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Don't Mention the Palestinians: For 2020 Democrats, Israel Has Become a Political Minefield

As the likes of Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are quickly discovering, it is impossible to ignore the Palestinian issue on the campaign trail

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A protester is removed from the guest area as he shouts pro-Palestine slogans while Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Newark, New Jersey, April 13, 2019.
A protester is removed from the guest area as he shouts pro-Palestine slogans while Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Newark, New Jersey, April 13, 2019.Credit: AFP

If the field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates thought they could avoid the political minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the campaign trail, those hopes were dashed over the past week.

Two of the contenders — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — couldn’t even manage to get their presidential bids officially started before encountering it.

At Buttigieg’s official opening rally last Sunday, pro-Palestine demonstrators with banners (and T-shirts) proclaiming “Open your heart to Palestine & Golan” greeted the 37-year-old mayor who is the surprise story of the 2020 campaign with his message of positivity and empathy.

One of the protest organizers, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame named Jude Ash, told Newsweek: “This is not only about Pete. We want to show that there are people in his intended base who are concerned about U.S. policy in the Middle East region being dogmatically pro-Israel, regardless of what Israel is doing to Palestinians.”

This message, he said, was “directed toward all” of the Democratic nominees.

Booker received the same message during his “hometown kickoff” last weekend in Newark, New Jersey, where he served as mayor from 2006-2013. The rally was the launch of his two-week national tour titled “Justice For All.”

Six Democratic presidential candidates (clockwise from left): Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker.Credit: AFP

The pro-Palestinian protesters riffed on the candidate’s own campaign theme, shouting “Justice for Palestine” while waving Palestinian flags and kaffiyehs.

But these activists — and the progressive wing of the party that supports them — aren’t the sole force driving the issue onto the 2020 Democratic agenda at such an early stage, when most of the candidates haven’t even staffed up foreign policy teams to help shape their formal positions on the Middle East.

Another important factor: U.S. President Donald Trump. By amplifying the reaction to the controversial remarks of Rep. Ilhan Omar regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship and the role of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Trump is making a deliberate effort to sow dissent within the Democratic Party on the issue of Israel. His online trolling of Omar, while primarily a racial and religious dog-whistle, has also been a way of encouraging Jewish voters (and donors) to view the Democrats as the anti-Israel party, making his case for a “Jexodus” to the Republican Party.

While the Jewish vote itself is negligible and the likelihood of wooing a substantive number to a Trump-led GOP is low, by making Omar’s positions the face of the Democratic Party, there is hope that pro-Israel Democratic donors will be less enthusiastic about opening their wallets. And maximizing disruption and chaos in the rival camp is always good: The more energy Democrats expend fighting each other over Israel, the less energy they have to attack him.

Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg announcing his nomination for president during a rally in South Bend, Indiana, April 14, 2019.Credit: AFP

A third element has been the timing of the Israeli election, which took place just as many of the 2020 Democratic campaigns were being launched. The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed out his ultimately successful campaign with promises to annex parts of the West Bank — viewed as the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution — was impossible for the candidates to ignore.

Walking a tightrope

All of this has required Democratic hopefuls to walk a tightrope. On one hand, they must display their opposition to Netanyahu’s views and the direction he is signaling, and show the progressive base that they aren’t donor-dependent, establishment politicians.

At the same time, they are working to resist falling into Trump’s trap of smearing their party as “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish,” as he did when many of the candidates chose not to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference at the height of the Omar controversy last month. And while they may not be, in Omar’s words, “All about the Benjamins,” many of the leading contenders do have donors — not only AIPAC leaders — who represent a constituency that cares about maintaining U.S.-Israel ties.

They face the challenge of distancing themselves from Netanyahu’s views, showing the loud and active progressive wing of their party they aren’t in AIPAC’s pocket, all while refusing to fall into Trump’s plan to characterize the Democrats as the anti-Israel party and alienating worried pro-Israel donors.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaking during a town hall meeting at the University of Iowa, April 10, 2019, in Iowa City, Iowa.Credit: Charlie Neibergall,AP

A prominent article published last week in D.C. political bureau McClatchy appeared to be trying to undo any damage from Sen. Kamala Harris’ choice of forgoing attendance at this year’s AIPAC conference after appearing there in the past.

The report, which said Harris was “resisting pressure” from her party’s “left flank” and “standing by her association with AIPAC,” quoted Harris’ campaign communications director as declaring that, “Her support for Israel is central to who she is” and that she “is firm in her belief that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself, including against rocket attacks from Gaza.”

Like Harris, Booker has long-standing close ties with AIPAC and pro-Israel donors (both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner donated to his 2013 Senate race) that were strained, but not broken, when Booker chose to support the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.

While Harris did not attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in March and Booker did attend but did not speak publicly, both met with AIPAC delegations from their home states — and in Booker’s case, an audio tape of the behind-closed-doors meeting at the D.C. conference was leaked. In it, he said that he and AIPAC President Mort Fridman “text message back and forth like teenagers.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker speaking at an event at the True Love Missionary Baptist Church in Las Vegas, April 20, 2019. Credit: John Locher,AP

Buttigieg has also been positioning himself on the “pro-Israel” edge of the pack. Earlier this month, a Vox article reviewed his stated positions on the Jewish state, noting that his “strong pro-Israel views may put him at odds with the increasingly pro-Palestinian left flank in his own party.”

Such views won him a powerful ally in former AIPAC President Steve Grossman, who also led the Democratic National Committee between 1997-1998. Grossman told the Boston Globe earlier this month that he endorsed the Indiana mayor who had traveled to Israel with the American Jewish Committee last May. The endorsement was significant given that Grossman had been expected to back the campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren from his native Massachusetts. “You would never hear me say a negative thing about Elizabeth Warren,” said Grossman, 73. “My concern is the future of the United States ... and I think Pete has the capacity to be the beacon for an awful lot of people who really feel a deep, deep sense of concern.”

Notably, the Grossman endorsement took place days after Buttigieg came out strongly against the Israeli prime minister’s annexation comments, showing that despite his “Israel-friendly” image, he was not afraid to criticize its government’s policies. “Supporting Israel does not have to mean agreeing with Netanyahu’s politics. I don’t. This calls for a president willing to counsel our ally against abandoning a two-state solution,” Buttigieg tweeted on April 6.

After each nod to the party’s more pro-Israel “establishment,” all three of the candidates — Harris, Booker and Buttigieg — have been attacked by the vocal and active base of pro-Palestinian bloggers and Twitter activists as having sold out.

Even the progressive wing’s senior figure, Bernie Sanders, is not immune from facing pressure on Israel — this despite him sparking a leftward revolution in the Democratic Party during his first presidential candidacy in 2016, pushing the party platform in a more pro-Palestinian direction at the 2016 convention and defending Omar.

On Twitter, activists have been worriedly reposting an interview Sanders gave to Al Jazeera in 2017, in which he expressed opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, and said that Israel was unfairly singled out for criticism by the United Nations and reiterated his belief in its right to exist.

In a town hall on Fox News last Monday, Sanders reiterated his support for the Minnesota congresswoman, saying: “It is not anti-Semitic to be critical of a right-wing government in Israel.”

At the same time, though, he distanced himself and rejected being labeled as a “staunch supporter” of Omar, noting: “I’ve talked to Ilhan about twice in my life.” And while he repeated his belief that she isn’t anti-Semitic, he took her to task, saying that she “has got to do maybe a better job in speaking to the Jewish community.”

The candidate with the most complicated baggage regarding Israel is widely expected to enter the race this week: Former Vice President Joe Biden.

Before 2008, the view was that Israel didn’t have a bigger “friend” on the Democratic side of the aisle than Biden. But after serving as Obama’s vice president for eight years, he has been seen as a supporter of positions that made both Israel and it supporters unhappy — the most burdensome being the Iran nuclear deal.

Biden will have to carefully navigate between the expectations of the energized progressive base and the establishment when it comes to Israel. Like his rivals, he will surely quickly realize that one strategy is not an option: He won’t be able to ignore it.

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