Why Aren’t the Democratic Presidential Candidates Pushing for Bold Change in the Middle East?

Amitai Etzioni

Presidential candidates on the Left are calling for great, bold ideas and criticizing moderate Democrats for their pragmatism. Elizabeth Warren seeks “big, structural change.” Bernie Sanders calls for nothing less than a revolution. But little of this bravado and grand thinking was in evidence when a parade of Democratic presidential candidates addressed the 2019 convention of J Street, a left-leaning Jewish group, whose slogan is “The Political Home for Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans.” The positions presented made good sense if one wanted to satisfy local American political sensibilities, walking a careful line between appealing to progressives Jews, many of whom are very critical of the Israeli government (and quite a few of whom are quite critical of Israel itself and support the BDS movement) and—the traditional Jewish groups, which include many who are staunch supporters of Israel.

The same positions, though, have at best marginal importance in the reality of the Middle East. Even if all of them were implemented, Israel would still occupy the West Bank, Gaza would still be the largest open-air prison in the world, and the two peoples would still be at each other's throats rather than living together securely and peacefully.

One issue the various candidates danced around was under what conditions to withhold the $3.8 billion in aid the US grants to Israel each year. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg stated that “some” strings should be attached to the aid. Julian Castro stated that such a restriction “wouldn’t be my first move” but “I wouldn’t take it off the table,” a position that should earn him a prize for being on both sides of an issue. Michael Bennet hedged his position even more; he would only carefully weigh the impact of withholding the aid. Amy Klobuchar would not go that far, explaining: “It’s not a good idea to negotiate these things right now.” Meanwhile, Israelis mock the whole idea that the United States could twist their arm by withholding $3.8 billion, given that the sum amounts to a small fraction of the Israeli budget.

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