discarded the carrot-and-stick approach to Israel
At the heart of Democratic critiques of the
administration’s Middle East policy is a belief that the United States should
tell the Jewish state how to act.
By: Jonathan Tobin
Outlet: Jewish News
Date: June 20, 2019
When The New York Times decided to
give the Democratic presidential candidates a chance to answer 18 policy
questions in a video essay, the only one that touched on the Middle
East went as follows: “Do you think Israel meets international standards of
human rights?” That question summed up the anti-Israel bias of the so-called
newspaper of record as well as anything it has ever published.
Considering the scores of nations with egregious
human-rights records and the presence in Israel’s immediate proximity to many
of them, it speaks volumes about the obsessive nature of the paper’s prejudice
that the only query it would ask about was the one country in the region that is
a democracy and respects human rights.
A few of the candidates gave the correct answer to the
question, which is “yes.” Give credit to Sens. Kamala Harris, Kirsten
Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and former congressman John Delaney for prefacing
their remarks by saying that. But the other 18 (frontrunner Joe Biden chose not
to participate) failed to do so and, instead, used it as an excuse to criticize
the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while expressing
sometimes equivocal sympathy for the Jewish state mixed with a belief that it
wasn’t doing all it could for peace or human rights. Almost all bashed the
Trump administration’s approach to Israel. Almost all seem to define the
relationship in a way that hinges support for Israel on factors other than the
shared values that united the two countries.
The most forthright of these critics is Pete Buttigieg, the
popular mayor of South Bend, Ind. It is interesting that Buttigieg, a gay man,
chose not to note that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that
respects the rights of LGBT persons. But in his answer to the Times’ question
and a recent foreign-policy address, as well as in other interviews, the mayor
has gotten to the heart of the problems that Democrats have with Trump when it
comes to Israel.
Buttigieg notes that he wouldn’t move the U.S. embassy
back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem (“what’s done is done”), but what he
really doesn’t like about Trump’s policy is that the president conceives of
the relationship as between two friends, rather than the carrot-and-stick
approach used by President Barack Obama and every other U.S. president before
“If you’re going to give somebody something they’ve
wanted … even with a strong ally like Israel … you don’t do that without
getting some kind of concession,” said Buttigieg. And he flatly warned that if
Israel’s government did something he didn’t like if he were to become
president, such as extending Israeli law to some of the settlements in the West
Bank, then he would punish the nation by withholding aid.
Like most of the rest of the Democrats, Buttigieg seems to
see Israel’s legitimacy as linked to the creation of a Palestinian state
alongside it. Such a state is something that many, perhaps even a majority, of
Israelis would welcome provided that it came in the context of a true peace that
would end the conflict. But the overwhelming majority of Israelis—as evidenced
by the way they have voted in the last several elections—understand that they
have no credible partner for peace. And they reject repeating the colossal
disaster in which their country withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which
resulted in the creation of a terrorist state.
That’s something that the Democrats, who are so quick to
denounce the choices that Israeli voters have made, don’t acknowledge or
understand. Instead, they think that the United States has the right to pressure
Israel into making concessions to create a Palestinian state, regardless of the
fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected peace offers that would have
given them one long ago.
At its core, the Democrats’ conception of the U.S.-Israel
relationship is that of a great power and a client state that must do as it’s
There is a vast imbalance in the relative power of the two
countries, and Israel needs the support of its superpower ally. But the thing
that Trump has done that really bothers the Democrats is that unlike his
predecessor, he has no burning desire to “save Israel from itself.” Nor is
he convinced—as Obama and some of the 2020 candidates are—that he
understands their security dilemmas better than they do. To the contrary, though
he harbors an unrealistic ambition to broker “the ultimate deal” that would
bring peace, he is not prepared to be the one to dictate the terms of that
For all of the Democrats’ contempt for Trump, it is he
who is in touch with the harsh realities of the region, and they who are
spouting policy positions completely unconnected to the facts about the conflict
and the Palestinians.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has become the
object of mainstream media scorn not because he is an amateur diplomat (as are
many of those appointed to such positions in administrations of both parties),
but because Trump’s envoy conceives of his position as one in which he is
tasked with promoting better relations between the two countries, rather than
acting—as his predecessors have done—as an imperial proconsul who is there
to give orders to the Israelis.
Decades of American pressure on Israel never persuaded the
Palestinians to reciprocate. Trump understands that and has instead treated
Israel as a friend who doesn’t need to be ordered around. That’s why he did
the right thing and moved the embassy, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s
capital and acknowledged its right to the Golan Heights, as those before him
should have done decades ago.
If they defeat Trump, the Democrats will likely revive the
carrot-and-stick approach. However, anyone who thinks that this will advance the
cause of peace or human rights knows nothing about the history of the conflict
or how friends united by common values ought to treat each other.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish
News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.