The Slatest

Democrats May Finally Have a Real Debate About Israel (if Moderators Ask)

A worker cleans the empty debate stage.
A worker cleans the stage where the debates will be held this week in Detroit.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

If moderators at this week’s Democratic primary debates in Detroit want to start a conversation that will actually exposes differences in the views of the candidates, illuminate how the Democratic Party may be evolving, and get many of the candidates outside their comfort zones, there’s one obvious choice: Israel.

This hasn’t always been the case. Until recently, the safe answer for any candidate running for president was to simply affirm strong U.S. backing for Israel and support for an eventual two-state solution. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict wasn’t much of a topic of debate in previous elections simply because there wasn’t much of a debate.

But as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved to ally himself with the American right, and frustration over the ongoing stalemate in the Palestinian territories has grown, the calculus has changed. Rank-and-file Democrats, particularly progressives and younger voters, have grown increasingly critical of the Israeli government and U.S. support for the country.

It’s too simple to say, as many Republicans do, that the Democrats have moved “left” on Israel. But this year’s crop of candidates does express a wider and more nuanced range of opinions on the topic than those of past years. But given the sensitivity of the topic, the candidates are unlikely to start this conversation on their own, so it will take some prompting from the moderators.

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These debates have already started in the campaign. Activists from the American Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow have been working in recent weeks to get candidates on the record about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Most described it as a problem, though Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren went farthest in saying they would apply pressure on Israel to end the occupation. Cory Booker, on the other hand, refused to describe the occupation as a human rights crisis, telling IfNotNow, “If that’s your issue, I would understand if you want to support somebody else.”

The controversial boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has been another flashpoint issue, particularly since last year’s election of two new members of congress—Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar—who support the movement. While none of the candidates are on record supporting boycotting Israel, most of the senators currently running voted against a February bill, which a narrow majority of Democrats supported, which would have allowed state and local governments to punish companies that boycott Israel. Of the 2020 candidates in the Senate, only Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet voted for it; most of the others objected on free speech grounds. The House recently passed another bill stating opposition to the BDS movement with overwhelming bipartisan support, including from 2020 candidate Tulsi Gabbard. (Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton did not vote.)

And while all the candidates are likely to criticize President Donald Trump’s handling of Israeli-Palestinian issues, the trickier question is what they would do to try to undo the damage. When Axios recently polled the major Democratic candidates, none of them would commit to moving the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv. Booker, Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg all said they would leave it in Jerusalem. Sanders, Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Julián Castro all declined to answer.

Within the Democratic presidential field, former kibbutznik Sanders has been the most critical of Israeli policy. Sanders and Hillary Clinton did have one sharp exchange on the topic during a 2016 primary debate, but that year—in contrast to this one—Sanders generally played down international issues. He didn’t make it a point of emphasis. But as the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart has written, since then, in conjunction with a general shift toward emphasizing foreign policy, Sanders has “produced videos that call Gaza an “open-air prison,” he’s depicted Benjamin Netanyahu as part of the “growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism,” and, most controversially of all, he’s suggested cutting U.S. military aid to Israel.”

Warren is less outspoken, though she has called on Israel to exercise restraint in Gaza and recently hired a member of IfNotNow as her director for progressive partnerships.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke got some attention last spring for describing Netanyahu as a “racist” and an obstacle to a two-state solution, which probably would have been a much bigger story during previous elections.

Other candidates have more traditional views. Harris has mostly avoided criticism of Israeli policies and stood by her past associations with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Buttigieg, while criticizing some of Netanyahu’s actions and supporting a two-state solution, has generally been much more supportive of Israeli policies.

Biden may be in the most interesting position when it comes to Israel—while a longtime staunch supporter of Israel with fairly centrist foreign-policy views, Biden was also present during the deterioration of relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, and at times right in the middle of it: In 2010, Netanyahu unveiled a new plan for West Bank settlement construction during a visit by Biden, in what was seen as a humiliating slap in the face for the vice president. Biden mostly laughed it off, though. In 2015, he said of the U.S.-Israel relationship, “Sometimes we drive each other crazy. But we love each other.”  When he was debating Paul Ryan during the 2012 election, Biden boasted of being Netanyahu’s “friend for 39 years.”

While many of the candidates still want to be seeing as generally “pro-Israel,” it’s hard to imagine that bragging about being friends with Netanyahu himself would go over that well in this debate.