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phoenix politics

Pro-Israel groups assess foreign policy credibility of Arizona Democratic congressional contenders

In race to succeed Rep. Ruben Gallego, one Democrat is courting Jewish voters — but also touts an endorsement from Ben Rhodes

Jason Wise, Getty Images/Gage Skidmore

Yassamin Ansari (l) and Raquel Terán

As an open-seat House race in Phoenix has coalesced around two upstart progressives, the ongoing war in Gaza is fueling curiosity about their views on the conflict — which pro-Israel groups are closely scrutinizing for points of contrast that could invite outside engagement.

The August primary election is pitting Yassamin Ansari, the vice mayor of Phoenix, against Raquel Terán, a former state legislator and party chair, who have each approached the Israel-Hamas war with varying degrees of caution in recent months, raising some questions about their positions on a key issue.

While both candidates have forcefully condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, Ansari has shown a greater interest in sharing her Middle East policy views with pro-Israel activists, even as her statements have not always remained consistent. By contrast, Terán, who likewise has met with pro-Israel groups including AIPAC, according to people familiar with her engagement, has drawn scrutiny for avoiding questions on the war — which she has yet to clarify in depth.

Terán’s continued silence has provoked frustration among some Jewish leaders in Arizona, who are waiting for her to release a policy paper on Israel — as is widely customary for federal candidates. Her campaign, meanwhile, declined to answer specific questions on the issue posed by the state’s leading newspaper last month.

One pro-Israel activist in Arizona who has met with both candidates expressed disappointment with Terán’s reticence on “a major international conflict,” alleging that she “seems uninterested” in substantive engagement. “She’s going to be a voting member,” the activist, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, told Jewish Insider last week. “The residents deserve to know what she thinks.”

In her most detailed comments on the conflict to date, shared with JI last week, Terán, 46, reiterated her condemnation of Hamas and affirmed her support for Israel’s “right to defend itself,” while voicing concern over what she called an “unacceptable” number of casualties in the conflict.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization and the attacks of Oct. 7 were violent terrorist attacks on innocent Israeli lives,” she said in written remarks shared by a campaign spokesperson. “Israel has a right to exist, to defend itself from those attacks, and insist upon a return of all hostages held by Hamas. I am devastated by the scale of deaths from this war, and the unacceptable number of civilian casualties.”

But Terán still would not directly confirm her positions on some hot-button issues — including growing calls for a cease-fire and conditioning military aid to Israel — even as she insisted that the U.S. “must support Israel’s efforts to defeat Hamas and ensure every hostage is released.”

Terán said that she had “welcomed” the temporary pause in fighting in November, when Israel exchanged some Palestinian prisoners for hostages held by Hamas. “Since then,” she said, “I have maintained hope that ongoing negotiations will result in the return of all hostages, the delivery of large-scale humanitarian aid to Gaza, an end to the war, and steps that will result in a permanent, two-state solution and enduring peace in the region.”

“Aid to Israel, like all countries we share aid with, should follow existing U.S. law,” Terán added. “I continue to be concerned over the humanitarian situation in Gaza and encourage fair oversight of aid and stronger assurances of human rights protections.”

Her carefully worded remarks underscore the tightrope that Terán, a leading progressive activist in Arizona, is now walking as she seeks to build support across a wide ideological spectrum. The former state senator has won backing from both Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), a pro-Israel stalwart, and the Working Families Party, a left-wing group that has vocally backed a cease-fire and supports conditioning aid to Israel.

In addition to such endorsements, Terán’s campaign has won financial backing from leading progressive lawmakers, according to recent federal filings. In December, she collected a total of $4,000 in contributions from the campaign accounts of Reps. Greg Casar (D-TX) and Delia Ramirez (D-IL), two Squad-aligned Democrats who have frequently opposed pro-Israel efforts in the House.

A spokesperson for Terán’s campaign did not respond to a question from JI about whether she has written a position paper on Israel — which her opponent has already produced and shared widely.

Ansari, who became the first Iranian-American elected to hold public office in Arizona three years ago, has established relationships with pro-Israel advocates and Jewish leaders in the state who say they have been encouraged by her commitment to upholding continued U.S. assistance to Israel, with no added conditions, and countering Iran, among other positions outlined in a lengthy policy paper circulated in recent months.

In a recent interview with JI, however, Ansari would not explicitly confirm her opposition to conditioning aid to Israel, despite the pledge in her policy paper, which was shared by her campaign. 

“When it comes to military aid or assistance to any country, I don’t think we should necessarily be singling out Israel,” Ansari said. But in situations “where the U.S. is providing assistance in any way, there needs to be strong accountability,” she added. “We need to be making sure, whether it’s a weapon that’s used or any assistance that’s provided, that the result is abiding by international law.”

A spokesperson for Ansari declined to clarify for the record if she continues to stand by her paper, which her campaign has said is “subject to revisions.”

With regard to a cease-fire, which her paper does not address, Ansari was reluctant to endorse the call, emphasizing that a resolution to the conflict “requires Hamas surrendering” as well as the safe return of hostages now being held in Gaza. “Then I think that could be a conversation,” she said of a cease-fire. 

“But I also do want to echo in the same breath that I do truly, truly think and hope that we are doing everything possible to preserve civilian life,” Ansari explained. “I’m very devastated by the numbers of Palestinians who have been killed in addition to the number of Israelis who have been killed. I think we need to be working toward a long-lasting, durable peace for the sake of humanity.”

The 31-year-old Democrat stressed that there is “no future that Hamas can be a part of,” noting that a two-state solution, which she backs, “will only be possible with the recognition that Israel has a right to peace and security. That is not the ideology of Hamas.”

Ansari, who wrote her undergraduate thesis at Stanford on the Iranian nuclear program and worked as a climate activist at the United Nations before seeking public office, said she had “nothing but complete contempt” for Iran and its funding of “proxy terrorist organizations, including Hamas,” which are “wreaking havoc” across the region. “I can’t even think of the strongest possible word for that ideology.”

Despite her equivocation on conditioning aid, a number of pro-Israel leaders in Arizona say they are backing Ansari, joining a diverse range of supporters that also includes Ben Rhodes, a top national security adviser in the Obama admiration who has clashed with the pro-Israel community. 

“Yassamin is unequivocal in her support for Israel, and clear-eyed about the threat of Iran and its proxies,” Adam Goodman, a Jewish community activist in Phoenix, said in a recent email to JI, adding that, if elected, “she will be a loud voice in the Democratic caucus urging her party to reject the cynical attempt to bifurcate the country and rejoin with Republicans in solidarity for Israel.”

In a sign of what he called her “compassion,” Goodman said that Ansari “would like to see a long-term solution that provides health, safety, stability and infrastructure to the citizens of Gaza,” while noting that “she reserves the right to make legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government without being labeled an antisemite. I think that is a reasonable position as a democratically elected government should never be beyond scrutiny.”

Alma Hernandez, a Democratic state legislator in Tucson and an outspoken supporter of Israel, is also backing Ansari because of her outreach on Middle East policy. “I feel that when it comes to the issue of Israel, she’s going to be someone who will stand up for what is right and not wait on the sidelines until someone is asking for her to speak up,” Hernandez told JI, voicing confidence that Ansari “understands the complexities of this issue” and “is someone that our community can trust to have an open door.”

Hernandez had previously vowed that she would not support Terán, a former colleague in the state legislature whom she has criticized for opposing an antisemitism reporting bill that won overwhelming bipartisan approval.

But other Jewish leaders in Arizona have dismissed those charges as misguided, claiming that the bill, which embraced a definition of antisemitism that identifies some criticism of Israel as antisemitic, had faced legitimate resistance from civil rights groups raising concerns over free speech violations.

“I don’t think there is anyone who can cast any doubt or aspersion on her support and alliance with the Jewish community here,” Civia Tamarkin, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women Arizona, which opposed the bill, said of Terán, who has worked closely with the organization.

As for a lack of clarity surrounding Terán’s views on Israel, Tamarkin said in a recent interview with JI that she did not believe it was “a reflection in any way of diminished concern or diminished support for” the Jewish state. “It’s been understood that she never ever questioned American support for Israel.”

Paul Rockower, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, expressed satisfaction with both candidates, saying that they have “shown their support to the Jewish community” on a variety of issues “ranging from support for Israel to synagogue security to fighting antisemitism and extremism in Arizona.”

“Both Terán and Ansari have engaged in direct outreach to Jewish community leadership amid the turmoil following Oct. 7, and have shared their sympathy and support for our trauma,” Rockower said in a recent statement to JI. “The JCRC considers both candidates to be strong friends for the Jewish community of Greater Phoenix.”

It remains to be seen if pro-Israel groups will engage in the closely contested race to succeed Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who is running for Senate.

While Hernandez said she is “hopeful that there will be engagement soon” as she continues to encourage Democratic Majority for Israel and AIPAC to support Ansari, neither group would confirm if there are plans to take sides in the primary.

Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, which has met with both candidates, told JI that the group has “not yet made decisions” about the race.

In December, new federal filings show, Ansari’s campaign drew a $3,300 contribution from Nestor Guzman, a pro-Israel activist in Arizona who is a member of AIPAC’s National Council. (Guzman did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Thursday.)

DMFI’s political arm, which also hasn’t made an endorsement in the race, has spoken with Ansari, according to a person familiar with the discussion, who said that “she seems to be a strong pro-Israel candidate.” The group, which frequently engages in open-seat races where contrasting views on Israel have fueled tension, declined to confirm if it had also met with Terán, whose spokesperson did not return a request for comment on her engagement.

J Street, the left-wing Israel advocacy group, has held discussions with both candidates, said Tali DeGroot, the national political director. The group hasn’t issued any endorsements in the primary, she said.

The pro-Israel activist in Arizona who has met with both candidides said the key difference between Ansari and Terán has been transparency. “There’s some relationship building going on now with pro-Israel groups and Ansari, and some optimism that she’s interested in dialogue,” the activist told JI. “I see one candidate who isn’t hiding as much.”

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