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Netanyahu Has Changed The Democratic Party – One Candidate At A Time

If you don’t think Benjamin Netanyahu has changed the debate about Israel inside the Democratic Party, just listen to Pete Buttigieg’s foreign policy speech yesterday at Indiana University. Buttigieg is no radical; he’s a darling of the post-Obama Democratic establishment. And yet he said things on Tuesday that would have been unthinkable during Obama’s campaigns.

First, Buttigieg implicitly compared Israel to Saudi Arabia. After initially talking about China and Russia, he then called for “upholding our values not just with our adversaries but with our allies.” His first example was Riyadh’s treatment of dissidents; his second was Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

This linkage is an unintended byproduct of the de facto Israeli-Saudi alliance, and the parallel behavior of the two Middle Eastern powers. Both are growing more arrogant and more brutal. Both undermined Obama and boost Donald Trump. And both are pushing America towards a confrontation with Iran that could lead to war. It’s not surprising that Democrats increasingly lump them together.

Second, Buttigieg made it clear that while Israel may share some of America’s democratic principles, Benjamin Netanyahu—whose government the South Bend mayor called “right-wing” and “turning away from peace”—does not. This too is the result of Netanyahu’s affinity with Trump.

Just as Democrats see Trump as threatening America’s democratic principles, they see Netanyahu as doing the same to Israel’s. Why does Beto O’Rourke feel comfortable calling Netanyahu a “racist”? Because Democrats now routinely apply that epithet to Trump. Obama may have thought such things but he couldn’t say them publicly. Now Democrats can.

Most importantly, Buttigieg warned that, “if Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his threat to annex West Bank settlements, a President Buttigieg will take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t foot the bill.” Obama never said anything like this. To the contrary, in his final year in office he gave Israel the largest aid package in its history without requiring any changes in its policies toward the Palestinians. No president has used American military aid as a vehicle to change Israeli policy since George H.W. Bush more than a quarter-century ago.

As policy, Buttigieg’s statement isn’t that significant. Israel doesn’t need American money to annex parts of the West Bank. But it opens a broader conversation. (One I discussed at greater length in an essay a few weeks ago).

If America shouldn’t subsidize policies that, in Buttigieg’s words, increase the “suffering of the Palestinian people” and turn Israel “away from peace,” why stop at the annexation of settlements? Why not refuse to subsidize settlement building at all?

Make Israel prove that none of the weaponry it buys with American money is used to entrench a system of bigotry and land theft in which Israeli Jews enjoy citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives while their Palestinian neighbors are denied these rights. The core of the problem, after all, isn’t that Israel might formalize its oppression of Palestinians by annexing parts of the West Bank. It’s that Israel is oppressing Palestinians in the West Bank in the first place.

Buttigieg hasn’t gone that far. But his speech this week makes it more likely that other Democrats eventually will. Most Democratic politicians have never had to justify their support for unconditional military aid because it’s never been a subject of debate in Washington.

But, once forced to justify that position on a stage with two candidates, Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, who are questioning it, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden will find it almost impossible to defend. Once you’ve acknowledged that Netanyahu is a racist, and that Palestinians have human rights, how do you justify giving Netanyahu’s government almost $4 billion per year to pursue the very policies you’ve decried?

The divide in the 2020 Democratic presidential race isn’t between the candidates who question unconditional military aid to Israel and those who publicly defend it. It’s between the candidates who question it and those who say nothing at all.

This week, Pete Buttigieg put himself in the first category. But the time Democrats choose a nominee a year from now, most of his competitors will be there too.

Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.

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