(August 11, 2020 / JNS) Heading into the 2020 presidential campaign, centrist Democrats as well as those who are supporters of Israel had good reason to be worried about the future of their party. After Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, Bernie Sanders’s wing of the party was still nursing a grudge about being supposedly robbed of the presidential nomination by the establishment. They were confident that the rise of a new generation of radical politicians marked a changing of the guard, and that they were poised to take over.
That seemed likely earlier this year when the campaign of the leading mainstream centrist running for president—former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden—seemed dead in the water after several months of lackluster performances on the campaign trail and in debates, as well as disastrous showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
At that point in the process, Sanders seemed likely to win the contest, a state of affairs that sent pro-Israel Democrats and others who believed nominating the Socialist senator from Vermont was a recipe for disaster into panic mode.
Faced with the daunting prospect of presenting President Donald Trump with a radical opponent in November, Democrats fell in line behind Biden. With the help of African-American voters, Biden decisively won in South Carolina. And with the exception of hardcore liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who stayed in the race, all of the other major Democratic contenders dropped out and endorsed Biden. At that point, it was effectively over. In the blink of an eye, a party that seemed about to fall into the hands of radical progressives was back safely in the pocket of its establishment.
Fast-forward to August, and the same centrist pro-Israel Democrats who fished their wish with Biden worried that the former veep would appease their intra-party foes by picking either a leftist like Warren or someone like Barack Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who was closely associated with that administration’s tilt against the Jewish state and its appeasement of Iran. Instead, Biden chose as his running mate California Sen. Kamala Harris, the most establishment-friendly contender on his vice-presidential short list.
Harris is being celebrated as the first woman of color to be named to a national presidential ticket. But the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica is also the sort of candidate to warm the hearts of centrists, even if she tried hard to sound like a progressive during her abortive run last year for the presidency.
After Biden named Harris, the jubilation from groups like the Democratic Majority for Israel was understandable. Given all of the possible choices in a race that at one point last year had two-dozen candidates—with many, if not most, of them espousing not just a host of radical positions on the issues, but also some less than supportive attitudes towards Israel—the Biden-Harris ticket is probably the optimal Democratic outcome for the pro-Israel community.
That said, the DMFI shouldn’t oversell their triumph.
Biden and Harris are pro-Israel stalwarts when compared to the likes of Sanders and Warren, who are both deeply critical as well as unfair in their criticisms of the Jewish state. It’s also true that unlike many of the other Democrats running, neither Biden nor Harris support conditioning aid to Israel on its obeying American diktats on the peace process.
Nevertheless, they still adhere to stands that are opposed by both the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israel’s voters. That includes opposition to the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and their support for the disastrous 2015 Iran nuclear deal that a Biden administration will seek to re-enter. Both are also hostile not only to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but to any conceivable government that might replace him since there is a solid center-right consensus in the Jewish state that will oppose any attempt to revive Obama’s efforts to force Israel to accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank.
That means at best, a Democratic victory in November will be a reboot of the Obama administration, as well as a return to years of endless spats between Washington and Jerusalem that will do nothing to promote peace and much to encourage the Jewish state’s foes, especially when compared to Trump, the most pro-Israel president in history.
But even if we accept at face value Biden’s and Harris’s claims to be solid supporters of Israel, there is a different and equally important question to ask about what an administration led by them would mean for the Middle East: Who will serve in the key positions that will help determine policies and the day-to-day running of the government?
While no one knows the answer to that question with certainty at this point, there is good reason to suspect that supporters of Israel should be concerned once a Biden-Harris administration is staffed.
The first thing to point out is that despite Biden deciding not to choose Rice as his running mate, there’s no reason to believe that she won’t be his pick for a key foreign-policy position next year, including secretary of state. That means Rice or any one of a number of veterans of Obama’s State Department or his National Security Council will not just be heading up the foreign-policy team if Biden wins. It’s also a dead certainty that a host of lesser positions will be filled by Obama alumni who have already signaled that the gloves will be off if they get another crack at pressuring Israel to acquiesce to their efforts to empower the Palestinians or to appease Iran.
Nor will anti-Israel figures be limited to the foreign-policy team.
Prior to Biden’s pick of Harris, the Biden campaign had already announced the identity of her campaign chief of staff. Harris’s top aide will be Karine Jean-Pierre, the former spokesperson for the leftist Moveon.org group. Jean-Pierre is a vicious critic of Israel and wrote a column in Newsweek last year advocating a boycott of the annual AIPAC conference in which she trashed both the pro-Israel lobby and the Jewish state. As far as Jean-Pierre is concerned, traditional support for Israel is in conflict with the “progressive values” most Democrats support.
Those views are aligned with the far-left, anti-Israel wing of the party—led by “Squad” members Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who both won easy primary victories despite the hopes of pro-Israel Democrats that they might be defeated and who have not been actively opposed by Biden and Harris—as well as by growing ranks of advocates of the anti-Semitic BDS movement among Democrats in Congress and among grassroots activists.
This means that although some may believe that the future of the Democrats has just been decided, the outcome of the fight to preserve the party as one in which friends of Israel can feel comfortable is far from certain.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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