U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is doing something no American politician has done before: running as the Democratic front-runner for president while harshly criticizing Israel.
Just last Tuesday, Sanders slammed Israel’s “right-wing racist government” during a CNN town hall in Nevada, four days before he won a resounding victory in the state’s caucuses. On Sunday, he announced that he would not attend the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), stating he was “concerned about the platform AIPAC provides leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
When Sanders criticizes Israel in this way, he is not merely expressing his own personal beliefs. His remarks are also the outcome of the work of a foreign policy team that is helping to hone Sanders’ thinking on Israel – and which, in turn, is dramatically reshaping the national debate on what U.S. policy toward the Jewish state should be.
Sanders is not alone. Most candidates competing for the Democratic presidential nomination have a top foreign policy adviser and a team of experts to buttress their foreign policy platform. And like the candidates themselves, there is a big difference between who is advising the progressives in the race — Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren — and who is advising the establishment candidates, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden.
The records and views of these advisers offer good hints at what the four leading Democratic candidates’ policies on Israel could be once they enter the White House. Here’s a look at those advisers. (It is unclear who the foreign policy advisers are for Amy Klobuchar’s and Mike Bloomberg’s campaigns; their campaigns did not return requests for comment from +972 Magazine.)
When Sanders ran for president in 2016, critics claimed he was out of his depth when it came to foreign policy. He did, however, famously criticize Hillary Clinton’s reflexive support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for which he received huge applause at an April 2016 debate.
The following year, Sanders signaled his seriousness in addressing foreign policy matters — and in particular about Israel-Palestine — when he hired Matt Duss to be his top foreign policy aide.
A veteran of Washington’s battles over Israel-Palestine, Duss was a foreign policy analyst from 2008 to 2014 at the Center for American Progress, Washington’s premier liberal think tank, where he also wrote for its blog, ThinkProgress. In 2014, Duss went on to lead the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), which publishes analysis on Israel-Palestine and U.S. foreign policy, and funds human rights groups and news outlets that focus on the region (including +972 Magazine).
Duss has written extensively on Israel-Palestine, criticizing Israel’s settlement project and the Israel lobby while highlighting the need to push for a Palestinian state. During his time at CAP, Duss caught the attention of Josh Block, a pugilistic Washington operative and former spokesman for AIPAC, who compiled a dossier on Duss and his colleagues and accused them of spreading anti-Semitism. A spate of articles critical of ThinkProgress were subsequently published in the mainstream and right-wing press.
Duss brought his expertise to Sanders’ Senate staff in February 2017. Since then, Sanders has vociferously criticized Israel’s human rights abuses and talked about the need for an even-handed U.S. policy on the conflict. (For an in-depth look at Duss, read this profile of him published in The Nation by David Klion.)
Sanders is also being advised by Robert Malley, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and currently the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. (Malley is not on Sanders’ Senate staff or campaign, but is part of an informal group of advisers talking to Sanders about foreign policy.)
Malley, together with Oxford academic Hussein Agha, authored a prominent 2001 essay in the New York Review of Books, which undercut claims that Yasser Arafat alone was to blame for the collapse of the Camp David peace talks a year earlier. Malley, like Duss, has been smeared by right-wing organizations and the right-wing press for his positions on Israel.
The presence of Malley and Duss suggests that Israel-Palestine would be among the top foreign policy priorities for a Sanders White House. More importantly, it suggests that a Sanders administration would seek to pressure Israel into ending its occupation, including by making U.S. military aid contingent on Israeli changes in behavior — something Duss has advocated for. As the Sanders campaign told the New York Times, his administration would “use every tool at his disposal, including the conditioning of military aid, to create consequences for moves (such as settlements or annexation) that undermine the chances for peace.”
“He’s interested in getting folks who are real experts,” says Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They have a real willingness to think anew on U.S. policy. And Matt Duss has a lot of relationships with people in Israel and Palestine and knows civil society well. These people are extremely well-placed to advise Senator Sanders should he become president.”
The other progressive in the race, Senator Elizabeth Warren, has a more eclectic group of foreign policy advisers. Her top adviser on the campaign is Sasha Baker, a former Pentagon aide who also advises Warren on the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Baker was also profiled by The Nation’s Klion.)
Baker’s remarks on Israel are sparse, and she does not appear to be an expert on the conflict. Still, at a June 2019 forum televised on C-Span, Baker replied to a question on Benjamin Netanyahu by saying that the Israeli prime minister is “uninterested” in moving forward in a productive way, and asserted that Palestinians have a right to self-determination and dignity.
In addition to Baker, Warren has a larger, informal network of foreign policy advisers that include several bonafide experts on Israel-Palestine based at prominent think tanks. One of these is Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of the book “Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump,” which argues that the U.S. has harmed its own mediation efforts by bolstering Israel and neglecting internal Palestinian politics. Others include Ilan Goldenberg and Hady Amr, who are senior fellows at the Center for a New American Security and at the Brookings Institution, respectively.
All three experts have been members of teams that sought to forge a two-state agreement: Elgindy was a former advisor to the PLO’s negotiations unit, and Goldenberg and Amr were part of Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating staff. All three have been critical of the Trump administration’s policies toward Israel, which has lavished the Jewish state with gift after gift as it continues to crush any possibility of Palestinian self-determination.
In a 2018 Brookings analysis, Elgindy suggested it was time to look beyond the standard two-state proposal and to begin discussing confederation models. Amr and Goldenberg have both expressed worry over the death of a two-state solution, though in a recent Israel Policy Forum article, Goldenberg suggested U.S. lawmakers should make it clear that, if a two-state solution is no longer possible, then they should support “a binational democratic state of Israel with equal rights for all of the people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea or some alternative configuration that ensured Palestinian rights.”
Like Duss, Elgindy supports imposing human rights conditions on U.S. military aid to push back on Israeli rights abuses and support a diplomatic settlement. Goldenberg has said he could envision limited conditions on such aid, but warned it may be unlikely to work and would instead spark significant blowback. Warren herself is open to the idea, telling the New York Times that aid would be conditioned if Israel continues taking steps to annex the West Bank, and that she may have to find “ways to apply pressure and create consequences for problematic behavior by both parties.”
“Warren is willing to listen to different ideas and is open to learning and testing things out,” says Hassan from Carnegie. “In the past there was just one way to treat the subject of Israel-Palestine, and now you have these candidates taking a more proactive approach.”
While Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden both share Warren’s and Sanders’ support for a two-state solution, they have been less willing to suggest imposing consequences on Israel for its continued occupation. This is unsurprising: their foreign policy advisers are former aides to Obama’s administration, which had a famously testy relationship with Netanyahu but, for the most part, shielded Israel from real accountability.
Buttigieg’s top foreign policy aide is Doug Wilson, a former State Department and Pentagon employee who served as the senior spokesman for the Defense Department under Obama from 2010 to 2012. There is no public record of Wilson’s views on Israel-Palestine, though according to a Foreign Policy magazine profile, he helped to craft a 2019 foreign policy speech for Buttigieg in which the candidate said that if Israel annexed the West Bank, he would ensure no U.S. taxpayer funds would go towards that annexation.
In January, however, Buttigieg was offered an opportunity to repeat that message when an activist with IfNotNow, a Jewish anti-occupation group, asked if he would withdraw U.S. financial support for Israel’s occupation. Although Buttigieg stated that he is against annexation, he did not repeat his threat to hold aid, adding, “if you’re asking me to commit to withdrawing American support for Israel, the answer is no.”
“When Pete Buttigieg began his campaign, he ran as an outsider to shake up the status quo,” said Yonah Lieberman, a co-founder of IfNotNow. “As he’s gotten closer to people actually voting, he’s also gotten closer to billionaires and corporate interests who don’t want to change the status quo. His positions have become weaker. And it’s frankly disappointing.”
One informal adviser to the Buttigieg campaign who does have a record on Israel is Ned Price, who served as a National Security Council spokesman and special assistant to Obama; Price was part of a White House team that dealt with the president’s meetings with Netanyahu. After Obama, Price became director of policy and communications for National Security Action, a liberal foreign policy group that has become something of a repository for Obama alumni who worked on national security.
Price was one of over two dozen former U.S. officials who signed a letter expressing opposition to Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” The letter warned that Trump’s plan “could strike a fatal blow to the two-state outcome, and lead inexorably toward a binational state in which Palestinians do not have equal rights,” and further criticized the plan for giving Israel permission to formally annex the West Bank. The letter did not, however, offer ideas for what the U.S. should do instead.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s top foreign policy aide is Tony Blinken, who served as Deputy Assistant to Obama and National Security Advisor to the vice president, as well as Deputy State Secretary during the last years of Obama’s presidency.
In 2010, Blinken traveled to Israel alongside Biden for talks with Netanyahu regarding peace negotiations. During his trip, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced plans to expand the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo — a move perceived as a huge affront to the Obama administration, which in 2009 had worked hard to get Netanyahu to commit to a slowdown on settlements.
As Peter Beinart recently recounted in Jewish Currents, officials in Washington at the time had contemplated canceling a dinner with Netanyahu as punishment for the affront. But Biden and his team, including Blinken, pushed back on the idea and went forward with the dinner, criticizing Netanyahu privately instead. The move, as Beinart noted, reflected Biden’s preference for having “no daylight” in public between the U.S. and Israel.
Blinken was also part of the team that helped negotiate the massive military aid package for Israel signed by Obama in June 2016. In an address to the American Jewish Committee the year before, Blinken said “No administration and no president has done as much for Israel’s security as President Obama,” adding “our bedrock security relationship is sacrosanct, and I’m here to tell you it is stronger than ever.”
Candidate Biden has stuck to a similar line: campaigning in Iowa in December, he said it was “bizarre” for Sanders to propose conditioning military aid to Israel.
“Joe Biden has made it very clear that he’s not going to put any meaningful pressure on the Israeli government no matter what they do,” said Lieberman from IfNotNow. “There’s no reason to believe a Biden administration would be any different than the status quo.”
However, as Biden fades in the polls and Sanders commands victory after victory in the primaries, there may soon be little reason to contemplate what a Biden foreign policy will look like.
Instead, Americans could soon witness something that was once almost impossible to envision: a progressive Democratic president surrounded by foreign policy aides who are driven by deep knowledge not only of Israeli concerns, but of the plight and needs of Palestinians too. And, if Sanders wins the White House and brings his current advisers with him, Israel itself will be confronted with a new reality: a president that will act against the atrocities of the occupation.