Who are These Debating Democrats? Perspective from Israel

Pro-Israel voters may be forgiven for lacking enthusiasm about this roster.

This column was originally published in The Jerusalem Post

Israelis are understandably preoccupied with this week’s spate of terrorism. But as the ominous sounds of ambulance sirens accompany depressing news broadcasts recounting the day’s attacks and casualties, Israelis – especially Americans living here – should divert some attention to the week’s Democratic presidential debate.

The debating candidates barely touched on Israel-related issues, which may in itself be telling.

But the next US president, possibly someone on that debate stage, will come into office facing chaotically shifting Middle East issues, maps, major players and balances of power.  So, with several Democratic contenders making their debut in the national spotlight, Israel asks: who are these people? And what records and policies do they have toward Israel and the Middle East?

Hillary Clinton

Still the front-runner in spite of FBI investigations and credibility issues, Clinton is the candidate most familiar to the Israeli public. Like so much else about her, Clinton’s record regarding Israel remains opaque. Though she has cultivated an image of being reliably pro-Israel (especially when serving constituents as senator from New York), the reality is more complex.

She faithfully served as President Barack Obama’s first-term secretary of state, a period of grave deterioration in relations between the American administration and the Israeli government, and oversaw controversial American regional strategies including the ill-fated intervention in Libya and support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. While her precise Israel- related policy role is debated, she repeatedly publicly criticized Israel, reneged on Bush administration agreements with Israel, rebuffed requests by Israel’s ambassador in Washington to meet with her and famously harangued Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone for 45 minutes during a manufactured “crisis” over Israeli housing permits for Jerusalem.

She also gave the cold shoulder to the Green Revolution dissidents in Iran when they had a chance to topple the Islamic government, preferring instead to engage with the ruling ayatollahs. More recently, she expressed support for the Iran nuclear deal.

Bernie Sanders

Rumpled and authentic, the increasingly- popular self-described “democratic socialist” is somewhat of a curiosity in Israel. Though not religious, Sanders is Jewish, born in Brooklyn – and with the accent to prove it. He also spent a few months on a kibbutz 50 years ago.

He is widely considered to be the most leftwing member of the Senate (a title formerly held by Sen. Barack Obama). To his credit, Sanders never took up the stridently anti-Israel orientation of others on the hard Left. He is generally supportive of less-controversial pro-Israel legislation; he has, however, recently taken troubling positions regarding Israel.

During last summer’s Gaza war, Sanders decried “the Israeli attacks that killed hundreds of innocent people – including many women and children,” and called Israeli bombing “disproportionate” and “completely unacceptable.”

Sanders was one of only 21 senators who refused to co-sponsor a resolution expressing support for Israel in its war with Hamas.

Sanders does not sign any AIPAC-backed letters.

And last February, Sanders was the first senator to announce that he would refuse to attend Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before Congress.

He also endorses the Iran nuclear deal and opposes the US aerial campaign against Islamic State.

James Webb

The most interesting of the lesser-known candidates may be Webb. Though hardly an electrifying campaigner, he is a man of substance and accomplishment – a highly decorated Marine Corps officer, author of 10 books, secretary of the navy and senator.

From Israel’s perspective, however, Webb has a worrisome record. On the positive side, he called for the UN to rescind the Goldstone Report, has opposed having Israel return to the 1949 armistice lines and, during the debate, criticized the Iran deal for endangering America’s “greatest ally.” But Morris Amitay, former executive director of AIPAC, called Webb’s Israel record the worst he’d ever seen in over 40 years following Congress. According to Amitay, Webb supported only two of 16 contested pro-Israel initiatives.

Webb was accused of anti-Semitism during his 2006 Senate run for a campaign flier depicting his Jewish primary opponent with a hooked nose and cash spilling from his pockets.

Martin O’Malley

A former mayor and governor, O’Malley is a foreign policy blank slate. But he has made some generic pro-Israel pronouncements, particularly regarding Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rockets and Israel’s handling of terrorist attacks.

Lincoln Chaffee

Chaffee serves on the advisory board of J Street. He has a history as one of the senators least supportive of the American-Israel relationship and as a committed opponent of AIPAC. He is critical of what he calls the “biblical influence” on America’s Israel policy, and has advocated greater American pressure on Israel.

He has blamed Iranian belligerence on hostile American rhetoric, and advocated cultural dialogue with Iran.

Those are the candidates. Pro-Israel voters may be forgiven for lacking enthusiasm about this roster.

The author is an American attorney and political commentator living in Israel. He serves as counsel to Republicans Overseas Israel.

This column was originally published in The Jerusalem Post

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