Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Views of the Israel-Palestine Issue--Where Do They Stand?
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
As we get closer to the 2020 election, international and national issues have begun to crystallize for Arab Americans. Some of these rank higher than others. For foreign policy, there is the general role of the U.S. in the Middle East: Syria, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iran. Of course, Arab Americans have lots of worries in the domestic sphere, as well, which are no less serious than those in the foreign arena. Among domestic concerns are voting rights, civil rights and liberties, bigoted speech, immigration, and Islamophobia.
Where does the Israel-Palestine Issue Rank among other Foreign Policy Issues?
Here we focus on the Israel-Palestine issue or what is commonly called the “Arab-Israel peace process.” Of all the issues involved, the critical one is the Israel occupation of the Palestinian territory. Democratic presidential contenders are closer together on this issue than they are to President Trump’s version of such a peace process. Perhaps it is superfluous to call the Trump approach a “process,” since what it really is, is a cynical, opportunistic attempt to appeal to the American evangelical Christian vote and a small segment of the U.S. Jewish population, as well as to support the campaign of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
For our purpose, we have selected the top Democratic contenders for President to review their take on the Israel-Palestine issue. It is nevertheless important to stress that voters are still shopping for their favorite candidate. For the moment, we will review this issue for Biden, who would like to extend the Obama era, and Warren and Sanders, who are outright progressives. These three share the high end of the polls. Harris, Buttigieg, Booker, and O’Rourke each offer a different version of liberalism, with a practical and generational bent. Down the road, as the field shrinks, we will report on those still in the running, perhaps including some of those present not in strong contention.
The Arab American Institute, Election Center (July 2019), serves as the major source of much of the data here. It, in turn, relied on interviews with many candidates by The New York Times.
Not surprisingly, Biden has been clear for decades about his overwhelming support for Israel. He recently stated on ABC News, “Sustaining our iron-clad commitments to Israel’s security, regardless of how much you may disagree with this present leader, Israel is essential”. Biden furthermore reiterated his long-held view that, regardless of the Netanyahu government’s position, the only solution to the Arab-Israeli crisis is a two-state solution. He also insists that the Palestinians “…have to step up to be prepared to stop the hate.” Biden was critical of the Palestinians for turning down the offer then on the table in the year 2,000 at Camp David, under former President Clinton, of 85-90% of what they wanted. Crucially, however, at that summit, Israel refused to give the Palestinians, and thus, Arabs, their right to return to Jerusalem, a most sacred city to all Muslims. Biden also insists that the Palestinians must recognize the State of Israel, in exchange for their own right to a state.
Warren mediates her view of Israel a bit, compared to Biden. She is a bit harder on Israel than the average American point of view. Quoted in The New York Times, she said, “I think that Israel is a really tough neighborhood. I understand that. They face enormous challenges, and they are our strong ally, we need a liberal democracy in that region and to work with that liberal democracy. But it is also the case that we need to encourage our ally, the way we would any good friend, to come to the table with the Palestinians and to work toward a permanent solution.”
Warren has indicated that she strongly supports a two-state solution and “…that a good friend says to the Palestinians and to the Israelis: ‘come to the table and negotiate’. The United States cannot dictate the terms of a long-term settlement with the Palestinians and the Israelis. But what it can do is urge both of them to go there and to stay out of the way, to let them negotiate the pieces that are most important to them for lasting peace.”
She believes that the current Israel-Palestine situation as it rests now is implausible for the long-term and that a two-state solution is inevitable. In this context, Warren states that the two entities must come to a two-state solution.
Sanders, himself Jewish and who once lived on a kibbutz in Israel, is even more radical than Warren in his response to Israel in the Trump era, especially in his pointed comments about Netanyahu. He believes that the U.S. should leverage its aid to Israel, especially the present government. Sanders is also ever-aware of the President’s rapid-fire twitter responses over his, Sander’s, anti-Netanyahu stance and Trump’s strong leaning towards Netanyahu. Trump’s pro-Israel stance is based partly on his need for the votes
Sanders sees Netanyahu’s right-wing government as having racist tendencies, with limited possibilities for bringing about peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis—especially after former presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama had tried their hands at peace-making. One thing he sees missing in Trump’s so-called plan is treating the Palestinians with the …” respect and dignity they deserve.” Sanders sees the Arab-Israel peace process as a broad, regional matter, where countries such as Saudi Arabia are accountable for their actions, including their dictatorial behavior in the context of the Yemen war and elsewhere.
Sanders is particularly critical of senior counselor to Trump, Jared Kushner’s handling of his Arab-Israeli peace mandate. (Kushner is an Orthodox Jew.) It is mainly Kushner’s seeming inability to recognize, much less deal with, the Palestinians that Sanders criticizes. He believes that the U.S. handling of the humanitarian crisis Palestinians are undergoing and their high rate of unemployment is inexcusable. Furthermore, he carefully differentiates his lack of support for Netanyahu from his support for the Israeli state.
Harris has made a strong commitment, as have all the candidates, to the support of Israel as “a democracy with shared values and priorities” in a region where little of that commodity exists. However, perhaps given her law-and-order background, she has little good to say about Palestine. Of all the candidates, Harris seems the least inclined to support any aspect of the Palestine cause, including the refugees. Perhaps her perspective is more nuanced than described here, but at the moment this seems to be her latest view on the topic.
Booker’s view is summarized best in this quote: “I think we have a problem right now in America with the way that we are debating issues surrounding Israel and Israel’s security. We have a president that seems to not support this idea of a two-state solution, which has had bipartisan commitment and conviction over decades in our past. My commitment right now is to affirm Israel’s right to exist, affirming Israel’s right to defend itself against enemies which they have virtually surrounding them, but also to affirm the dignity and self-determination of Palestinian people. I believe that we can get back to the kind of policies that affirm that two-state solution, affirm human rights and that America can be a force to accomplishing that in Israel.”
In this quote, Booker makes clear his dual commitment to Israel and Palestine. He is especially critical of the Trump administration for reneging on the U.S. funding contribution, through the United Nations, to the humanitarian and human rights conditions of the Palestinians.
Buttigieg is supportive of Israel, but with some important caveats. He does not condone the right-wing policies of Netanyahu, especially those directed against the Palestinians. He suggests that “Israel’s human rights record [towards the Palestinians] is problematic and moving in the wrong direction.” With respect to Netanyahu making good on his threat to annex West Bank settlements, Buttigieg avers that “…a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill.” He underscores his differences with the Israeli political right-wing and that moving away from peace with the Palestinians will only harm Israel’s interests.
O’Rourke is pro-Israel in the sense of supporting a democratic state, but one which will meet international standards of human rights. Thus, he is like some of the other candidates, less than enthusiastic for the present regime of Netanyahu. He is quoted as saying, “I know that Israel attempts to meet international standards of human rights. I know that they could do a better job. And that’s not just my opinion, that’s from listening to people in Israel say that about their own country. I think that we have a role to play to ensure the safety, the human rights, and the dignity of the people of Israel, as well as the people of what will become the state for the Palestinians, right now the Palestinian Authority.” As with some of his fellow candidates, O’Rourke is adamantly in favor of a two-state solution and, thus, he feels Netanyahu’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank would lead to greater instability and violence across the Middle East region.
The contrast among the Democratic candidates on the issue of Israel and Palestine is much less stark than that between them and Congressional members of the Republican Party. That is partly because the agenda of that Party is set by President Trump. And Trump’s agenda is set by who-knows-what and by America Christian evangelicals and by his affinity for Israel’s right-wing leader, Bibi Netanyahu.
On the single issue of Israel and Palestine, it is clear where most Arab American sentiments probably lie. It is heartening that such an overwhelming majority of the 20-some Democrat candidates show clear support for a fair solution to the long-term problem of the Israeli occupation of Palestinians and their land.
Recently complicating this larger issue of Palestinian rights is a Republican-proposed bill which, according to writer Josh Ruebner, “…conflates opposition to Israel’s racist policies and anti-Semitism.” Specifically, the bill tries to silence students who are critical of Israel through investigating so-called “incidents of anti-Semitism as a form of discrimination.” Anti-Semitism equates to anything critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. If passed, universities that are non-compliant with this law could lose federal funding.
Such politically-motivated Republican behavior in their almost rabid support of Netanyahu’s vision of Israel alone would seem to be enough to influence any sane voter’s choice of almost any one of the Democratic candidates.
(References: Arab American Institute Election Center, June 27, 2019; The New York Times, Interviews with Democratic Candidates, May-June, 2019; Mondoweiss, News and Opinion about Palestine, Israel and the U.S., June 19, 2019; CBS, Interview with Beto O’Rourke, May 26, 2019; Haaretz, Interview with Michael Bennett, June 28, 2019; Josh Ruebner, Rights and Accountability, August 9, 2019.)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.