How Progressive Democrats Are Approaching Israel

WASHINGTON – Hundreds of liberal activists gathered at the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) 2017 Ideas Conference on Tuesday. The attendees were joined by the leaders of the progressive cause including Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), House Minority Leader Nancy (D-CA) Pelosi and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The focus of the gathering was how to best “resist” President Donald Trump’s agenda: ranging from healthcare to the war on drugs and the ongoing tensions with Russia. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was hardly mentioned, Jewish Insider spoke with attendees about how they see Israel fitting into the progressive cause going forward.

John Podesta, former campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, told Jewish Insider, “There is a commitment to a two state solution as an ongoing part of what the progressive worldview is in the Middle East.” While Clinton’s Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) advocated for a tougher approach in dealing with the Netanyahu-led Israeli government, Podesta echoed his former boss’ more restrained policies. “When we’re in power, we’ll have to decide what are the carrots and what are the sticks, but I would never walk back the security of Israel.”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) was well-received by the liberal crowd for her outspoken criticism of the Trump administration. When asked about how Israel fits into the liberal worldview, she repeatedly pointed, unprompted, to the important role she believes J Street plays for many Democrats. “J Street has been a real force for trying to educate people despite the complications of that,” she noted. “What they have done is given hope to the fact that the conflict can be settled and so for progressives we look to J Street in order to continue to educate us but to guide us to have peace in the Middle East.” Waters was one of only six Democrats who declined to sign a letter supporting the two state solution because she refused to address Trump.

Given the overwhelming need to oppose the current President’s policies, some attendees urged the party to look pass some of what they believe are minor policy differences. CAP Board Member from Chicago, Christine Hefner explained, “Everybody has to focus that it is not the number one priority to parse the, I would argue, somewhat subtle differences within progressive movement on this and many other issues but to coalesce and provide significant pushback to an administration that in my view actually does harm to Israel by contemplating things like moving the Embassy.”

For a strong supporter of Clinton, Dan Kessler, who helped create a millennium fundraising program for the 2016 campaign, advocated for a more robust defense of the Jewish state. “As a Democrat, it’s really just backing Israel and showing them we believe that standing with them,” he emphasized.

CAP’s President Neera Tanden declined Jewish Insider’s interview request to discuss how she views the role of Israel in the progressive wing. In 2015, the think tank sparked controversy in some far-left circles for hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the same time, despite the usual slogans of bipartisan support for Israel voiced at other large D.C. gatherings, CAP attendees spoke of increased partisan divisions. “Progressive Democrats in the main have gone in support of J Street and the positions that they have taken, which in the main have differed from the positions taken by AIPAC over the years. There is the same divide in Israel as in this country over what is the right course. The approach that the Obama Administration was taking to try and be an honest broker and to recognize there would have to be compromise on both sides is where most progressives would be,” Hefner concluded.

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