September 12, 2019
As the slate of Democratic presidential candidates shrinks, the Republican roster grows longer as more challengers declare their intention to run. Meanwhile, Israelis are headed to the polls for the second time in six months. In both elections, the relationship between the United States and Israel is key.
Jason Isaacson, AJC Chief Policy Officer, said that although Congress, with its bipartisan tradition of support for Israel, appropriates funds that play a significant role in assuring Israel’s security and well-being, it is the Executive Branch that drives U.S. foreign policy.
“It is the President who, more than anyone, sets the agenda and sets the tone for America’s interactions with our allies and our adversaries,” Isaacson said. “How candidates for the White House view Israel, understand Israel, and appreciate the value of the U.S.-Israel relationship matters profoundly.”
AJC examined what the 2020 Republican candidates and the Democrats who made the third round of presidential debates have said or done vis a vis their stance on Israel to determine how they might navigate that relationship if elected.
The below list includes the ten Democratic candidates who qualified for the third round of debates, as well as President Donald Trump and his three Republican challengers. Seven of the Democratic candidates sent video greetings to AJC Global Forum 2019, six of which noted the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. In addition to screening those, we reviewed key congressional votes, statements they provided to the Council on Foreign Relations, and their responses to a New York Times question about whether Israel upholds international standards for human rights.
*AJC is a non-partisan organization that neither supports nor endorses candidates for elected office. The views and opinions expressed in the videos below reflect the views of the candidates and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of AJC.
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden has been a staunch supporter of Israel since his first trip there as a freshman senator in 1973. That’s when he recalls Prime Minister Golda Meir divulging the nation’s “secret weapon”: Israelis have nowhere else to go.
“The relationship between our nations has never been about individual leaders. It’s been about kinship, connection, the values that Americans and Israelis share,” he said in his AJC Global Forum video.
In 1982, Biden voted to increase American assistance to Israel over the objections of President Reagan and backed Israel’s war with Lebanon that same year. In 2006, he cosponsored a bill that halted aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it recognized Israel as the PLO did in 1993.
After pushing the 2015 Iran nuclear pact, Biden tried to ease tensions by urging more military aid for Israel. Since announcing his candidacy for president, he has promised to reopen recently shuttered U.S. consulate in eastern Jerusalem, traditionally viewed as a conduit to the Palestinians, and called Israel’s “occupation a real problem” that would make “two states impossible to achieve.” He also has called on Arab states to increase their support for Palestinian institutions and normalize ties with the Jewish state.
“My administration will urge both sides to take steps to keep the prospect of a two-state outcome alive,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations. “Palestinian leaders should end the incitement and glorification of violence, and they must begin to level with their people about the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.”
“[Israel] must recognize the legitimacy of Palestinians' aspirations for statehood,” he added. “Both sides should work to provide more relief to the people of Gaza while working to weaken, and ultimately replace, Hamas.”
Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Senator Cory Booker has cosponsored a number of bills supporting Israel, including a military aid bill, the bill condemning the UN Security Council for its rebuke of West Bank settlements, and the bill codifying $3.8 billion in annual military aid for the next ten years. He also cosponsored anti-BDS legislation, but later voted against it on concerns that it infringed on free speech.
He said Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem was premature and should have been part of “the larger process of negotiations,” but he has ruled out moving it back to Tel Aviv. He disagrees with the Trump administration’s decision to cut Palestinian aid and holds Hamas responsible for civilian casualties in Gaza. Israel has a “right to defend itself, full stop.”
“I support a two-state solution because I believe in justice and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations. “As President of the United States, I will be committed to finding a two-state solution to the conflict so that both Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in peace with dignity and security.”
But when Booker spoke to The New York Times, he said the debate about Israel and Israel’s security in today’s politics is skewed.
“We have a president that seems to not support this idea of a two-state solution, which has had bipartisan commitment and conviction over decades in our past,” he said. “My commitment right now is to affirming Israel’s right to exist and affirming Israel’s right to defend itself against enemies which they have virtually surrounding them. But also to affirm the dignity and self-determination of Palestinian people. I believe we can get back to the kind of policies that affirm that two-state solution, that affirm human rights, and that America can be a force to accomplishing that in Israel.”
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
In May 2018, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg traveled to Israel for the first time with AJC Project Interchange, as part of a delegation of U.S. mayors.
Speaking on AJC’s podcast several months later, he said that his AJC trip to Israel informed his views on the conflict there.
“There are a few things that look different once you have a chance to see for yourself. One of them that’s often mentioned, but it bears repeating, is understanding just how compact the region is, and seeing how close you are to the Syria border, how close you are to Lebanon, really to all of the borders in a challenging neighborhood. That was pretty eye opening.”
Buttigieg has condemned Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank and has vowed that he would not allow U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill. He also denounced Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, saying it interferes in Israeli domestic politics. That said, he has ruled out moving it back to Tel Aviv.
While he has said "we don't have the right kinds of partners in leadership on the Palestinian side," he also has criticized the Netanyahu government as having a "short-sighted focus on military responses" and expressed concern about “the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza” as a “ripe environment for the very extremist violence that threatens Israel.”
“I think that Israel’s human rights record is problematic and moving in the wrong direction under the current right-wing government,” he told The New York Times.
He told the Council on Foreign Relations that the security of Israel and the aspirations of the Palestinian people are “fundamentally interlinked.”
“The United States needs to put its arm around the shoulder of its ally, Israel, and help it to develop policies that will work towards the economic and security benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “Both Israeli and Palestinian citizens should be able to enjoy the freedom to go about their daily lives without fear of rocket attacks or other violence, and to work to achieve economic well-being for their families.”
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro
When The New York Times asked 21 Democratic presidential candidates whether Israel met international standards for human rights then put together a montage of soundbites, the newspaper did not edit out Julian Castro’s initial reaction.
“Oomph,” he said out loud before delivering a more thoughtful and erudite answer.
“I believe that Israel, like a lot of other countries, wants to do the right thing, that they can get better,” he said. “
“My hope is that in the upcoming elections, the Israeli people will send a stronger message about the need for a two-state solution,” he said.
At South by Southwest, a popular festival in Austin, Texas, he said a two-state solution is the only way Israel will be able to maintain its identity as a Jewish state.
“More and more, Israel is going to have a hard time being both a democratic state and a Jewish state,” Castro said. “I think the two-state solution is best for that reason. Support Israel, remain strong allies, but recognize the value of Palestinians and that they should be treated in a way that we can support on behalf of the country.”
As mayor of San Antonio, Texas, Castro signed a friendship agreement with Tel Aviv and a water management memorandum with the city of Eilat.
As Housing and Urban Development Secretary under President Obama, he voiced support for security assistance to Israel. Earlier this year, he criticized Netanyahu’s campaign pledge to annex parts of the West Bank, a pledge he reiterated earlier this week, and accused President Trump of “abandoning our position as a good faith partner in the Middle East peace process."
Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
In 2017, the first piece of legislation Senator Kamala Harris cosponsored was a bill rebuking an anti-Israel UN Security Council resolution that undermined peace negotiations.
“When any organization delegitimizes Israel we must stand up and speak out against it,” she told AJC Global Forum participants. “Israel must be treated equally.”
She has voiced support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Gaza and endorsed the $3.8 billion annual military aid package for Israel. Earlier this year she voted against a version of anti-BDS legislation over free speech concerns.
“Israel is a critical ally and friend and its security is a top priority,” she told the Council on Foreign Relations. “I absolutely support a two-state solution because it is the best way to ensure the existence of a Jewish, democratic, and secure Israel. Palestinians should be able to govern themselves in their own state, in peace and dignity, just as Israelis deserve a secure homeland for the Jewish people. As President, I would start by reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity, while simultaneously working to rebuild the broken relationship between the United States and the Palestinians.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
When Senator Amy Klobuchar was first elected to federal office, her first trip abroad took her to Israel. There she visited a home that had been struck by a missile while a little girl was doing homework at the kitchen table.
Since then Klobuchar has cosponsored resolutions and bills that demonstrate her support of the Jewish state, including a 2012 resolution recognizing Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas rockets, a 2014 military aid bill, the 2017 bill rebuking the biased UN Security Council resolution against West Bank settlements and the 2018 bill codifying the 10-year $38 billion aid package.
She and Michael Bennet, who will not be in the third debate, are the only presidential candidates in the U.S. Senate who voted for the anti-BDS legislation.
“I will never stop fighting for a strong Israel U.S. relationship and a secure Israel,” she told AJC Global Forum.
Having expressed support for moving the embassy to Jerusalem in the past, she has ruled out moving the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv. She also was one of the first presidential candidates to denounce Netanyahu’s embrace of the far-right Jewish Power party, Otzma Yehudit, and cited AJC’s position in doing so.
“This is wrong and has been rightly condemned. To quote the American Jewish Committee, ‘[The views of Otzma Yehudit] do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel,’” she tweeted.
She told The New York Times that Netanyahu has set the peace process back and President Trump has politicized Israel so much that Americans miss the point of why the bond between the U.S. and Israel matters.
“When Israel does things that I think are against public policy and international policy, I will call them out on it, and I will work with them,” she said. “But… I think the way President Trump has done this has made it harder and harder for people to support Israel, and you’re seeing a lot of young people that have fallen away from supporting this beacon of democracy in the Mideast, and I think that needs to change.”
Former Representative Beto O’Rourke, D-TX
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke has called Netanyahu a “racist” and blames both the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for not doing what it takes to negotiate a peace agreement.
“Leaders on both sides continue to take steps that make negotiating a two-state solution more difficult, including Netanyahu’s embrace of the far-right in Israel and Abbas’ ineffectual leadership of the Palestinian Authority,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations. “Ultimately, peace will require bold and principled leadership from both parties.”
In 2014, O’Rourke was one of eight members of Congress to vote against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. He later said he was voting against the lack of debate, rather than the defense system itself. He traveled to Israel a year later as part of a J Street delegation and defended his pro-Israel credentials during his U.S. Senate campaign against Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
“A two-state solution that realizes the aspirations of the Palestinian people and addresses Israel’s legitimate security concerns is the only way to guarantee peace and the human rights and dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians,” O’Rourke told the Council on Foreign Relations. “Our strong relationship with Israel is key to achieving that outcome, and as President, I will support and sustain it.”
“I know that Israel attempts to meet international standards of human rights. I know that they can do a better job, and that’s not just my opinion, that’s from listening to people in Israel say that about their own country,” he told The New York Times.
“We cannot compel or force a two-state solution, but it should be our diplomatic goal,” he said. “And every resource that we invest, every diplomatic effort should be towards that end. That’s the best way in the long term to guarantee the peace, the stability, and the human rights of all people in that region.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT
Senator Bernie Sanders has branded himself “100% pro-Israel.” In fact, he is the only candidate to have lived in Israel, having spent time on a kibbutz in the 1960s.
But he also thumbs his nose at many of Israel’s policies and leaders. While other presidential candidates in 2016 attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) policy conference, Sanders submitted written remarks for distribution to AIPAC delegates and delivered an address in Utah denouncing Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and Israel’s 2014 military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.
He has lambasted the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, labeled Netanyahu’s government “racist,” voted against anti-BDS legislation over free speech concerns, and suggested cutting aid to Israel. He also was one of 10 senators in 2017 to implore Netanyahu not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank.
“As someone who believes absolutely and unequivocally in Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, who as a young man lived in Israel for a number of months, as someone who is deeply concerned about the global rise of antisemitism, we must say loudly and clearly that to oppose the reactionary policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu does not make anyone anti-Israel,” Sanders said in his AJC Global Forum video.
He told the Council on Foreign Relations that he believes in a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as the capital of both states and would consider using military aid as a carrot to coax leaders toward a peace agreement.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the Palestinians and Israelis themselves to make the choices necessary for a final agreement, but the United States has a major role to play in brokering that agreement,” he said. “My administration would also be willing to bring real pressure to bear on both sides, including conditioning military aid, to create consequences for moves that undermine the chances for peace.”
Governor Mark Sanford, R-SC
As the most recently declared challenger to Trump on the Republican side, Mark Sanford has a voting record on Israel going back to the 1990s. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he cosponsored legislation condemning terror attacks in Israel and calling for equal treatment of Israel by the United Nations.
After serving as South Carolina’s governor, Sanford returned to Congress in 2011. In 2013, he was part of an AIPAC delegation to Israel. During the summer of 2014, he cosponsored a bill expressing support for Israel’s right to defend itself against unprovoked attacks by Hamas terrorists.
Sanford also vehemently opposed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 after previously cosponsoring multiple bills to sanction the Islamic Republic.
President Donald Trump
While some have compared him to Harry Truman, considered one of the most pro-Israel commanders-in-chief, others charge that President Trump has near-singlehandedly turned Israel into a partisan wedge issue, imperiling the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
When Trump visited Israel in 2017, he became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall, one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. In December of that year, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced that the U.S. Embassy would move there from Tel Aviv – a diplomatic gesture that Israel had sought for decades.
To the consternation of European allies, Trump in 2018 withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal that Netanyahu vehemently opposes.
This past March, Trump proclaimed the Golan Heights to be part of the State of Israel, making the U.S. the first and only country to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over that region.
Last month, he accused American Jews who vote for Democrats, which most do, of being “disloyal” to Israel.
Former Representative Joe Walsh, R-IL
During his two years in Washington, D.C., former congressman and radio talk show host Joe Walsh sponsored a number of pro-Israel bills, including one supporting Israel's right to annex the West Bank if the Palestinian Authority continued to pursue recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
He also sponsored a bill in 2011 to withhold U.S. contributions to the UN until it formally retracted its final report on the Gaza conflict of 2008.
He cosponsored nearly two dozen bills aimed at counterterrorism efforts, limiting Iran’s nuclear capability, supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, and reaffirming America’s commitment to a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA
In her AJC Global Forum video, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Israel is a strong ally and an important friend to the United States. But that doesn’t mean she supports all of Israel’s policies.
“Good friends can disagree, and a candid expression of concerns does not diminish our friendship,” she said. “We can and should have an open policy debate.”
She has opposed the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem and a bill insisting that Palestinian leaders stop paying terrorists or their aid would be cut and has vowed to discourage the expansion of settlements if elected. Earlier this year, she voted against anti-BDS legislation on free speech grounds. Along with Sanders, she was the only other senator turned presidential candidate who wrote to Netanyahu imploring him not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank.
She voted for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and was a no-show to Netanyahu’s controversial March 2015 speech to Congress where he intended to convince lawmakers to scuttle the negotiations.
But while she beseeched Israel to exercise restraint during Palestinian protests on the Gaza border last year, she has pointed out that Hamas’ brutal tactics led to Palestinian casualties in Gaza during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014. She voted for additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile system that same summer and cosponsored the 10-year $38 billion military aid package.
“When Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they’re using their civilian population to protect their military assets,” she told an angry protester at a Cape Cod town hall that summer. “And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself.”
“I think that Israel is in a really tough neighborhood. I understand that. They face enormous challenges and they are our strong ally,” she told The New York Times. We need a liberal democracy in that region and to work with that liberal democracy. But it is also the case that we need to encourage our ally, the way that we would any good friend, to come to the table with the Palestinians and to work toward a permanent solution.”
Former Governor Bill Weld, R-MA
Another Republican challenger to President Trump, Bill Weld has a strong record on Israel. Weld made six trips there during his six-and-a-half years as governor of Massachusetts, which became the first state in the union to set up its own trade office in Jerusalem.
“There is nothing more important than the State of Israel in the Middle East,” he told the New York Jewish Week during the 2016 election. “It is the only stable democratic ally that we’ve got. I have a long history with Israel, going back to the days… when Bibi [Netanyahu] and Ehud Olmert were still getting along.”
His history goes back to the Reagan administration when, serving as a U.S. District Attorney, Weld was sent over to negotiate with Israeli official Elyakim Rubinstein, who now serves on the Israeli Supreme Court.
When running for vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 2016, Weld said he believed withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal would be inevitable if evidence emerged that Iran violated the pact.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
Lawyer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Andrew Yang believes that, as a rare democracy in the Middle East, Israel has been and will continue to be an important American ally in that region. But the country needs to work on its human rights record, he told The New York Times.
“Certainly some of the actions that are being taken there are deeply problematic and run afoul of some of the standards that we’d like to see countries meet,” he said. “I’d be hesitant to say that they are in violation of those standards.”
While his Foreign Policy First platform suggests reducing U.S. foreign aid until America cleans its own house, he told the Council on Foreign Relations that the U.S. should restore aid to Palestinians that has been cut by the Trump administration and provide aid to those suffering in Gaza.
He told the Council on Foreign Relations that a two-state solution that allows Israel and Palestinian people to have sovereign land and self-determination is the only acceptable end to the conflict there.
“I don’t want to prescribe the specifics of a two-state solution, as the Israeli and Palestinian people both need to be leading any conversation,” he told CFR, “and I look forward to engaging with all stakeholders to come up with confidence-building measures, such as a ceasefire and an end to the expansion of settlements, as we look towards building a sustainable peace.”