Israel was mentioned only once during the fourth Democratic debate held in Ohio on Tuesday night. Senator Amy Klobuchar cited Israel as one of the American allies dismayed by Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds. She went so far as to depict Israel as a “beacon of democracy,” a superlative that must have been music to the ears of Israel-supporters worried about the leftward drift of the Democratic Party.
Klobuchar's brief expression of praise may have even surprised those Israelis who no longer view their country as a beacon of anything and their democracy as teetering on the edge of collapse. But it also highlighted how Trump’s recent moves that are seen as harmful to Israel – including the courtship of Iran and the abandonment of Syria – could actually alleviate tensions with the Democratic Party and temper its increasing criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies.
Although some candidates, including frontrunner Elizabeth Warren, echoed Trump’s overall goal of extracting U.S. troops from the Middle East, his stab in the back of the Kurds, who lost 11,000 fighters in the war against ISIS, extracted from them positions hitherto associated with their more hawkish colleagues. All agreed that the United States must take a more forceful stand in order to maintain American influence in the region and to arrest the steady rise of Russia’s influence and presence.
As long as Israel was Trump’s darling, and vice versa, the Democrats naturally gravitated to increasing distrust and suspicion of its moves and policies. But when Israel itself is wary of Trump’s moves and openly critical of his betrayal of the Kurds, Democrats will tend to view it with more sympathetic eyes.
The prospect that Trump’s BFF Netanyahu may soon be forced to leave office, after a decade in power, casts Israel in an even more favorable light. Netanyahu’s policies are anathema to most Democrats anyway, but his close friendship and mutual admiration society with Trump have turned him into the face of everything the left despises about the Jewish state. His successor, whoever it will be, could find the task of mending fences with Democrats easier than hitherto expected.
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Although Klobuchar's citation was the only time Israel was mentioned, Israelis who watched the debate – broadcast here in the wee hours of the morning – could easily identify with its dynamics. The concerted attacks on Trump, who was labeled a “criminal” by Joe Biden and “the most corrupt president in American history” by most of the other 11 debaters, were reminiscent of the “anyone but Bibi” approach adopted by all of Netanyahu’s opponents.
Try as they might to stake out their own personalities and positions, the prospect of landing a few good punches on Trump drew the candidates back to savaging him over and over again. As any follower of recent Israeli politics knows, it is the anger and wrath generated by Trump that drives the Democratic base and mandates each and every candidate to excel in lambasting him. By the same token, however, the relentless assault on the GOP candidate enables him to cast himself as a victim of leftist persecution and to fire up his own base in return.
The lack of a single candidate who is seen as an equal match for Netanyahu’s legendary demagoguery and penchant for unsettling his rivals is also familiar territory. If Benny Gantz becomes prime minister, it won’t be because of his blue eyes or even his illustrious military background. The only reason for Gantz’s remarkable rise from nowhere to the doorstep of the prime minister’s office is that he was the anti-Bibi, the only viable alternative contender for the throne.
At this point, none of the Democratic hopefuls is seen as the super-hero who will beat Trump at his own game. Whatever their advantages, they all suffer from fatal flaws: Biden has been tainted by Trump’s allegations of his corruption in dealing with Ukraine, no matter how unfounded. The former vice president, who for the first time on Tuesday played second fiddle to another frontrunner, Warren, is also finding it hard to dispel concerns that his age might be affecting his coherence and sharpness.
Warren is cerebral and compelling, but sounds like a university lecturer talking over the heads of her constituents; Sanders was in top form but will find it hard to counter concerns about his health, following his recent heart attack; Pete Buttigieg, who shined on Tuesday, has an unpronounceable last name and is immensely unpopular among African-American voters; Klobuchar, who also starred, is simply too unknown; Kamala Harris was sharp but marred her performance by highlighting her bizarre demand that Trump be banned from Twitter; Whose occasional disheveled gaze can be disconcerting; Beto O’Rourke looks like a child; and the rest of the pack – including Tom Steyer, Julian Castro, Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard – are unlikely to pass the Democratic Party’s threshold requirements for the next debate, to be held in Georgia on November 20.
What Israelis learned in the two election campaigns held this year is that Netanyahu’s increasing unpopularity may suffice to hurt Likud and to possibly eject him from the prime minister’s office, but the lack of a compelling rival deprived the center-left of the chance to knock him out altogether in one fell swoop. Given Trump’s inherent advantage in the electoral college, similar circumstances could give him a much-needed edge in the November 2020 elections.
In which case, by the time he’s finished, and on the assumption that his foreign policy continues on its currently catastrophic course, the Democratic Party could come full circle on Israel and re-embrace its glory days as its main protector in American politics. Of course, four more years of Trump could very well destabilize the world and the Middle East to the extent that Israel would not only struggle to maintain its moniker as a “beacon of democracy,” but would also find itself fighting for its very existence, with important but ultimately impotent Democrats in support.