With less than a month to go until November 3, Haaretz hosted a special briefing Tuesday on Israel, American Jews and the stakes in the 2020 election. Senior columnist Chemi Shalev and senior reporter Allison Kaplan Sommer discussed the latest political developments in the United States, including President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 hospitalization, and their impact on the race for the White House.
They also spoke about the role Israel has played in this election, the importance of the Jewish vote and how the result will impact the Middle East.
Following the discussion, which was moderated by Amir Tibon, readers were able to ask Chemi and Allison questions. Here are some of their answers. (Quotes have been abbreviated to provide clarity. Watch the video above for the full dialogue.)
Joe Biden’s large lead in the polls has led some to speculate that we could be reliving the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton had a smaller but still substantial polling lead but Donald Trump eventually ended up winning the Electoral College.
Chemi: “If you compare the situation today to 2016, you’ll see that on the national level, Biden has twice as big an average lead as Clinton did. And if you look at the battleground states, back in 2016 polling was all over the place – there were states that were being called for Trump that wound up going for Clinton, and vice versa. If elections were held today, Biden would certainly win. But we’ve still got 28 days to go, and we’re dealing with Donald Trump, who can pack decades of events into single hours. People can’t remember cataclysmic, historic events that happened yesterday. I’d say Biden is on course to win, but that course could still include many obstacles.”
During the Democratic primary this year, it seemed clear that AIPAC and other mainstream, pro-Israeli Jewish groups in the U.S. were hoping for Biden to win the nomination, and not Sen. Bernie Sanders who represents the party’s progressive wing. Now, the Trump campaign is trying to portray Biden as someone who’ll “give in” to Sanders on policy issues.
Allison: “When we still had a very wide Democratic field of candidates, it was clear that Biden was the one the traditional pro-Israel lobby was most comfortable with, despite the fact they had some issues with [Barack] Obama when Biden was his vice president. Biden’s relationship with the Israel advocacy community goes a long way back, long before anyone knew who Barack Obama was. There’s clearly, on a wide range of issues, work being done behind the scenes between the Biden campaign and the progressive part of the party.
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“There’s a lot of talk about how far Biden will move to the left in order to win strong support from progressives. But there’s a contrast between how that process has played out on domestic issues, like health care and the environment, and the issue of Israel, on which he hasn’t given an inch toward the progressive camp. The Democratic platform this year is very traditionally pro-Israel – to the level that the Palestinians complained about it. So the Trump campaign hasn’t had a lot of ammunition to use against Biden on this issue.”
Israel has always had a clear interest to be a bipartisan issue. But with the decline of bipartisanship in general in the United States, can Israel sustain support on both sides of the aisle?
Chemi: “I think Israel is probably in a good position to rebuild the bipartisan consensus it used to enjoy. If the Democrats win in November – and on the assumption that Israel can certainly get along with the Biden administration – I think you could form the previous coalition of centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans who support a mainstream policy (two-state solution, negotiations). But if the Senate will remain Republican, and Netanyahu would get into trouble on some issue with the Biden administration, and he would then go the way he did against Obama – that could lead to a completely different dynamic and it would be a strategic mistake for Israel. I think Netanyahu can get along much better with Biden than he did with Obama. But if there’s a clash, Israel will have to decide whether to work with the administration to solve it, or try to work with Republicans against the administration.”
If Biden is elected, how will he look at the normalization process between Israel and Arab countries around it?
Allison: “I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t want to keep it going and promote it. But the question is if someone who is not clearly as transactional as Trump is can still keep that momentum going. Biden comes from a party that also cares more about human rights and will probably have to say something about it.”
Chemi: “Biden might actually find that countries that are moving toward Israel – like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – could be his allies if he intends to promote a diplomatic process. Israel treasures its relationship with these countries, and Biden could use these countries to put leverage on Israel.”
Allison: “But these countries will also be watching very closely what Biden does on Iran, and that will determine if he enjoys their support.”
What’s your thinking on the sale of the F-35 planes to the UAE, and would Netanyahu try to convince Congress to block the sale?
Allison: “On the surface, publicly, there has been no admission by Netanyahu that he made any kind of quiet agreement as part of the Israel-UAE normalization deal, that he would not oppose the sale of F-35 planes. The Israeli media has reported otherwise, and one would assume that Netanyahu made the calculation of what is more important to Israel: an agreement with an Arab country or preventing the sale of the F-35, and it seems to me like this issue has already been decided by Netanyahu. I would expect the sale, which is important to the Trump administration, to move ahead.”
How can we square Trump’s support for Israel and his statements that have enraged and offended the American Jewish community, like when he said Jews who vote for the Democratic Party are not loyal, or when he said there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville?
Chemi: “Trump is surrounded by Jews – like, for example, U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman – who profess that Israel is their top priority, and he barely meets other Jews, the kind who oppose him. So from his point of view, a ‘good Jew’ is a Jew who votes Trump because of Israel, and he can’t understand who are these Jews who care more about health care or about separation of church and state. He doesn’t understand because he doesn’t know, really, those kind of Jews. The Jews surrounding him are not representative of the wider American Jewish community.”
Allison: “Remember a really, really long time ago, at last week’s presidential debate, when Trump refused to condemn white supremacists? I think it hurts his cause, and if anyone cares about the Jewish vote, they would know that there are voters who might otherwise be convinced to support him on the basis of his relationship with Israel. But they hear these things and it makes it impossible for them to support him.”