Military Aid to Israel Becomes New Battleground in Democratic Party

WASHINGTON — Five Democratic presidential candidates appeared on stage at this week’s annual J Street conference, where they were interviewed by two former advisers to President Barack Obama: Ben Rhodes and Tommy Vietor. The interviews all opened with a question on a similar topic — using U.S. military aid to Israel as leverage in order to get the Jewish state to end its occupation in the West Bank.

Until recently, this was considered a fringe idea within the Democratic Party. Democratic presidents who had tough political fights with Israeli prime ministers over the occupation and settlements had still supported and even expanded military aid to Israel. Despite his grave disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama signed off on the largest-ever package of U.S. security aid to Israel, ensuring $3.8 billion annually to support Israel’s security needs over 10 years.

At the J Street conference, though, it was clear that this is no longer a consensus. The five candidates offered at least three different positions on the subject. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders — who for months has been talking of conditioning U.S. military aid on ending the occupation — was its most enthusiastic supporter. He also suggested that some of the aid be directed toward supporting the economy in the Gaza Strip.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at the J Street National Conference in Washington, October 28, 2019.Jacquelyn Martin,AP

Two other candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Julián Castro, didn’t go as far as Sanders, saying instead that they would prefer not to take such action — but won’t rule it out completely. Buttigieg repeated something from previous speeches: That if Israel were to annex parts of the West Bank, he would ensure that such action is not supported by U.S. tax dollars.

The prospects of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, which is home to at least 2.5 million Palestinians, looked high earlier this year after Netanyahu promised to take such action if he were to win another term in office. However, Netanyahu’s disappointing election results, and his failure to form a governing coalition, make it less likely that annexation will happen in the near future.

Two candidates spoke out against withholding military aid. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, who spoke at the conference on Sunday, said she actually wanted to increase the aid given to Israel, in light of new dangers in the Middle East created by President Donald Trump. She also repeated her view that Israel, despite its flaws, was a “beacon of democracy” in the Middle East.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking during a town hall in Nashua, New Hampshire, October 25, 2019.AFP

Colorado senator Michael Bennet, meanwhile, said he would try to examine the impact such a move would have on internal Israeli politics before taking any action.