With seven months to go before the Iowa caucuses officially kick off the Democratic presidential primary process, resources are already flowing into early voting states to influence the candidates’ views on Israel.
In Iowa, Democratic Majority for Israel, an organization founded earlier this year to combat a perceived distancing from Israel within the Democratic Party, has field organizers on the ground to rally pro-Israel Iowans to campaign events. With the flood of candidate appearances expected in the state over the next several months, DMFI is planning to organize volunteers to send a clear message to the potential Democratic nominees that the majority of Democrats support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
In New Hampshire, IfNotNow, an organization founded in 2014 to oppose American Jewish communal support for Israel’s occupation, announced the formation of a new 501(c)(4) to engage in political activity. Fellows stationed in New Hampshire for the summer will be “bird-dogging” candidates at campaign events, asking them if they oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They have already questioned Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, posting photo and video evidence on social media.
As the Democratic Party’s relationship with its activist base enters a realignment, the presidential primary is being shaped by the existential questions that inform Democratic political identity. Caught in the middle of that identity crisis is American support for Israel and the question of how strong, or unconditional, that support should be.
As voters begin to pay more attention to the options before them, and the presidential primary field shifts and narrows, however slightly in these early days, interest groups are increasing their efforts to shape Democratic policy towards Israel.
“It’s clear that there’s really been a paradigm shift, that the old playbook has been thrown out,” Ben Shnider, vice president of political affairs and strategy at J Street, told The Jewish Week. Whereas candidates used to stick to a script about “conventional terms of military aid and shared values,” Shnider said, today “candidates see this in a much more nuanced and sophisticated way and they perceive more political space to speak to the need for a Palestinian state and for a Palestinian future in the region.”
While none of the candidates have strayed dramatically from traditionally pro-Israel rhetoric, some have been more open about voicing criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose second quarter fundraising exceeded that of all the other candidates and who is running on his military experience as an entree into foreign policy, has been outspoken about the need to curb a potential Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
“If Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his promise to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill,” Buttigieg said in a speech at the University of Indiana in Bloomington last month. And after the 2016 primary, in which Sanders made waves by speaking forcefully for Palestinian rights during a debate with Hillary Clinton, the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric around Israel have shifted.
It’s that shift, and the concomitant dissatisfaction among the Democratic base with the party leadership’s approach to Israel, that drove IfNotNow to get involved in the 2020 campaign.
“We are ready to protest politicians who are really stuck in an outdated politics of unquestioning support for the Israeli government and to make this issue central to the debate and conversation within the 2020 primary,” Emily Mayer, a national organizer and co-founder of IfNotNow, told The Jewish Week.
The group has already sent five fellows to New Hampshire for the summer to question candidates at public forums and hopes to expand the program to other states and even other races. The New Hampshire fellowship is funded through a new 501(c)(4) branch of the organization. Mayer said IfNotNow is about halfway towards its goal of raising $100,000 in the first quarter.
Democratic Majority for Israel has founded a PAC and super PAC that it plans to use to contribute to pro-Israel candidates under attack from primary or general election challengers. Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and DMFI’s founding CEO, said the group would invest heavily in the 2020 election cycle from the presidential race down to House seats.
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“We haven’t made any decisions from the PAC point of view about who we’re going to be supporting or where we’re going to be intervening,” said Mellman, who mentioned Elliot Engel, Nita Lowey and Josh Gottheimer as Democratic supporters of Israel who are facing primary challengers. “But the truth is there are good friends of Israel who are being threatened with primaries and with general elections all across the country.”
On the presidential election front, DMFI already has staffers on the ground in Iowa. Mellman would not say how many staffers were in Iowa but said the organization has had “a team sufficient to do the job” across the state. Mellman hopes to put similar efforts in place in the other early-voting states and is planning to organize around the party platform to ensure the inclusion of pro-Israel language.
“We just want the candidates to hear from pro-Israel grassroots Iowans so that those candidates recognize that there’s a strong pro-Israel constituency in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada,” said Mellman.
Other organizations are hoping to offer policy support to the campaigns from behind the scenes. Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said her organization has been in touch with “all of the campaigns.” But she does not see significant differences between the candidates when it comes to policy on Israel.
“Among all of the candidates running for president there is agreement on support for a two-state solution, support of U.S. leadership in the region that would bring about a two-state solution, support of military aid to Israel, support of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and opposition to the BDS movement,” said Soifer.
For Soifer, how the candidates answer some specific policy questions are less important than their overall approach to Israel and to the region. When asked how a Democratic candidate should respond in the event of Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements, Shnider of J Street spoke of “broadcasting that there will be a cost if Israel annexes West Bank settlements,” but said that J Street would not advocate placing conditions on U.S. funding to Israel.
For many voters, the difference in tone between a Democratic approach to Israel versus a Republican one may be more important than the policy specifics. “This administration no longer supports the two-state solution, so just the fact that every Democratic candidate and the Democratic Party itself supports the two-state solution is a key distinction between where Democrats stand and where Republicans stand,” said Soifer.
For others, the details matter. Debra Shushan, director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, told The Jewish Week that Democratic candidates should offer actual plans for how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Democratic presidential candidates should speak forcefully about their commitments to use American influence to facilitate an end to occupation and a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Shushan wrote in an email to The Jewish Week. “They should articulate concrete ideas, not only offer paeans to the two-state solution. Plans should acknowledge the Trump administration’s profound damage to peace prospects, and indicate how a new administration can reverse this damage and move forward.”
Said Shnider, “Candidates are looking for a way to articulate a pro-Israel platform in a matter that is consistent with the increasingly diverse and progressive Democratic base but that also does right by Israel. I think candidates now see that if they don’t, if they stick to the old school, one-step playbook on Israel, that they’re going to catch some significant heat from their base, and I think that’s a good and healthy thing.”