WASHINGTON — Five Democratic presidential candidates appeared on stage at this week’s annual J Street conference, where they were interviewed by two former advisers to President Barack Obama: Ben Rhodes and Tommy Vietor. The interviews all opened with a question on a similar topic — using U.S. military aid to Israel as leverage in order to get the Jewish state to end its occupation in the West Bank.
Until recently, this was considered a fringe idea within the Democratic Party. Democratic presidents who had tough political fights with Israeli prime ministers over the occupation and settlements had still supported and even expanded military aid to Israel. Despite his grave disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama signed off on the largest-ever package of U.S. security aid to Israel, ensuring $3.8 billion annually to support Israel’s security needs over 10 years.
At the J Street conference, though, it was clear that this is no longer a consensus. The five candidates offered at least three different positions on the subject. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders — who for months has been talking of conditioning U.S. military aid on ending the occupation — was its most enthusiastic supporter. He also suggested that some of the aid be directed toward supporting the economy in the Gaza Strip.
Two other candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Julián Castro, didn’t go as far as Sanders, saying instead that they would prefer not to take such action — but won’t rule it out completely. Buttigieg repeated something from previous speeches: That if Israel were to annex parts of the West Bank, he would ensure that such action is not supported by U.S. tax dollars.
The prospects of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, which is home to at least 2.5 million Palestinians, looked high earlier this year after Netanyahu promised to take such action if he were to win another term in office. However, Netanyahu’s disappointing election results, and his failure to form a governing coalition, make it less likely that annexation will happen in the near future.
Two candidates spoke out against withholding military aid. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, who spoke at the conference on Sunday, said she actually wanted to increase the aid given to Israel, in light of new dangers in the Middle East created by President Donald Trump. She also repeated her view that Israel, despite its flaws, was a “beacon of democracy” in the Middle East.
Colorado senator Michael Bennet, meanwhile, said he would try to examine the impact such a move would have on internal Israeli politics before taking any action.
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“I would push back on settlements and try to keep them from being built,” Bennet said. Unlike the previous speakers, though, he did not endorse using military aid as leverage. Bennet, 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 — but that U.S. action on the subject should take into consideration the impact it could have politically in Israel. He raised the possibility that a step like withholding aid could actually empower the right wing in Israel.
Speaking with Haaretz following his conference appearance, Bennet described his approach to the aid question as “strategic, not political.” He explained that “it’s one thing to say what you’re going to do from a hotel ballroom in Washington, but it’s another to actually create the right environment for achieving policy objectives.”
Bennet said the main objective in his view is to accomplish a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that he could “imagine people taking certain actions here in Washington that end up actually hurting our policy objective. We need to make sure that what we’re doing is constructive, and that we’re aware of what’s going in the domestic politics of Israel and the Palestinians.”
Ever since he entered the presidential race in May, Bennet has been warning Democrats about the perils of adopting a policy agenda that is too far to the left — which he fears will cost the party crucial votes in swing states such as his own. The senator has won two statewide election contests in Colorado: His first victory came in 2010, a year in which the Democrats suffered huge election losses throughout the country yet he managed to win a tough race in Colorado. He won again in 2016, this time running in a presidential election year in which he received some 30,000 more votes in his state than the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
“I’m concerned that some of the candidates are trying to satisfy a constituency that exists mostly on social media,” Bennet told Haaretz. He added that this constituency “doesn’t reflect the sentiment of the living, breathing voters in ‘purple’ states like Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona and North Carolina — states we have to win in order to win back the presidency and also have a majority in the Senate.”
Bennet said that in conversations with people in early-voting Democratic primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, people bring up foreign policy issues — with one question in particular repeatedly coming up. “In every meeting,” said Bennet, “at some point someone will ask: What are you going to do to restore the alliances we have around the world that have been jeopardized by the actions of the current president?”
He cited Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and give Turkey a green light for its military operation against the Kurds, a long-standing U.S. ally in the region. While most of the Democratic presidential candidates criticized that decision, including those who spoke at J Street, some of the candidates also said that at the same time they would have also pulled U.S. troops out of Syria — albeit in a different manner to how Trump did it.
Bennet told Haaretz he wouldn’t have done likewise. “Our forces there, over the course of five years, had successfully weakened ISIS. We fought together with the Kurds, and one day Trump just allowed Erdogan to go after our allies. He basically told him, ‘Be my guest.’ Erdogan got what he wanted and so did Assad, the Iranians and Putin. It was wrong.”
Both Bennet and Klobuchar — senators who won decisive Senate victories in competitive states — have used the televised debates and their other public appearances to try to convince Democratic voters that their achievements in “purple” parts of the country mean they will be more successful in challenging Trump in next year’s election. So far, though, both have been struggling to rise in the polls.
Their appearances before J Street will probably not change that, but they did manage to highlight the two approaches the Democratic Party will have to choose from in 2020 — on issues related to Israel and, more broadly, how to compete with Trump in the coming election.