Democrats With Eye on White House Increasingly Willing to Criticize Bibi While Supporting Israel

Presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg are refusing to remain silent on Israeli government policies they see as at odds with their own

Democratic presidential candidates Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Evan Agostini, AP / Darron Cummings, AP / John Locher, AP

WASHINGTON — Democratic politicians trying to win the party’s presidential nomination for 2020 are increasingly offering a complicated message on the U.S-Israel relationship. While touting their support for Israel, they are clearly distancing themselves from current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who some leading contenders have described as corrupt, racist and extreme.

Last weekend, 13 of the 24 Democrats currently seeking the presidential nomination sent video messages to the annual gathering of the American Jewish Committee in Washington. The policy line of supporting Israel while disagreeing with Netanyahu was evident in several of the videos, and the candidates offering such a message insisted that it doesn’t make them any less “pro-Israel.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders offered the strongest message. The Vermont senator described himself as “someone who believes absolutely and unequivocally in Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, who as a young man lived in Israel for a number of months, as someone who is deeply concerned about the global rise of anti-Semitism.”

He added that “we must say loudly and clearly that to oppose the reactionary policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu does not make anyone anti-Israel.” Sanders then repeated that message: “I am vigorously opposed to the reactionary, racist and authoritarian policies of Donald Trump. That does not make me anti-American. And I am not anti-Israel because I oppose Netanyahu.”

Sanders distinguished himself from Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential nomination race with his willingness to offer strong criticism of Netanyahu. In the current contest, while his criticism of Netanyahu is still sharper and more forceful than that of most other nominees, he is not the only Democrat threading the needle between supporting Israel and disagreeing with its prime minister.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said during her video message that “good friends can disagree” and that “candid expressions of concern” are an important part of any partnership. She maintained the importance of having an “open policy debate” — a hint at attempts to portray any criticism of Israel and its policies as illegitimate or anti-Semitic.

In March, Warren criticized Netanyahu over the corruption charges he is set to be indicted for pending a hearing. At the time, she wrote on Twitter that “the allegations against Prime Minister Netanyahu are serious and cut to the heart of a functioning democracy.” Based on the pending indictment, she also accused him of “manipulating a free press, accepting bribes, and trading government favors.”

Direct rebuke

On Thursday, Sanders and Warren — together with fellow Democratic senators Jeff Merkley, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin — submitted a resolution to the Senate expressing opposition to Israeli annexation of the West Bank. The resolution is a direct rebuke to Netanyahu’s promise in April that he would annex parts of the West Bank if he got to form the next government.

“Unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank would jeopardize prospects for a two-state solution, harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors, threaten Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity, and undermine Israel’s security,” the resolution states. Netanyahu has not repeated his annexation promise since the April 9 election, but he could put it back on the agenda now that Israel has a do-over election in September

Former Vice President Joe Biden used his video message to tout the Obama administration’s security cooperation with Israel, which included the signing of the largest military aid package ever provided to Israel by the United States. He emphasized that “Israel has to be able to defend itself, by itself.” But he added: “We also have to tell each other the truth, and that includes offering criticism on policies that are counterproductive to peace.”

When Biden’s former boss Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he took a position that was considered bold and daring at the time. He stated that it was possible to be “pro-Israel” without adopting “an unwavering pro-Likud approach,” referring to Netanyahu’s right-wing party (which at the time was in the opposition). Today, that kind of statement seems like the consensus within the Democratic Party.

Two weeks ago, another Democratic presidential contender, Pete Buttigieg, met with a group of Jewish community activists and organizational leaders in Washington. “I do not believe that the right approach is to endorse wholesale the agenda of the current government” in Israel, Buttigieg said. He clearly differentiated between “our relationship with Israel, versus our relationship with the current Israeli government or any current government.”

Another contender, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, has called Netanyahu racist on several occasions. He has also criticized the prime minister’s involvement in crafting a political agreement with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party during the previous Israeli election campaign.

Debra Shushan, director of policy at American for Peace Now, told Haaretz that “Democratic presidential candidates are getting the memo: While likely voters in the Democratic presidential primaries continue to support Israel, they disapprove of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his anti-peace, pro-occupation policies. The fact that Jewish Americans share this antipathy toward right-wing Israeli policies, which are encouraged by the Trump administration, has given Democratic presidential candidates further license to move in the direction of their primary electorate.”

Making a distinction between Israel and Netanyahu is popular not just among Democratic politicians but also many of the party’s voters.  Recent public opinion polls conducted in the United States show that while most Democrats have a favorable or positive view of Israel, the same is not true with regard to its leader. 

A Pew Research Center poll published in April found that while 56 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of the Israeli people, only 26 percent had a positive view of the Israeli government. And in a Gallop poll conducted the same month, only 18 percent of Democrats expressed a favorable view of the Israeli prime minister (compared with 65 percent of Republicans).

“Bibi’s own statements that he would annex all the settlements and that Israel is for the Jews alone, and his embrace of Otzma Yehudit, were the final nails in the coffin of the U.S. bipartisan consensus on Israel, or at least Israel under Netanyahu,” says Hady Amr, a former State Department official who worked on Israeli-Palestinian policy under the Obama administration.

The criticism over Netanyahu’s alliance with far-right parties and his promises to annex the West Bank is accompanied by strong disagreement between the Israeli premier and most Democratic candidates on Iran. 

As Haaretz reported two months ago, Israeli officials are concerned over the fact that a growing number of Democratic presidential candidates are promising to renew America’s commitment to the Iran nuclear deal, reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw from it last year. 

During the AIPAC conference earlier this year, Israeli ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer warned that returning to the nuclear deal would be “unacceptable” from the official Israeli point of view. 

“There are leaders who are calling to return to the deal. And that is something that has to be seen as totally unacceptable,” Dermer said at the time. “You know, in 2015 when we are having this debate there were a lot of question marks. What would happen? Would this moderate Iran? Is this a good thing? Is this going to make war less likely?” 

Dermer added that “now in 2019 there's exclamation points. It made Iran more dangerous. It made war much more likely. So anyone who is saying that they're going to return to the deal is basically saying that they're going to give hundreds of billions of dollars to people who are committed to Israel's destruction and our Arab neighbors' destruction and giving them a clear path to nuclear weapons.” 

In an appearance before the AJC conference last weekend, Dermer reiterated that message and questioned whether the Democratic candidates promising a return to the deal are well informed on the issue. 

“I hope that all of these candidates will not get locked into a political position. I don’t think they studied the whole issue; I don’t think they’ve had all the briefings,” Dermer said. 

A Democratic congressional staffer told Haaretz in response that “This certainly isn’t true when it comes to the candidates who are senators or former members of the House, not to mention a former VP. The truth is that even Democrats who voted against the Iran deal in 2015 came out against Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw from the deal in 2018. So if anything, as Democrats receive more information on the subject and as they observe the current tensions that Trump’s policies have created, support for the deal within the party is only growing.” 

Israeli officials and the heads of pro-Israel organizations in the United States often speak of the importance of traditional bipartisan support for Israel in Washington. Between the annexation threat, the partisan divisions in both countries and the tense Iran debate, next year’s presidential election — and this fall’s do-over Israeli election — will present a big test for the continuation of that tradition.