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A Jewish guide to CNN’s presidential debate

Jewish journalists are moderating the first 2024 presidential debate. Here’s what to expect.

Israel will likely get significant airtime this week during the first presidential debate of the 2024 presidential election. Two Jewish journalists, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, will moderate the matchup, hosted by their network in Atlanta, and set the stage for this summer’s national political conventions and fall election. 

Moderators are Jewish journalists Jake Tapper and Dana Bash

CNN journalists Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate the first presidential debate of 2024 in Atlanta on June 27.

Who is Jake Tapper? 

Tapper, 55, host of the network’s afternoon program, The Lead With Jake Tapper, has reported from Tel Aviv multiple times since Oct. 7. He covered the challenging tasks of identifying the remains of victims, highlighted the allegations of sexual assaults and rape by Hamas, and interviewed both survivors and relatives of the Israeli hostages. As the conflict escalated, he also reported on Palestinian Americans trapped in Gaza.

In some of his opening monologues, Tapper has addressed the rise in antisemitism from both the political left and right.

Tapper, who moderated two Republican presidential primary debates in 2016, persistently challenged Trump to disavow David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke, this month in Detroit, accused Jews of committing genocide on Americans “just like the Palestinians.”

Who is Dana Bash?

Bash, 53, anchors the daily Inside Politics show and with Tapper co-hosts the Sunday morning program, State of the Union

Both have interviewed Netanyahu, and pressed him about accusations of war crimes, his lack of a plan for the governance of Gaza and the humanitarian crisis there. (Notably, Netanyahu has not done any interviews with Israeli networks since Oct. 7.)

During Trump’s first presidential campaign in 2016, Tapper and Bash, then CNN’s chief political correspondent, reported on antisemitic campaign rhetoric and Trump’s hesitancy to denounce it, including the targeting of Jewish journalists.

Last year, Bash conducted a comprehensive report on antisemitism for a CNN documentary, Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America.

What questions can we expect on Israel and Gaza?  

President Biden has to be prepared for a toughy — some version of, “What will you do to end the conflict in Gaza?”  

Biden’s warnings earlier this spring — that the U.S. would withhold offensive weapons from Israel if its military entered Rafah — seemed to have no impact on Israel’s plans. The administration has assured Israel that weapons supply and existing arms sales will move forward without delay.

But Biden can’t seemingly give in to Netanyahu indefinitely without inviting serious political consequences for himself. If the prime minister continues to cater to the demands of his far-right partners, pressure on Biden to speak out more forcefully will intensify. Amid dismal polling, the president cannot afford to lose hold of his base. The progressive left that voted “uncommitted” or a version of it in the primaries in Michigan and several other states demanded a policy shift toward Palestinians. And mainstream Democratic and independent voters want an end to the war and the suffering it has caused.

Trump benefits from obfuscating on this question. His promise to major donors to back Israel’s war on terror and his harsh stance toward pro-Palestinian campus protesters keep his conservative Jewish and pro-Israel base satisfied. Still, he sees an opportunity to capitalize on Biden’s vulnerabilities in Michigan. His criticism of Israel’s tactical maneuvers in Gaza and call for a quick end to the war could attract Arab and Muslim voters disgusted with Biden.

Expect Trump to repeat his one-liners on the issue: It wouldn’t happen under me. Hamas was broke, but Biden gave money to Iran. Israel has to finish the job. And I will bring peace to the Middle East. 

How will Biden and Trump talk about Netanyahu?

Both of the candidates’ relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have deteriorated. He has rebuffed Biden’s demands and refused to engage in discussions about a postwar strategy. Trump accused Netanyahu of betrayal following the 2020 election and implied that he failed on Oct. 7. It would be interesting — uncomfortable for both candidates — if asked whether they want a change in Israel’s leadership.

Allies don’t relish interfering in each other’s elections. As long as Netanyahu is in power, he is the leader with whom the U.S. president has to engage.

Biden may be able to answer this question more easily than Trump.

A majority of Americans, including most Biden voters, strongly dislike Netanyahu. The overwhelming majority of Israelis want him to resign. In March, Biden supported Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer after he called for new Israeli elections. Biden could take the same approach he took during last year’s protests against the judicial overhaul, aligning himself not with Netanyahu, but with the Israeli people.

Trump initially told his allies in October that he wanted to see Netanyahu ‘impeached.’ And he recently suggested that Netanyahu shares the blame for the failures that led to the Hamas attacks. He is likely to offer a vague response to any question about Netanyahu’s future. After securing a $100 million commitment from Miriam Adelson — a Netanyahu supporter — and ahead of Netanyahu’s address to Congress, Trump may now have to treat Netanyahu more as an ally than adversary.

What about U.S. aid to  Israel?

Both candidates could be cornered by a question such as, “Is there any circumstance under which you would consider halting aid to Israel?” What will play well with pro-Israel voters could play badly with pro-Palestinian voters and vice versa.

Biden recently signed a $14.3 billion emergency bill for Israel, lifted a hold on offensive weapons and reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s security. He described his recent suspension of the delivery of heavy bombs to Israel as an isolated incident to caution the country about a large-scale operation in Rafah. Israel went ahead with the operation anyway, and Biden’s critics lambasted him for doing nothing after Netanyahu crossed this line. Biden also faced backlash from his Jewish donor base for conditioning aid to Israel. Expect Biden to look into the camera and repeat his “ironclad” commitment to Israeli security.

Trump has never been a fan of foreign aid, which he views as transactional. In 2017, Trump reportedly expressed frustration when told he couldn’t leverage U.S. aid to broker a peace deal with the Palestinians. Many Republicans and Democrats reject conditions on aid to Israel, deeming it critical for U.S. national security and stability in the Middle East. Trump could refuse to discuss an increase in the annual $3.8 billion in U.S. assistance package to Israel. He could say it’s premature before negotiations set to begin next year in advance of a 2026 deadline for the 10-year Memorandum of Understanding between the nations. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Trump’s position on the matter remains unclear.

Can Trump show he takes antisemitism seriously?

Trump has accused American Jews of disloyalty to Israel and said repeatedly that “any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion.” That hasn’t played well with many Jews, who consider the comments themselves antisemitic. He will likely try to shield himself from such criticism by invoking his support from the Republican Jewish Coalition and his Jewish allies in Congress. Biden could use the question to remind voters of his 2020 campaign theme, and point to Trump’s “both sides” comments about the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Expect Biden to showcase last year’s publication of a national plan to counter antisemitism now being implemented in government agencies.

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