Not anti-Semitism to Say Netanyahu Government Has Been Racist, Sanders Says

At J Street confab, Klobuchar endorses continued aid for Israel and Buttigieg warns escalation in annexation of West Bank

Democratic presidential hopefuls Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Julian Castro.
AFP / Jacquelyn Martin, AP

WASHINGTON — Democratic candidates running for president criticized the Trump administration’s Middle East policy in appearances before the annual J Street conference in Washington on Sunday and Monday.

Sanders: 'It isn't anti-Semitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist'

Bernie Sanders was the last candidate to take to the stage. He began his appearance by saying that he is “very proud to be Jewish” and was looking forward to becoming “the first Jewish president.”

Sanders said that “if there is any people on Earth who need to do everything against Trump’s racism, and try to bring people together around a progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people.”

“As a kid I spent many months at a Kibbutz in Israel. I believe in the right of Israel to exist, in peace and security," Sanders said. "But I also believe that the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace and security."

"It is not anti-Semitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist. That is a fact.”

Sanders drew a clear line on the question of conditional military aid. “We spend $3.8 billion on military aid supporting Israel. We have a right to tell the Israeli government that we will not accept authoritarianism and racism.”

The veteran politician said some of this money could be used to reshape and improve the situation for Palestinians, especially in Gaza, where it could be invested in economic development.

“My proposal is not radical. All it says is that we need an even-handed proposal," Sanders said. "What is going on in Gaza is inhumane and unacceptable.”

The Vermont senator said he would “undo the damage” that Trump caused to the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians, although he mentioned that Netanyahu's government wasn't the only problem. “There have been corruption in Hamas and the Palestinian government as well.”

On Trump and Netanyahu, Sanders said the two leaders – "one could be impeached and the other going to jail” – were in no position to lecture anyone about integrity.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leader Chuck Shumer also addressed the conference on Monday evening, as well as several Israeli and Palestinian figures.

Klobuchar accuses Trump of betraying American allies

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who was the first of several candidates to appear before the conference, accused U.S. President Donald Trump of betraying American allies by pulling troops out of Syria.  

Interviewed on Sunday night by Ben Rhodes and Tommy Vietor, two former advisers of former President Barack Obama who host the podcast “Pod Save the World,” Klobuchar said that Trump “chose to let Russia have the lead” in the Middle East.

Klobuchar, a centrist senator who won by a large margin in the competitive state of Minnesota in the 2018 mid-term elections, reiterated her support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also said she endorses continued U.S. support for Israel.

Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaks at the J Street national conference, October

In reply to a question about conditioning American aid to Israel on actions of the Israeli government, Klobuchar said that in light of how Trump’s policies have increased the risk of war in the Middle East, she actually wanted to “make sure we continue the aid” to Israel.  

During the last Democratic presidential debate, Klobuchar was the only candidate to mention Israel, calling the country “a beacon of democracy” in the Middle East.

Two other candidates, appearing on Monday, took a sharper view of the Israeli political landscape, and its relationship with the United States. 

Buttigieg accuses of legitimizing anti-semitic voices in America

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and one of the youngest candidates in the Democratic primary, warned that the U.S.-Israel relationship was facing the risk of “becoming a partisan issue” because of Trump, something which “would be bad for everyone.”

He added that he has hope in the “readiness of young people to refuse to accept what we are being sold by this White House.” 

Pete Buttigieg speaks at the J Street national conference, October 28, 2019

Talking one day after the anniversary of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, Buttigieg also accused Trump of saying that there are “very fine people” among far-right groups and white supremacists.

Buttigieg said that that the U.S. should assist Israel in solving the conflict with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution. 

“We need to be perceived as an honest broker”, he said. “We have a moral obligation to promote peace in the region. Withdrawing our engagement and reducing lines of communication is almost never a productive strategy.”

He also repeated his view that if Israel will annex parts of the West Bank, that should lead to a reconsideration of aid to Israel. 

"We have a responsibility... to ensure that U.S. taxpayer support for Israel does not get turned into taxpayer support for a move like annexation," Buttigieg said.

He has made such statements in several occasions over the past months, in reply to election promises from Prime Minister Netanyahu to annex parts of the West Bank.

'I hope we can have a more productive government in Israel'

Responding to the same topic, Julian Castro said that he hopes reconsidering aid to Israel won’t be necessary  but won’t take it off the table. “I hope we can avoid that,” he said. “Netanyahu has been counter-productive for many years. I hope we can have a more productive government in Israel.” 

Castro, a former Health and Urban Development Secretary under  Obama, said that he “hopes we can avoid the path Israel has been on under Netanyahu” if a new government will be formed in Jerusalem. He added that a new administration in Washington will have to “work from day one” to advance a two-state solution to the conflict. 

Julian Castro speaks at the J Street national conference, October 28, 2019

Castro called to “reestablish an American consulate in East Jerusalem” that would, eventually, become an American embassy to a future Palestinian state. He also said that if elected, he would allow the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to reopen its diplomatic mission in Washington, which was shut down by the Trump administration last year.

Bennett: Trump and Netanyahu are politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship

Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado took a different position than Buttigieg and Castro on the question of conditioning aid to Israel. Bennett said that he would try to examine the impact such a move would have on internal Israeli politics before doing it. “I would push back on settlements and try to keep them from being built,” Bennett said, but unlike the previous speakers, he did not endorse the idea. 

Bennett, a centrist candidate who represents a swing state in the Senate, said that continued settlement construction threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Bennett was the only speaker who mentioned Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan, which was signed exactly 25 years ago. He said that the Jordanian-Israeli agreement is proof that good leadership can lead to peace in the region. 

Bennett attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his embrace of President Trump, and said that it is a result of Trump “supporting Netanyahu’s domestic ambitions.” He accused the prime minister and the U.S. president of politicizing the two countries’ relationship.

Bennett also attacked Trump for his support of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and criticized Republicans in the Senate for “letting Trump get away with it.” He said it was wrong of the Trump administration to move troops out of the Kurdish areas in Syria, yet send thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia.