The Wall Street Journal: Democratic Candidates Debate Using Aid to Israel as Leverage in Policy Disputes

U.S. military aid to Israel has emerged as the latest flashpoint in the Democratic presidential primary, evidence of a split in the party being driven by its resurgent progressive wing.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said this week that if he were elected, Israel would have to “fundamentally change” its relationship to the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave controlled by the militant group Hamas, to continue receiving aid. “We cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government,” he told a convention hosted by J Street, a progressive Jewish advocacy group. “What is going on in Gaza right now is absolutely inhumane, it is unacceptable, it is unsustainable.”

Joe Biden, asked by The Wall Street Journal if he would consider leveraging aid to Israel, condemned the idea while speaking to reporters Thursday in Fort Dodge, Iowa. “Look, I have been on record from very early on opposed to the settlements, and I think it’s a mistake, and President Netanyahu knows my position. But the idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel on the condition that they change a specific policy I find to be absolutely outrageous.”

Israel has been criticized by some human rights groups for imposing a blockade that has restricted the flow of goods into the 25-mile territory and limited the mobility of the people who live there.

Democrats are under pressure from progressives to tack left on issues from health care to guns, and some in the party are also willing to re-examine the U.S.-Israel relationship, long regarded as sacrosanct.

Many Democrats have already distanced themselves from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his discord with President Obama. Mr. Netanyahu has a close relationship with President Trump.

In 2016, Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton frustrated progressives by delivering a pro-Israel message to Aipac, a group with close ties to Mr. Netanyahu’s government.

Most 2020 Democratic contenders have expressed support for re-entering the Iran nuclear deal, a signature Obama policy that drew intense opposition from Mr. Netanyahu. Mr. Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018. The Democrats seeking the White House also have been unanimous in advocating for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Experts on U.S.-Israel relations said the candidates’ willingness to engage on the subject of cutting off military aid represented a shift.

“That prominent presidential candidates are openly speaking about leveraging U.S. aid to Israel is a significant development because it shatters a taboo—that our foreign aid to Israel is untouchable,” said Guy Ziv, an assistant professor at American University and director of the Israel National Security Project who has been critical of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies.

The push has drawn opposition from pro-Israel factions in Washington. “Given the growing and immediate threats to Israel from Iran and its proxies, we should certainly not attach conditions to protecting our ally’s security,” Aipac spokesman Marshall Wittmann said.

The Israeli embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment. Progressives have been critical of the Israeli government’s security tactics and expansion of settlements along the West Bank. The settlements have been declared illegal under international law. Israel defends its handling of Gaza, saying it needs to defend against Hamas.

Mr. Sanders, who is vying to be the first Jewish U.S. president, expressed support for reducing U.S. aid to Israel in an interview with The Intercept in 2017, suggesting that the roughly $3 billion in assistance each year made the U.S. “complicit” in Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians.

Speaking at the J Street convention, Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the U.S. should ensure funding for Israel “does not get turned into U.S. taxpayer support for a move like annexation” of occupied territories on the West Bank. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who spoke to the event in a video, echoed Mr. Buttigieg, saying the U.S. must “create consequences for problematic behavior.”

Other candidates were more skeptical of conditioning aid, even as they endorsed a tougher posture toward Israel.

“That wouldn’t be my first move, [though] I would not take that off the table,” said former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar avoided the question, stating: “It’s not a good idea to negotiate these things right now.” Colorad rejected the idea.

Israel for decades has been the top recipient of U.S. aid. During the Cold War, the U.S. viewed Israel, the region’s only democracy, as a bulwark against creeping Soviet influence; since then, mutual security interests and pro-Israeli public sentiment in the U.S. have strengthened the alliance.

In recent years, U.S. attitudes toward the Israeli government have shifted generationally and along partisan lines. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in April found just 27% of Americans under the age of 30 held a favorable view toward the Israeli government. It also found a partisan divide, with 61% of Republicans holding a favorable view of the Israeli government, compared with 26% of Democrats. A majority of the American public continues to sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, according to numerous polls.

Mr. Trump’s support for Mr. Netanyahu has also sharpened the partisan lens. A majority of American Jewish voters identify as Democrats, with 69% favoring Mr. Obama in 2012 and 71% backing Mrs. Clinton in 2016. But Mr. Trump’s overtures to Israel have resonated with the Republican base—and evangelical voters in particular. Mr. Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and he has called Democrats’ criticism of Israel anti-Semitic.

The Obama administration, by contrast, was frequently at odds with its Israeli counterparts.

In 2015, Mr. Netanyahu coordinated with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to address a Joint Session of Congress without notifying the Obama White House first. Mr. Netanyahu blasted the Iran deal in his remarks, which were boycotted by roughly 60 congressional Democrats.

Some Democrats today cautioned the party against tactics that would face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have largely been reticent to advance legislation to admonish Israel.

Mr. Bennet suggested there might be “bigger ways” than holding up military aid for a future Democratic administration to apply pressure on the Israeli government. “We pick one instrument like that—in this town, that very quickly is going to become a partisan litmus test,” he said.