One thing is for sure about the Democratic debate. Ann Coulter is not going to be complaining, as she did when the Republicans debated, that there was too much solicitude for Israel. Even early in the donnybrook, when the candidates were kvelling about President Obama’s policy in the Middle East, the only real nod to the predicament of the Jewish state was from the Vietnam War hero, James Webb, the only member of the Democratic lineup who opposed the Iran deal.
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This was well-noted by Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, and it’s a remarkable moment for the Democrats. Before the debate, the New York Times fronted a story headlined: “Obama Legacy Part of Debate for Democrats.” It predicted that a new reality would “become clear: It’s not Barack Obama’s party anymore.” It quoted a former aide to President Bill Clinton, Jon Cowan, who heads a centrist think tank called Third Way, as saying of the Party: “There’s no question it has moved to the left.”
On no subject was this more breathtaking than Israel. Its only mention was when Senator Lincoln Chafee was lecturing Webb about how it was not the Iran deal that beckoned Russia into Syria. “I believe,” Webb responded, “that the signal that we sent to the region when the Iran nuclear deal was concluded was that we are accepting Iran’s greater position on this very important balance of power, among our greatest ally Israel, and the Sunnis represented by the Saudi regime, and Iran.”
Said Webb: “It was a position of weakness, and I think it encouraged the acts that we’ve seen in the past several weeks.”
That was it. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Senator Bernie Saunders picked up on the point. They had both supported the Iran appeasement, oblivious to the pleas of the Jewish state. Sanders was the first Democrat to declare that he would boycott Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the Senate. Clinton has stood silent during the feud between Obama and the government in Jerusalem. There were no expressions of concern over the build up of rockets by Hezbollah, of the Iranians above the Golan.
Zilch. There was no talk of the peace process, nor promises to improve relations between Jerusalem and the White House, nor concerns that the fighting in Syria could spill into Israel. Nothing. It reminded of nothing so much as the catastrophe at the party’s 2012 convention in North Carolina, where delegates booed as the chair tried gamely to re-instate Jerusalem (and a reference to God) in the party’s platform. The degree to which the Democrats have distanced themselves from Israel is startling.
There were no promises about — just to mention one I was listening for — how in the next administration there will be an end to personal attacks on Israel’s leaders, let alone one’s expressed with the word “chickenshit” that was used against Netanyahu. There was no recognition at all that relations between Washington and Jerusalem had reached a nadir under Obama. What we saw last night was that the party that once prided itself on its support for Israel is now the party of, at best, “benign neglect.”
If it is benign. The phrase was made famous when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then on President Nixon’s staff, recommended that the administration use a policy of “benign neglect” to disengage on race relations in America. But what’s to halt a slide from benign neglect, to neglect, to indifference, to hostility? Where is the Democratic Party going in respect of the Jewish state — and of foreign policy more generally? There was no discussion of the wisdom of a declining defense budget in the middle of a war.
What a contrast, in any event, to all the protestations of friendliness toward Israel that were heard from the Republicans at their debate at the Reagan Library. They may be the underdog in the campaign for the Jewish vote, always a tiny sliver of the ballots cast, but they are trying. They are engaged. Every one of the Republican candidates is a part of that effort, even if it bothers Ann Coulter. The Democrats left no doubt last night that she won’t be hearing a lot of talk of Israel in the Democratic camp. Maybe she’ll switch parties.
Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of the Forward and formerly foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, is editor of The New York Sun.