whole and Republicans are still doing worse among American Jews than they did under Reagan. In the short term, the only way Republicans can get 40 percent of the Jewish vote is to nominate a candidate who isn’t anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and anti-gun control and that won’t happen in 2016.

Israel and the election

As you are no doubt aware, Hillary Clinton authored an op-ed in The Forward in which she promised to restore the U.S.-Israel relationship and mend things with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Do you think that U.S.-Israel relations will return to normal under the next presidential administration? Are we dealing with a Bibi-Obama rift, or a more fundamental geopolitical rift between Israel and its closest ally?

The next president will try to get along better with Bibi, and given that the Iran deal is already done and they’re not likely to push on the Palestinians, they will likely enjoy some success. But over time, the demographic ascendance of racial and ethnic minorities and the secular young will create a growing market inside the Democratic Party for politicians, and maybe eventually presidents, who have less tolerance for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.  

Can Netanyahu get along with a Democrat president?

Few Democratic politicians actually like Bibi. But given the likely foreign policy agenda of Hillary Clinton—which will focus on ISIS and ramp up the cold war with Iran, and mostly ignore the two-state solution—she can get along with him better than Obama did.

Is there a moderate Republican candidate that would be a true friend to Israel? Who do you believe would stand by Israel, defend her, and fight the world's double standard?

There are no moderate Republicans running for president. The species—as defined in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—barely exists anymore. Any Republican candidate except Rand Paul will likely give Bibi a blank check to do whatever he wants vis a vis the Palestinians, at least at first. If that’s what you think best serves Israel—and I don’t—then you’ll be happy with any of them. Hillary Clinton will likely give Bibi a mostly free hand too, though she’ll try to sustain the Iran deal, unlike the GOP candidates.

Many Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu, have rightfully condemned Donald Trump's hateful and bigoted remarks during his election campaign. Does this open the door to similar American critiques of Israeli politicians in the course of their campaigning?

I don’t think so. There’s a political reason to condemn Trump: Even most Republicans disagree with him, and his comments are poison in a general election. Criticizing Israeli politicians, on the other hand, wins you only scorn within the GOP and it doesn’t carry much upside even in the general election.

How big an issue will Israel be in the general election?

Republicans will make it an issue because it mobilizes their evangelical base and their donors but I don’t think it will move many voters. Pro-Israel evangelicals vote Republican already. Most Jews don’t vote on Israel. They vote Democratic because of cultural issues like abortion, gun control and gay marriage.

Do Republicans have to vow to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem to win the nomination?

It’s not a massive issue but given that all Republicans say that, one who didn’t would make themselves a bit vulnerable.

What role does evangelical support for Israel play in the Republican primary?

It plays a huge role. Israel has become one of the most important issues for Christian evangelicals since 9/11. Evangelicals see Israel as the tip of the Western spear surrounded by America’s Muslim enemies. And in certain states like Iowa and South Carolina, a large percentage of GOP primary voters are evangelicals.

Who is the best presidential candidate to win in terms of a movement in the right direction in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and why?

From my perspective, Sanders. He talks about the issue very little but when he does he at least acknowledges that there’s something morally wrong with holding millions of people as non-citizens under military law.

Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at Saban Forum 2015 in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015.Credit: AP

If elected president, will Hillary support Israel as much as any of the Republicans?

If you mean let Bibi do whatever he wants to do with American support, she won’t go quite as far as the Republicans. She won’t try to undermine the Iran deal as they would. But unless he provokes a war or annexes the West Bank, I suspect she’ll let him do whatever he wants vis a vis the Palestinians.

Would Hillary be another Bill? What are her real views regarding Israel? Would she push for a divided Jerusalem? Giving away the Golan? A two-state solution where only Israel gives up land?

I think Hillary’s views are similar to Bill’s: They both believe that Israel will be best served by a two-state solution that allows Israel to remain a democratic Jewish state. She probably believes—as did her husband—that no Palestinian state can be viable without a capital in East Jerusalem. But I don’t think she’ll make this a priority given the political costs of taking on Bibi. She’s also likely to focus on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And given what’s happening in Syria, there’s no chance she’ll push Israel to give away the Golan.

What are some differences between Clinton's and Obama's approaches to Israel? How do you view them playing out in the campaign?

Hillary empathizes less with the Palestinians and her generally more hawkish perspective makes her somewhat more sympathetic to Bibi’s fears about a Palestinian state. For instance, she said a while back that if she were Israel’s prime minister she wouldn’t give back the Jordan Valley either. Obama has never said anything like that.

What's Hillary Clinton's worldview?

Hillary is a liberal hawk. See my full answer later on, under "Worldviews and Foreign Policy"

Donald Trump

Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during the 2016 Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington, DC, December 3, 2015.Credit: AFP

Would Trump be good for Israeli security?

No. He’d be the best thing that ever happened to ISIS.

What do you make of the fact that Trump is among the most moderate Republican candidates on Israel/Palestine (specifically regarding Jerusalem and Israel's agency in making peace)? 

I don’t think Trump has clearly defined views but as a self-funder he’s less dependent on a Republican donor class that pushes candidates to support Bibi no matter what. That’s why he can speak more independently.

Can Trump get elected president?

I don’t think so. He has the support of a quarter to a third Republicans but most dislike him. That’s enough to win in a crowded field but when the field narrows to two or three, I don’t think it will be enough to win.

Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.Credit: AP

What impact has Bernie Sander's success had on future Jews running for president?

Not much. I think the country would be open to a Jewish president. Polls show Jews are very highly regarded by American Christians. The tricky question comes on religious observance. Republicans will feel more comfortable with a Jewish president like Joe Lieberman who is religiously observant, since they are. But as a more secular party, Democrats might be more comfortable with a secular Jewish candidate, or at least one who endorsed a liberal cultural agenda.

Can a Jew be elected president of the USA?

Absolutely. I think it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz

Do you think the unequivocal, unconditional support for Israel we're seeing with Rubio and Cruz is unprecedented from past U.S. presidents?

It’s a sign of where the Republican Party is today, which is very different from where it was in the 1980s and 1990s. George W. Bush had a somewhat similar view in his first term. The difference is that he was dealing with Ariel Sharon and then Ehud Olmert, the former of whom wanted to withdraw settlements from Gaza and the latter of whom actually wanted a deal, so Bush could support a peace process without real conflict with Israel’s prime minister. If the next Republican president is dealing with Bibi, I’d imagine he’ll let him do whatever he wants.

What would likely be the diplomatic shift in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel if either Rubio or Cruz were to become president?

The big shift would be that you’d have a president working with Bibi to undermine the Iran nuclear deal. On the Palestinians, Obama and Kerry aren't doing anything except warning that Israel is endangering itself. With Rubio and Cruz, that rhetoric would end and be replaced by endless cheerleading. But since there’s no actual push on Israel to change its policy now, the fact that Rubio or Cruz won’t push won’t be a departure from the status quo.

Mideast peace

U.S. President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House in Washington, September 1, 2010.Credit: Reuters

Which candidate do you think is most likely to have a chance of making progress in mediating Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? Why?

Right now I don’t see any of them showing any real interest in doing it. The only way that will change is if there’s a crisis so massive that the next president feels they have no choice but to reengage.

How much longer do you think it will be before the international community gives up on the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, making the one-state solution the reality?

I think it depends a lot on the Palestinians. As long as Abbas says he wants two states, it’s hard to contradict a Palestinian leader. Were there a shift in Palestinian politics in which the recognized Palestinian leader supported a secular binational state, the “international community” might begin to shift. But it would have to be a liberal, equal state—not the kind of one state Hamas envisages.

Since Saban is flushing Clinton with money and Adelson will inundate the GOP candidate with funds, are we set for another eight years of the peace process going nowhere?

Probably. I think the American-led peace process may be a thing of the past.

Since reading "The Two-State Delusion," I have thought about the possibility of this peace plan. I hope you can comment: The old idea of a confederation of a Palestinian state with Jordan; Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan, which should help with the security issues; Israel and Jordan are responsible for security in the Jordan Valley for 3-5 years, after which Jordan is responsible; Jordan is responsible for foreign policy and defense, the Palestinians are responsible for police issues; the U.S. would have to pay off the Jordanians and there may not be enough money in the world to make the Jordanians agree; Minimal right of return, with compensation for those not returning; United Jerusalem but with shared sovereignty; Palestinian capital in the eastern sector of Jerusalem, and Israeli capital in the western sector; Large settlement blocks go to Israel with land swaps; Smaller settlements go to Palestinians, while the Israelis who wish to remain are under Palestinian law, and compensation paid to Israelis wanting to relocate into Israel; Bring in the Arab League to settle the agreement.

It’s an interesting idea but I don’t know how much the Palestinians want to trade Israel control for Jordanian control. It didn’t work out well for them between 1948 and '67. I can see how this arrangement might relieve some of Israel’s security concerns but I’m not sure it will satisfy Palestinians’ nationalistic yearnings and this Israeli government is nowhere near allowing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, which would be necessary to have any chance of getting Palestinians to compromise on the right of return for refugees.

Worldviews and foreign policy

You recently wrote about how Obama's Fukayama worldview influences his approach to radical Islam. To what extent do you think contrasting worldviews will impact the election?

Foreign policy will be a major issue in the election, in part because the Republicans can’t focus their attacks overwhelmingly on the economy as they did in 2012, because it has improved. Republicans will hit Hillary relentlessly for being responsible for the rise of ISIS and she’s in a difficult spot having to defend Obama’s record even though she wanted to arm the “moderate” Syrian rebels. Will this be enough to overcome her advantage on the economy? Depends in part on whether we or Europe have more big terrorist attacks.

What's Hillary Clinton's worldview? To what extent do candidates' contrasting worldviews impact their approach to Israel?

Hillary is a liberal hawk. She believes in the importance of American power, including military power, and worries less than Obama about overstretch and the way American intervention can breed terrorism. I think this more hawkish view makes her slightly more sympathetic to Bibi’s anxieties about a Palestinian state. The Republicans mostly see Israel as the Middle East’s version of America: a virtuous democracy that should use overwhelming military force to protect itself.

Are any of the top tier Republicans serious contenders and serious on foreign policy?

Depends what you mean by “serious.” The GOP’s hawkish establishment considers Rubio, Bush and Graham serious. But I find the entire idea of a foreign policy that accepts no tradeoffs and insists that America push in a militarily aggressive way on every front—with no regard for the economic costs—to be unserious.

It looks like we are out of time. Thanks for all those smart questions.

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