Can the 2020 Democratic Candidates Change the US-Israel Relationship?

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, many Democrats are vying for the Democratic Party nomination and have launched their campaigns. Over the next few months and during the candidate debates that will begin next summer, there will be ample opportunities for the contenders to distinguish themselves before the party base. One of the most discussed issues related to this base in recent months has been the emerging divide among Democrats about US relations with the State of Israel. While signs of that divide are evident and continue to be so over time, support for Israel has been a longstanding bipartisan issue. All the 2020 contenders who have had opportunities to vote on major pieces of legislation, particularly relating to US arms sales to Israel, have supported them. However, some statements, decisions, and votes are beginning to reflect a broader shift in the offing.

Some of the questions that appear to be paramount in voters’ minds have begun to seriously impact the positions of some candidates. They include the following: Are candidates capable of changing the US-Israel relationship? What constraints do they face as candidates? If they make it into office, what constraints will they face in making changes? These are all important and relevant questions. Following is an assessment of the various contenders’ positions on US relations with Israel and the Palestinian people, based on what is known so far, as well as an evaluation of their prospects for creating change in these relationships.

All the 2020 contenders who have had opportunities to vote on major pieces of legislation, particularly relating to US weapons to Israel, have supported them. However, some statements, decisions, and votes are beginning to reflect a broader shift in the offing.

The Foreign Policy-Free Left

Elizabeth Warren. The senator from Massachusetts is considered among the most progressive in the race and has fashioned her political career around focusing on economic issues and ending deregulated financial systems that privilege the wealthy. While that has been her focus, she has also been supportive of and vocal about a range of other progressive issues. When it comes to US relations with Israel, however, she has been far less bold and has tended to follow the more boilerplate talking points most often put forward by most politicians. Warren has been endorsed by the pro-Israel lobby J Street which claims to support a two-state solution. She has expressed concern for Palestinian civilians in Gaza but, at the same time, vocally defended supplying weapons to the Israeli military. Warren has been among the few senators who spoke out about Israel’s planned demolition of Palestinian villages like Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar, signing on to a letter to the Israeli prime minister opposing this policy. Warren also joined a number of senators in voting against the recent S.1 legislation in the Senate which included an unconstitutional provision aimed at furthering anti-BDS legislation. She, along with Senator Bernie Sanders, are the only two candidates in the race who skipped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015.

While Warren has been more critical of Israel than many (though not all) of her Senate colleagues, the extent of her criticism does not match the boldness of the remainder of her progressive agenda. This is likely in part a reflection of the fact that Warren has not developed much of a foreign policy profile in her time in the Senate and has instead focused on domestic and primarily economic and consumer related issues.

Warren’s campaign financing model also offers her a greater opportunity to take a different line on the issue, during the primaries at least. She has committed to rejecting large contributions, which means that big money donors with focused interests on Israel are less likely to sway her.

Warren’s campaign financing model also offers her a greater opportunity to take a different line on the issue, during the primaries at least. She has committed to rejecting large contributions, which means that big money donors with focused interests on Israel are less likely to sway her. Many vulnerabilities remain, nevertheless: her focus on domestic policy and lack of emphasis on foreign policy suggests that if she were to win the White House, she would rely on the Democratic Party establishment’s traditional foreign policy where carte blanche support for Israel is the norm.

The Centrist

Amy Klobuchar. The policy platform of the senator from Minnesota contrasts with that of her colleague from Massachusetts. Klobuchar is aiming to reach a more right-leaning constituency among Democrats and wants to present herself as a practical politician who backs ideas that can achieve consensus through bipartisan lawmaking. This is a harder agenda to sell today as the party electorate has shifted further to the left and partisanship is at an all-time-high; but Klobuchar hopes that her practical agenda can be persuasive in the states of middle America––away from the more liberal-leaning coastal areas––which Democrats will have to win in 2020 to take back the White House. When it comes to foreign policy, however, Klobuchar has not made much of a name for herself. Her time in the Senate has been largely focused on domestic policy committee assignments with much of her prominence coming from her service on the Judiciary Committee. But she has had an interest in foreign policy, even if that is not where her focus in the Senate has been. Regarding Israel, she spoke at length about her support for Israel at the most recent AIPAC conference and pointed out how the Israeli prime minister seemed to see her favorably in comparison to the senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand. Klobuchar was also a supporter of the S.1 legislation that was opposed by all of her colleagues who are running in 2020.

Of all the Democratic candidates, Klobuchar seems least interested in and committed to revisiting the US-Israel relationship. Should her candidacy last into the primaries, it would not be surprising if pro-Israel donors back her, thus creating more obstacles for her to adjust US policy toward Israel if she gets elected.

Of all the Democratic candidates, Klobuchar seems least interested in and committed to revisiting the US-Israel relationship. Should her candidacy last into the primaries, it would not be surprising if pro-Israel donors back her, thus creating more obstacles for her to adjust US policy toward Israel if she gets elected. Further, should she be successful, she would do so despite the party base and could use that to argue that the support for a change in the relationship is not significant enough yet.

The New Progressives

A group of candidates, all senators, are either relative newcomers or have shifted to the left in recent years, forming a cohort of new progressives. In 2016, these candidates were either not yet in the Senate or they backed Hillary Clinton for president against then-primary opponent Bernie Sanders, whose social welfare platform was considered too radical. In three short years, these candidates have now aligned themselves with much of Sanders’ agenda and backed one of his most significant legislative efforts known as the Medicare for All bill. Shifting to the left of the Democratic Party has also meant having to reconcile progressive values with long-standing support for Israel. This has been challenging for this group of candidates who are attempting to navigate such a terrain carefully in the hopes of not alienating the base or losing pro-Israel voters and donors to more establishment candidates or Republicans.

Kirsten Gillibrand. The senator from New York represents a state with the most populous Jewish community in the United States, with New York City alone being home to a larger Jewish population than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem combined. These communities––as well as their representatives and senators––have long had strong ties to Israel. While Gillibrand was an ardent supporter of Israel over the years, her politics in general have shifted from more moderate and right-leaning to a much more progressive blend. Alongside this general shift has come a willingness to break somewhat from the pro-Israel consensus. In fact, the year 2017 may have been the watershed year for this shift. At a town hall that year she stated she did not believe Netanyahu had a vision for peace, an obvious fact and yet a dangerous statement for a lawmaker or candidate, given the prevailing pro-Israel consensus in the United States. To be sure, anything that even remotely suggests that Israel is more responsible for the political impasse than the Palestinians is practically sacrilegious in American politics. She followed that up by withdrawing her co-sponsorship for the Israel Anti-Boycott Act––a bill backed by AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby. It may be the first time in history that a senator publicly breaks from AIPAC in this way, especially after having co-sponsored the legislation. Gillibrand’s decision to pull out made the bill far more politically controversial and essentially blunted its momentum and rendered it dead for the Congress. She maintained this position against anti-BDS legislation by also voting against the S.1 bill earlier this year in the Senate.

While Gillibrand was an ardent supporter of Israel over the years, her politics in general have shifted from more moderate and right-leaning to a much more progressive blend. Alongside this general shift has come a willingness to break somewhat from the pro-Israel consensus.

Kamala Harris. The senator from California represents the most populous state in the union with a strong progressive contingent. She has also been assigned to Senate committees, like the Homeland Security and Intelligence committees, which afford her more of a foreign policy background. It is noteworthy that she had only been in the Senate for two years before announcing her bid for the presidency. Barack Obama followed a similar path, but his more internationalist background and writings offered him opportunities to publicly reflect on foreign policy in ways that contributed to a public understanding of his positions—a path that Harris does not share. In her time in office, Senator Harris has been a strong supporter of Israel. She spoke at the AIPAC conference in 2017 and delivered oft-repeated talking points that have become standard fare for most attendees. “I stand with Israel,” she said, “because of our shared values which are so fundamental to the founding of both our nations. I believe the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and we can never let anyone drive a wedge between us.” But in 2018, she took a different route, and gave an off-the-record address to AIPAC. In fact, had an attendee not failed to comply with the off-the-record rules and tweeted about the event, it is unlikely that the public would have any knowledge of the conversation that was deliberately left off the public agenda. Did Harris understand that the party base to which she would have to appeal was increasingly shifting away from Israel? That would seem to be the case, and by giving an off-the-record address she may have been hoping to play both sides.

Harris is hoping to count on older African-American voters to help her in the primary. These are largely connected and sympathetic to the party establishment where support for Israel remains high. But to reach beyond that, particularly with younger voters, Harris knows she will have to be careful. She has a tricky path to follow and is hoping to make her biggest move in the South Carolina primary, where the African-American community will play a big role. She, too, voted against S.1 when it finally came to the floor but not before missing the first vote on it because she was campaigning in Iowa.

Harris is hoping to count on older African-American voters to help her in the primary. These are largely connected and sympathetic to the party establishment where support for Israel remains high. But to reach beyond that, particularly with younger voters, Harris knows she will have to be careful.

Cory Booker. The senator from New Jersey has been in the upper chamber of the US Congress since 2013 and has been an outspoken supporter of Israel. He has made much of his relationship with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom he credits with educating him about the Jewish people and Israel. But this relationship changed significantly when Booker backed the Obama Administration on the Iran nuclear deal while his fellow New Jersey senator, Bob Menendez, opposed it. Booker has since taken other votes that have angered Boteach, though his ties to pro-Israel interests still seem to impact him. Late last year, when it became clear that the Israel Anti-Boycott Act was not going to pass, Booker joined as a co-sponsor. This year, however, he voted against the AIPAC-backed S.1 legislation along with most of his Senate colleagues contending for the White House; but he did so only after Harris made her intentions clear on how she would vote. As mentioned earlier, Harris missed the initial vote on S.1 but Booker did not seem to have an excuse to miss it. When Harris announced that night that she would be voting against the legislation when it came to the floor, Booker not only showed up for the floor vote, but he voted against the bill as well. This suggests that Booker understands he will have to take a similar path through the nomination process as Harris, and that carte blanche support for Israel could be a liability.

Booker voted against the S.1 legislation. This suggests that he understands he will have to take a similar path through the nomination process as Harris, and that carte blanche support for Israel could be a liability.

Do these new progressives offer hope for a shift in the US-Israel relationship? For any candidate to bring such a shift forward, he/she would need to be able to argue for it publicly from a position of authority and integrity. It would be hard to do that if the voting base cannot be brought along. These candidates seem hesitant to voice more criticism of Israel despite knowing that they would not pay political costs for it among their base—or frankly most of the electorate. That could change, however, if they remain in the race long enough to have established themselves as some of the top contenders.

The Wild Card

Bernie Sanders. The senator from Vermont is perhaps the most unique of the announced presidential candidates thus far. He has been in Congress for decades while most others are relative newcomers to the federal legislature. Throughout this time, his decidedly progressive politics have often left him isolated in Congress. In recent years however, as the party base moved further left, he has gained greater prominence. His 2016 policy ideas have become practically mainstream in the party just three years later. An Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Sanders is often derided by party insiders for not being a proud Democrat. But what has happened in recent years is that while he did not come to the Democratic Party, the party has come to him. On Israel he has also had a different track record than most. His foreign policy views have been grounded in an internationalism of the left and this has often put him on the opposite side of Israeli allies on a variety of issues, though not necessarily in direct confrontation with Israel itself. He opposed the US war in Iraq when it was not popular to do so and has been a vocal critic of American military spending and open-ended military commitments. Sanders has also been a leading voice in the recent Senate effort to end weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen, which demonstrates that he is willing to play a leading role in holding long-standing allies to account on human rights grounds.

What also makes Sanders stand out is his own Jewish background, about which he has spoken on the campaign trail in the past. Though he lived briefly on an Israeli kibbutz, he spent most of his life in the United States where he has made economic equality his primary issue. In 2016, he drew attention because of his willingness to criticize Israel in ways Hillary Clinton would not.

Sanders has also vocalized criticism of Israel elsewhere, including around the killing of protesters in the Gaza Great Return March in 2018. He has also been a chief advocate against anti-BDS legislation and he, along with his Senate colleague Dianne Feinstein, led on this opposition publicly. He voted against S.1 and many other senators followed his lead.

The question is how far Sanders is willing to go in terms of criticism of Israeli policies and what US policy ideas, if any, he would support regarding the US-Israel relationship. With newfound clout and significant support from the party base, Sanders can be the standard bearer when it comes to criticism of Israel in the discourse. His Jewish background would also make it harder for pro-Israel detractors to attack him for harboring an anti-Jewish animus.

With newfound clout and significant support from the party base, Sanders can be the standard bearer when it comes to criticism of Israel in the discourse. His Jewish background would also make it harder for pro-Israel detractors to attack him for harboring an anti-Jewish animus.

The Rest

As more Democratic politicians announce their candidacy for president, it often seems that listing those not running might be a more effective way of assessing the field. Others who have announced include Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Congressman Julian Castro, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Others who have not yet announced but are considered likely to do so include former Vice President Joe Biden, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke. On US-Israel relations, none are truly outside of the establishment mold. Brown, perhaps the most consistent progressive of the bunch, voted against S.1 but there is little else to suggest a broader shift in his positions. Gabbard’s foreign policy is decidedly out of step with the establishment but not necessarily on Syria or in the direction of changing US-Israel relations. She has taken an anti-interventionist line with continuing to support the “war on terror”—a key frame through which US-Israel relations are reinforced.

Conclusion

The 2020 contenders among the Democrats have largely demonstrated that they are beginning to reflect a shift in the party base on US-Israel relations. Most, however, seem unsure of exactly where and how to manifest that change and how far they can take it. The primary contest, particularly as the debates begin and candidates will be required to answer questions on these issues before the voting base, may well be a significant turning point in the Democratic Party consensus on US-Israel relations. Sanders, in particular, is primed to play a key role given his own previous criticism and his personal background. Exactly how these primaries will contribute to a turning point, and to what extent, are questions that cannot be answered now.

While the primary campaigns themselves may afford an opportunity for a high-profile intra-party debate on US-Israel relations, one that has existed at the base of the party for many years, the bigger question is what, if anything, can translate from the Democratic primaries to the general election, and then into governance, should one of the Democratic contenders manage to win the White House?

If a Democrat wins the White House in 2020 and is intent on adjusting the US-Israel relationship, he/she will still come up against a Congress that is heavily influenced by pro-Israel interests, particularly among Republicans.

If a Democrat wins the White House in 2020 and is intent on adjusting the US-Israel relationship, he/she will still come up against a Congress that is heavily influenced by pro-Israel interests, particularly among Republicans. Circumventing this challenge would require exercising certain executive actions that do not need congressional support. It also may require making a strong, public argument for a different direction to ensure support for such a shift beyond the candidate’s base. While we will not know until 2021 how this might take shape, it is safe to assume that a candidate who survives both the primaries and the general election with a bold message on US-Israel relations would be more likely to take further steps as president of the United States.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here