President Donald Trump moved America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem last year, a controversial decision that has fueled Democrats’ skepticism of the Trump administration’s close bond with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right policies.
Poll after poll has shown that liberal Democratic primary voters are less sympathetic to Israel than they were in previous years. Likely as a result, most Democratic presidential campaigns for 2020 have bucked tradition and openly expressed their criticisms of the tiny Middle Eastern nation.
But Pete Buttigieg, the 2020 Democratic hopeful and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, isn’t one of those candidates. While he’s no fan of Netanyahu’s leadership, he has shown a consistent willingness to back Israel.
He did so again on Sunday in an interview with Axios on HBO, in which he said he wouldn’t reverse Trump’s embassy-move decision and called the country a “strong ally.”
“I think what’s done is done,” the former Navy intelligence officer said. “I don’t know that we’d gain much by moving it [back] to Tel Aviv.”
Buttigieg, however, didn’t say Trump did the right thing. “[I]f you’re going to give somebody something that they’ve wanted for a long time in the context of a push-pull, even with a strong ally like Israel ... you don’t do that without getting some kind of concession. Instead, we’ve seen the Israeli government continue to act in ways that are detrimental to peace. And I believe, therefore, also detrimental to US interests.”
There are fair reasons not to move the embassy back to Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem embassy is already open and functioning, so it’d be wildly inconvenient and whiplash-inducing to send it right back to Tel Aviv.
Many right-wing Israelis would also balk at such a reversal. And if Netanyahu remains in power — a big if as he tries to survive both political and legal woes — taking the embassy out of Jerusalem would likely cause a rift between his government and Washington’s leadership.
Many Democrats, though, are heavily questioning US-Israel relations because of the Netanyahu government’s attitude toward the Palestinians and seeming disdain for reviving the stalled peace process.
Buttigieg clearly tried to please both sides with his answer: He found a way to lambaste Netanyahu while still showing solidarity with Israel and its alliance with the US. That comment puts the mayor firmly in the more pro-Israel camp among Democratic presidential candidates — a camp in which he may actually be the leader at this point.
Pete Buttigieg is more pro-Israel than many 2020 Democrats
During his first major foreign policy speech last week, the 37-year-old Buttigieg found a way to hit back at Israel: He said he would withhold US taxpayer money if it annexes parts of the West Bank. Which means Buttigieg’s support for Israel is conditional, though it’s clear from past statements that backing the Jewish state is his default position.
In May 2018, Buttigieg took a trip to Israel with other mayors that was organized by the American Jewish Committee, a global Jewish advocacy organization. Shortly after his return, Buttigieg was interviewed for the organization’s podcast. That was tough timing, as just four days earlier Israeli forces had killed dozens of Palestinians protesting the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.
Still, Buttigieg had nothing but high praise for Israel, suggesting its way of handling security threats could be a good model for the US.
“Seeing the way that a country can be on the one hand very intentional, very serious, and very effective when it comes to security and on the other hand not allowing concerns about security to dominate your consciousness,” he said, “I think that’s a very important lesson that hopefully Americans can look to when we think about how to navigate a world that unfortunately has become smaller and more dangerous for all of us.”
Buttigieg’s foreign policy adviser, though, told me in April that the mayor’s “comments were by no means any endorsement of Netanyahu’s policies.”
Buttigieg also said many of the problems facing Gaza were the fault of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist political organization and militant group that has run the territory since 2007.
“There really is not a unified or single voice for the Palestinian people,” Buttigieg said. “Most people aren’t aware of the difference between what’s happening in Gaza — run by Hamas in a way that is contributing to a lot of misery there — but also totally different than an environment where you’d have a negotiating partner across the table.”
There’s no doubt that Hamas has failed to govern the territory well, to the point that Palestinians living there protest the group. But much of the humanitarian hardship is undoubtedly also caused by Israel’s blockade.
And the more recent remarks he’s made on the topic of Israel suggest his views remain largely the same as they were in that May interview.
During a January 31 appearance on The View, for instance, he was asked to respond to comments made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) where she criticized Israel for violating human rights and even compared its conduct to Iran’s.
Buttigieg, a married gay man, countered strongly. “People like me get strung up in Iran,” he said, “so the idea that what’s going on is equivalent is just wrong.”
He continued: “They’ve [Israel] also got to figure out — and we’ve got to figure out with them as an ally — what the regional security picture is going to look like there,” he said. He added that an Israeli general during his May 2018 trip told his delegation the most complicated problem facing Israel is Iran.
“It’s always been one of the most fiendishly complicated issues, and simple answers will not serve us well at a time like this,” he said.
Multiple opportunities, multiple defenses of Israel. It’s pretty clear, then, where Buttigieg stands. That puts him in stark contrast with other 2020 contenders like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Sanders has repeatedly condemned Israel for violence at its border with Gaza, where time and time again Israeli forces have killed mostly unarmed protesters — including women and children — pleading for an end to the decade-long Israeli blockade of food, fuel, and medicine.
The question now is if Buttigieg’s surge in the polls will suffer due to his repeated support for Israel. If that’s the case, foreign policy — and Israel specifically — may play an outsize role in the 2020 election.