The New York Times: 2020 Democrats at J Street Conference Reflect New Tone on U.S.-Israel Relations

Pete Buttigieg on Monday compared Israel’s relationship with the United States to that of a close friend — one who needed and should accept more guidance. Bernie Sanders put it in starker terms, saying the United States should demand more from Israel.

But whatever the language, one thing was clear: Democratic attitudes toward Israel are shifting in the highest echelons of the party.

Several Democratic presidential hopefuls spoke at a national conference hosted by J Street, a liberal lobbying group that describes itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace.” Thousands of progressive Jewish activists gathered at the two-day conference, as candidates answered questions about what they would do to end the Israeli occupation in the West Bank as well as restart negotiations between Palestinians and the Israeli government. Such negotiations have long been at a standstill.

But the questions went beyond what is known as the two-state solution, which would grant Palestinians statehood — an idea that many see as far-fetched or impossible under the Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu administrations.

In a sign of how far the Trump administration has changed the conversation around Israel, several Democratic candidates said they were open to withholding aid from Israel if it annexed more land in the West Bank. Speakers at the conference repeatedly referred to what they called racist policies in both the United States and Israel. None of the candidates did so in more personal terms than Mr. Sanders, who opened his speech by referring to his own Jewishness, his time living on an Israeli kibbutz, and his father, who immigrated from Poland to escape anti-Semitism.

“It is not anti-Semitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist — that is a fact,” Mr. Sanders said, receiving enthusiastic applause from the audience.

“I’m very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president,” he said, adding that Jews “have suffered for century after century.”

“If there is any people on earth who understands the danger of racism and white nationalism,” he said, rising from his chair to deliver each answer. “It is certainly the Jewish people.”

He went on to say that the Israeli government should not be given “carte blanche” for spending the roughly $3.8 billion it receives in military aid.

In 2017, the Trump administration moved the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and formally recognized Jerusalem as the country’s capital, a move that broke with decades of United States policy.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, said that the group’s polling showed that the vast majority of Democratic voters supported both Palestinians and Israelis but did not approve of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has backed settlement expansion and annexation of more of the West Bank.

In some quarters, any criticism of Israel is seen as a political risk that could leave candidates open to accusations of anti-Semitism.

“It shouldn’t be hard to be against bad policies and against anti-Semitism. Those are table stakes,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “You can be committed to the U.S.-Israel alliance without being supportive of any individual choice by a right-wing government over there.”

J Street college activists have been pressing the Democratic Party to add to its official platform explicit language opposing Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and a “commitment to Palestinian rights.”

Mr. Buttigieg also appealed directly to the young activists in the room.

“Mathematically, it is within the lifetime of anybody in college today that the situation in Israel, for Israelis and Palestinians, will either reach some kind of harmony, or catastrophe,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “You will live to see one of these two things happen.”

Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro received sustained applause from the audience when he said that he would re-establish a consulate in East Jerusalem that would serve as an embassy for Palestinians under a two-state solution.

“I am glad to see in this Democratic Party that the voices of folks who are concerned about the rights of Palestinians has emerged recently stronger,” Mr. Castro said, speaking after Mr. Buttigieg. On the question of whether he would withhold aid from Israel, Mr. Castro said it “wouldn’t be my first move.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also spoke at the conference, and declined to answer a question about military aid, saying only: “It’s not a good idea to negotiate these things right now.”

Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado also attended the conference and echoed his refrain that Democrats have moved too far to the left to attract swing voters, including on foreign policy.

The race’s two leading candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren, did not attend the conference citing scheduling issues. But each of them recorded a video for the group, in which Ms. Warren repeatedly referred to the occupation, but Mr. Biden did not.

Mr. Ben-Ami said in a speech to the group Sunday, the first day of the conference, that “there is simply no question under international law that Israel is an occupying power.”

“Gradually over these decades, a one-state reality has emerged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — an area where today well over 13 million people live, slightly less than half of whom are Jewish,” Mr. Ben-Ami said.

He said that the group would continue to ask all candidates “what steps are they willing to consider should the occupation continue to deepen and the government of Israel consider formal annexation of all or parts of the West Bank?”

Ms. Klobuchar said at the conference on Sunday that she did not support Mr. Netanyahu’s promise to annex more of the West Bank, but declined to say whether she would be willing to withhold aid if the Israeli government proceeded with such plans. She also defended her vote on legislation that would penalize groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

“It just showed to me what Mitch McConnell is trying to do all the time: Instead of bringing people together for support of Israel on a bipartisan basis, he and President Trump are always looking for those wedges, a way to do things that creates wedges, instead of bringing people together,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “I think it has been very negative. And I’m not just talking about one vote. I’m talking about how the prime minister’s visit was handled, as everyone remembers that.”