In South Carolina Debate, Democrats Spar Over US troops in Mideast, Embassy in Israel

February 27, 2020

5 min read

CHARLESTON, S.C.—During the Democratic presidential debate on CBS on Tuesday evening at the Charleston Gaillard Center ahead of the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, some of the candidates defended their positions on Israel and other issues pertaining to the Middle East.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) reiterated that she would bring U.S. combat troops back from areas of the Middle East, after walking back her stance that she would bring home all U.S. troops from the region.

She said that “a president’s job, first job, is to keep America safe, and an important part of that is to have a strong military,” adding that her three brothers served in the U.S. military.

“That means that we have a sacred responsibility to them, and that is not to use our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily,” she said. “We are not winning in Afghanistan. We are not winning in the Middle East.

“What we need to do is we need to use all of the tools in our toolbox. We need a strong military,” she continued. “We also need a strong State Department. Those are our eyes and ears on the ground. They are our frontlines in diplomacy.”

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg said while “you want to cut it back as much as you can,” he would not withdraw all U.S. combat troops from the Mideast.

“If we learned something from 9/11, people plan things overseas and execute them here. We have to be able to stop terrorism,” he said. “And there’s no guarantees that you’re going to be able to do it, but we have to have some troops in places where terrorists congregate, and to not do so is just irresponsible.”

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who served in the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan, disagreed with Bloomberg.

“I don’t think we need to have ground troops anywhere terrorists can gather because terrorists can gather anywhere in the world,” he said. “But we do need intelligence capabilities and specialists on the ground.”

‘You can’t move the embassy back’

The debate included the question of whether the candidates would undo U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 2018 move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Also discussed was Democratic frontrunner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) accusing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday for expressing “bigotry,” in which he announced that he was not going to attend next week’s AIPAC Policy Conference.

Sanders answered that moving the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv is “something that we would take into consideration.”

At another point in the debate, he said “I am very proud of being Jewish. I actually lived in Israel for some months,” he said, referring to living on a kibbutz in the 1960s. “But what I happen to believe is that, right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country.”

“And I happen to believe—I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel, but you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people,” he continued. “We have got to have a policy that reaches out to the Palestinians and the Americans. And in answer to your question, that will come within the context of bringing nations together in the Mideast.”

Bloomberg said that “the battle has been going on for a long time in the Middle East, whether it’s the Arabs versus the Persians, the Shias versus the Sunnis, the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians.” He went on to say that while the U.S. embassy shouldn’t have been relocated to Jerusalem, it should stay there.

“You can’t move the embassy back,” he said. “We should not have done it without getting something from the Israeli government. But it was done, and you’re going to have to leave it there.”

Bloomberg stated that the “only solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is a two-state solution.”

“The Palestinians have to be accommodated. The real problem here is you have two groups of people, both who think God gave them the same piece of land,” he continued. “And the answer is to obviously split it up, leave the Israeli borders where they are, try to push them to pull back some of those extra over the—on the other side of the wall, where they’ve built these new communities, which they should not have done that.”

Warren said, “Israelis have a right to security, and the Palestinians have a right to be treated with dignity and to have self-determination. That is a two-state solution.”

“But it’s not up to us to determine what the terms of a two-state solution are. We want to be a good ally to everyone in the region. The best way to do that is to encourage the parties to get to the negotiating table themselves,” she continued. “Donald Trump’s big mistake is he keeps putting a thumb on the scale on just one side, and that moves the parties further away from working out their own solution here. We need to be an ally by supporting them to come to negotiate to find a lasting peace.”

Regarding whether she would undo Trump’s embassy move, Warren reiterated that it should be up to the Israelis and Palestinians to “determine the capitals themselves.”

‘The most obtuse, uninformed discussion of Israel’

“What you saw tonight is exactly the type of conversation you that you could see at any Shabbat table in America,” said former National Jewish Democratic Council head Aaron Keyak in a mass email. “These are difficult issues, but Jewish Americans have fundamentally progressive values domestically and internationally—including, particularly, when it comes to the Israelis and Palestinians.”

The Jewish Democratic Council of America appeared to sidestep the criticisms and tweeted, “Facts—all the leading Democratic candidates: Support military assistance to Israel, support Israel’s right to exist as a democratic & Jewish state, support a two-state solution,” and “oppose the global BDS movement.”

However, the Republican Jewish Coalition and Mideast scholars criticized the debate as it pertained to Israel and the Middle East overall.

“The Democrats finally decided to talk about Israel … and promptly fell over themselves to tear down our closest ally in the Middle East. Bernie Sanders speaks glowingly of Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba, and Bloomberg is afraid to criticize Xi Jinping, the leader of China who is currently engaged in the ethnic cleansing, but neither had a kind word for the Middle East’s only democracy,” Republican Jewish Coalition spokesperson Neil Strauss told JNS.

“Not a single person on that stage stopped to recognize the fruitful U.S.-Israel relationship that produces intelligence and defensive weapons, that safeguards the American people and our allies,” he continued. “The leaders of the Democrat Party that we saw tonight are a shanda [‘embarrassment’ in Yiddish].”

“That was the most obtuse, uninformed discussion of Israel, the embassy and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the history of presidential debates,” Aaron David Miller, who advised on Middle Eastern issues at the U.S. State Department for 25 years and serves as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told JNS.

Gold Institute senior fellow Matthew Brodsky told JNS, “The Middle East section of the debate was predictably pathetic. Senator Bernie Sanders called Bibi Netanyahu a racist. That is, he called a leader Israelis elected repeatedly as a racist. So essentially, he’s calling Israelis racists. But he’d like you to believe that he isn’t anti-Jewish or anti-Israel.”

When asked after the debate about Sanders’s record on Israel and his intention of skipping the AIPAC conference, former Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner, a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign told JNS, said “the senator is not going because he believes that we need a solution. And he said it very clearly: That we as a nation will continue to protect and support Israel. But also, the Palestinians deserve better than what they have been getting. There are people over there suffering, and he’s showing unique courage on that.”

Mayor of Columbia, S.C., Stephen Benjamin, a national co-chair of the Bloomberg campaign who has spoken at the AIPAC conference, told JNS following the debate that “the reality of the U.S.-Israel relationship is probably the most important relationship that we have in this world—a democratic ally in the Middle East.”

He said Bloomberg “gave an answer that I thought was solid and thoughtful, and recognized the age-old challenges we have—not just in the Middle East, but specifically facing those in Israel.”

Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate

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