More AIPAC or J-Street? Israel in focus as Democrat hopefuls target White House 

More AIPAC or J-Street? Israel in focus as Democrat hopefuls target White House 

We look at the candidates lining up to topple President Donald Trump in 2020, to find out if they're more AIPAC or J-Street

Stephen Oryszczuk

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gilibran and Beto ORourke
Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gilibran and Beto ORourke

The countdown to the 2020 US presidential election has already begun. A host of Democrats have thrown their hats in the ring to run against a newly-exonerated Donald Trump, most recently the enigmatic Texan Beto O’Rourke.

So, where do they stand on Israel? Are they more in line with AIPAC, whose conference this week some boycotted? Or are they more dovish, like lobby group J-Street, which has just said it will run an “alternative Birthright” trip to give a Palestinian perspective? Jewish News takes a look at some of those to step forward.

Beto O’Rourke (Texas senator): 

This one-time punk guitarist almost pulled off an almighty upset in 2016, losing narrowly to senior Republican Ted Cruz, whose win in such a right-wing state had simply been assumed. Now considered a strong contender for president, where is he on Israel? In 2014, during the last Gaza war, O’Rourke, now 46, was one of only eight Congress members to oppose extra missile-defence funding for Israel. This led AIPAC to say he was siding with “the rocket launchers and the terror-tunnel builders”.

Beto ORourke

In 2016, however, O’Rourke seemed to make amends by voting for the Taylor Force Act, which conditioned aid to the West Bank and Gaza. Last year, he criticised Donald Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move, calling it “unnecessarily provocative” and saying it would “provide incentives and incitement to violence”. Referencing US military aid to Israel and settlement-building, he said: “Sometimes being a friend means helping your friend to make tough, politically inconvenient decisions.” He added that without a two-state solution, Israel “cannot be both Jewish and democratic”.

Verdict: J-Street

Cory Booker (New Jersey senator):

An African-American former mayor of Newark who counts Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg as a supporter, Booker is a Christian who studied as a Rhodes Scholar in 1992 at Oxford. There, he developed an interest in Judaism after meeting outspoken Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (who later tried and failed to run for Congress as a Republican).

Also there, Booker – now 49 – became the first non-Jew to head the L’Chaim Society, and still keeps a Jewish Bible on his desk. The experienced Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg says Booker “knows more Torah” than most of his Jewish political peers. On Israel, Booker backed Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, but unlike most of his fellow 2020 Democratic competitors voted in favour of controversial Republican-inspired anti-BDS legislation which criminalises support for boycotts of Israel or settlements. Most of his rivals refused to back it on free speech grounds, but Booker’s support won him friends at NORPAC, the second largest pro-Israel political fund in the US, and at AIPAC, which is set to give him a platform at its coveted annual shindig.

Booker is still not pro-Israel enough for former mentor Boteach, who accuses the Torah-spouting scholar he once helped of “abandoning Israel’s vital security interests” by voting against the Taylor Force Act and the anti-BDS bill.

Verdict: AIPAC

Cory Booker

Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts senator): 

Another big hitter, Warren’s focus is on Wall Street and income inequality but she takes a view on most global issues and has long maintained it is “a moral imperative to support and defend Israel”.

Elizabeth Warren

In 2014, she supported Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, voted to give Israel an additional $225 million for missile defence and sharply criticised a Palestinian application for membership at the UN.

However, she has also been critical of Israeli actions. In 2017, she wrote to Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the demolition of Palestinian villages and last year she urged Israeli “restraint” during the Gaza border protests. She was against Trump’s embassy move, saying the status of Jerusalem should be subject to negotiation between the parties, and refused to back the anti-BDS law.

Verdict: J-Street

Kamala Harris (California senator):

The daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, this former attorney-general is a no-nonsense progressive whose Jewish husband is also a lawyer. While she voted against the anti-BDS legislation, her statement doing so made clear she “supports security assistance to strengthen Israel’s ability to defend itself” and “has travelled to Israel where she saw the importance of US-Israeli security cooperation first-hand”.

Kamala Harris

On the question of whether she is ‘more AIPAC than J-Street,’ her multiple appearances at the AIPAC annual policy conference in recent years appear to provide the answer. While last year’s speech was given behind closed doors, in 2017 she said the US shouldn’t push Israelis and Palestinians towards negotiations. This was a big no-no for liberal Jews, who think the US needs to exert its influence to bring both sides to the table. Add to that her co-sponsorship of a 2017 Senate resolution blasting Obama for failing to veto a UN resolution condemning Israel’s settlement-building, and she is solidly to the right on the left.

Verdict: AIPAC


Kirsten Gillibrand (New York senator): 

A former lawyer who met her British husband Jonathan on a blind date, Gillibrand has built a support base in part by leading efforts to tackle sexual assault in the military and politics. Now one of the strongest female voices on the left, her position is closely analysed and often changes. For instance, she was all set to vote for the anti-BDS legislation, just like Booker, but changed her mind at the last minute after American civil liberties groups said it was a threat to the First Amendment.

That, together with her backing for Obama’s nuclear deal and her criticism of Netanyahu for having “no plan for peace” has pitted her against some of the most senior Jewish Democrats, such as fellow New Yorker Chuck Schumer, who hated the Iran deal and backed the anti-BDS law. She spouts her pro-Israel credentials – leading the fight for military funding, speaking out against anti-Israel bias at the UN and “voting for round after round of sanctions against Iran” – but appears somehow to be not hawkish enough for the hawks while also being not doveish enough for the doves.

Verdict: AIPAC (just)

Kirsten Gillibrand

Bernie Sanders (Vermont senator): 

This 77-year-old Brooklyn-born Jewish senator who once volunteered on an Israeli kibbutz galvanised the Democratic base in 2016, but the party hierarchy picked Hillary Clinton to be its nominee and the rest, as they say, is history. ‘The Bern’ is back, and while he supports Israel he also criticises some Israeli policies and actions. During the 2014 Gaza war, he hit out at Hamas for hiding weapons among civilians but slammed Israel for bombing UN hospitals, calling it “terribly, terribly wrong”. He later abstained from a Senate vote condemning “unprovoked” rocket attacks from Gaza. Last year, he urged Trump to restore US funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (without success) and warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. He backed Obama’s nuclear deal and is “no great fan” of Netanyahu, boycotting the Israeli PM’s 2015 speech to Congress. He was openly against the anti-BDS law, and in a joint statement with fellow Jewish Democrat Dianne Feinstein, he said: “At a time when Netanyahu is pursuing policies clearly aimed at foreclosing the two-state solution, it is disappointing that
Congress would consider penalising criticism of those policies.”

Verdict: J-Street

Bernie Sanders
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