Biden’s first 100 days according to the Saban Forum crowd

One hundred days into Joe Biden’s presidency, the White House is focused on addressing major issues at home: the pandemic, climate change and gun violence, to name a few. But these first few months also offer some insight into how the administration will approach key issues in the Middle East: nuclear talks with Tehran, Israeli-Palestinian relations and cooperation with Jerusalem. 

Up until 2018, Beltway insiders might expect high-level conversations on these topics to take place at the Saban Forum, a long-running invite-only conference bringing together policy experts, high-ranking officials and lawmakers from the U.S. and Israel. 

“It was set up in the early 2000s to fill a void for dialogue between Israelis and Americans. It was very specifically Israel and America,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, which organized the forum with backing from media mogul and Democratic megadonor Haim Saban.  

The off-the-record Saban Forum was hosted annually at the ritzy Willard InterContinental, a hotel across the street from the White House. Speculation abounded that the conference was canceled due to the election of former President Donald Trump. 

“This is a common misperception. It really is not the case,” Sachs told Jewish Insider. “We had two Saban Forums since the Trump election. The first was immediately after the Trump election, we had a successful one. The second one was in 2017, it was almost a year into the administration. We hosted Jared Kushner. It was the first time he spoke publicly on these issues.”

Sachs explained that Brookings, in conjunction with Saban, made the decision to pause the conference “while on a high note” because, he argued, “institutions never know when to quit.” He noted that the decision was not to cancel the conference altogether, but rather to put it on pause — and while there are no current plans to resume the annual event, it could come back in the future. 

More recently, Brookings’ Middle East center hosted a virtual international conference that was much broader in scope, with leaders from countries including Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Israel and Italy. “It was excellent,” Sachs said, noting that the new conference is one of Brookings’s many public events and “is not a replacement for the Saban Forum.” 

Since the Saban Forum won’t gather its distinct selection of Middle East experts this year, Jewish Insider polled the Saban Forum crowd with a simple question: When it comes to foreign policy and the Middle East, how is Biden doing?

“I think it’s very impressive how the early days are marked by a sense of restraint and patience,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “For example, we just had an Israeli election, a remarkably visceral, hard-fought election, in which the new administration played no role because it was smart enough to keep quiet, and not to get drawn into the gutter of Israeli politics one way or the other.”

“I think it’s very impressive how the early days are marked by a sense of restraint and patience.”

Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Biden came into this role with decades of public service under his belt, including a stint as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is, to a certain extent, a known entity in Israel. 

“Biden has known [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu for decades, so at the top, there’s a familiarity between the two leaders, which can be called upon when serious issues in the relationship erupt,” noted Andrew Shapiro, who served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs from 2009 to 2013.  

The Biden administration has approached the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with less zeal than its two most recent predecessors, which were both quick to stake their ground on the issue and attempt to reach a solution. 

Ghaith Al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who served as an advisor for the Palestinian negotiating team from 1991 to 2001, noted that Biden and his team “seem to have internalized the lesson — and rightly so — from previous administrations that right now, Israeli politics and Palestinian politics do not allow for a major breakthrough, so they’re not pushing that.”

“You do not see the soap opera-like quality of the centrality of Israel as we saw in the Obama administration and the Trump administration,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “One, great tension in the Obama administration; and the other, great exaltation, where Trump basically created what I describe as a sugar high for both Israel and Saudi Arabia; you’re not seeing that here… They’re very busy. And they really don’t have time or interest, as Obama and Trump did, in focusing on this issue.”

Then-Vice President Biden meets with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on January 13, 2014. (U.S. Embassy)

Then-Vice President Biden meets with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on January 13, 2014. (U.S. Embassy)

After two administrations marked by intense personal relationships between the leaders of the countries, the Biden White House is “just trying to restore a little bit more of a sense of balance in the way the United States relates to both sides of the conflict,” said Susie Gelman, board chair of Israel Policy Forum. 

Allies of Biden say that his history of support for international institutions and foreign policy norms is a welcome change from the Trump years.

“President Biden’s responsible leadership, strategic policymaking and fundamental civility have been on full display these past 100 days, in stark contrast to the turbulent and chaotic Trump years,” Haim Saban told JI. “In terms of the U.S.-Israel relationship, I remain pleased that President Biden and his administration have emphasized time and again their unyielding support for Israel’s safety and security, directly engaged with the Israelis on core issues of national importance, and rebuffed fringe calls to condition U.S. aid to Israel.” 

The individuals who spoke with JI acknowledged that the Biden administration is taking care to not politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship and repair damage that may have occurred under the prior two administrations — but some worry that may not be enough if the U.S. takes steps on Iran that may endanger Israel’s security.

“Although the White House has underscored America’s commitment to Israel’s security repeatedly, and pledged to continue consultations with Israel on regional affairs, the subtext of a potential collision between U.S. and Israeli positions toward engagement with Iran hovers over their relationship,” said Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously served in the Israeli prime minister’s office.

“President Biden’s responsible leadership, strategic policymaking and fundamental civility have been on full display these past 100 days, in stark contrast to the turbulent and chaotic Trump years.”

Haim Saban

Dani Dayan, Israel’s former consul-general in New York, told JI that he worries Biden is looking to get back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) too quickly. Still, Dayan does not expect Israel to mount as much of a public opposition as Netanyahu did in 2015, when he angered Democrats by speaking to Congress at the invitation of then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who had not informed then-President Obama of the invitation.  

“Unfortunately it seems that President Biden has decided to return to the JCPOA ‘as is.’ If he believes he will be able to extend, later, the scope of the agreement — I doubt this is a strategy [that] will succeed,” Dayan argued. “However, I assume this time Israel will be less confrontational in its attitude towards the administration. I don’t foresee Netanyahu speaking in Congress… Also, the political chaos in Israel itself makes it more difficult for Israel to launch a strong diplomatic initiative.” 

The White House has made clear that it views returning to the JCPOA, which was a campaign talking point for Biden, as a priority. 

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, told JI that Biden “gets good marks from J Street for articulating good intentions regarding their policy direction during the first hundred days.” The real test, Ben Ami said, “is likely to come in the second hundred days. Will those good intentions be translated into an actual agreement that enables both the U.S. and Iran to return to full compliance with the JCPOA, and which paves the way for subsequent diplomacy?”

Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Indirect nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran continued in Vienna this week, following comments from the White House last week that it may lift sanctions on Iran as a step toward rejoining the 2015 nuclear agreement. 

Many of Biden’s top foreign policy officials are veterans of the Obama administration, including Malley and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who was the lead negotiator for the 2015 deal. “The Biden administration, on the Middle East, represents the third term of Barack Obama,” said Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “There is a view which holds that there is a division inside the administration between the progressives and the centrists, but the apparent division is smoke and mirrors. On the big issues, they are all on the same page.”

One point of frustration for opponents of the deal is that Iran has been elevated as a top foreign policy priority. “The unseemly eagerness of the new administration to get back into the JCPOA, at any cost, has been much more precipitous and obvious than I had expected,” said Victoria Coates, who served as deputy national security advisor under Trump. 

“Once [Secretary of State] Tony Blinken selected Rob Malley [as special envoy for Iran] to negotiate the return, that was a clear signal that everybody should have received that they were going to run the same playbook they ran in 2015, with respect to the negotiations, and that there was very little the Israelis or anyone else could do about it,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Language used by the Biden administration suggests an outward desire to improve on some of the more widely criticized aspects of the 2015 deal. In February, Blinken offered some examples of “issues that were not part of the original negotiation that are deeply problematic for us and for other countries around the world: Iran’s ballistic missile program, its destabilizing actions in country after country.” Blinken has also said the U.S. wants a “longer and stronger” deal. 

The secretary of state has also promised to consult with Congress on the deal: “I am committed to working with Congress — on the takeoff, and not just the landing,” he said at a March hearing on Capitol Hill. Obama faced widespread criticism in the leadup to the 2015 agreement for failing to engage Congress — as well as U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf Arab states — as the deal was negotiated. 

“Biden’s team is seasoned,” said Laura Blumenfeld, senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “While they reject the Trump administration‘s maximalist approach, in sober moments they will acknowledge the shortcomings of the Obama efforts. This time around, there’s a renewed commitment to bring along Israel and the Gulf states.”

“I don’t think Joe Biden is looking for a fight with the Israelis at all, which is why I think you see his desire to consult,” said Carnegie’s Miller. “There’s been more consultation on Iran in three months [of Biden] than there was between the Obama administration and Israel in three years.” 

Still, the question remains as to what extent critics’ views are taken into consideration as the White House proceeds with negotiations. “My understanding is there has been some informing of Congress and of our partners and allies in the region, but certainly no discussion with them,” said Coates. “Their views are not solicited. They sometimes are informed of developments. And one of the key flaws of the JCPOA was the fact that regional partners and allies were not involved in those negotiations.”

“Did Bibi make the bed that he’s lying in? Oh, absolutely, by throwing his lot in so obviously with Donald Trump, you shouldn’t have been surprised at what was coming.”

Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

Earlier this month, the Iranian nuclear facility Natanz was attacked while U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was visiting Israel. Reports indicated that Israel had orchestrated the attack, although Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility. Austin and Netanyahu appeared at a press conference together soon after news of the attack became public. “I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel, and Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism,” Netanyahu said. Austin did not mention Iran, but noted, “I wanted to reaffirm the administration’s strong commitment to Israel and to the Israeli people.” 

“Not only did Secretary of Defense Austin project no embarrassment or consternation or anger that this occurred during his visit to Israel, but then this was followed almost immediately by a particularly warm public statement by National Security Advisor [Jake] Sullivan toward his Israeli counterpart, warmly inviting him to Washington,” said Satloff.

Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, speak regularly, and the pair met for the first time this week in Washington. “The United States updated Israel on the talks in Vienna and emphasized strong U.S. interest in consulting closely with Israel on the nuclear issue going forward,” said a White House readout of the meeting. Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan, who was also present, called the meeting “excellent” and tweeted that he, Sullivan and Ben-Shabbat “discussed our shared goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons [and] agreed to work together to strengthen our security ties.”

“I think [Sullivan’s] discussions with Meir Ben-Shabbat are genuine and well-intentioned and mostly positive in terms of tone and spirit, but the reality is Meir Ben-Shabbat has no ability — he nor anyone else in the Israeli government — to change the direction and trajectory of the Biden administration’s Iran policy,” said Dubowitz. 

Biden surprised observers by not calling Netanyahu until mid-February, nearly a month after taking office. Although he has known Netanyahu for a long time, Biden came to office following a uniquely close personal relationship between Trump and the Israeli prime minister. 

“Did Bibi make the bed that he’s lying in? Oh, absolutely, by throwing his lot in so obviously with Donald Trump, you shouldn’t have been surprised at what was coming,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “And yet we were constantly told that this is an administration that’s much, much more mature now, and they’re not going to retaliate. And yet, how petty was the decision by the White House not to call the prime minister of Israel for over a month? What was that about?”

“The truth is that, at least so far, I don’t think we’re seeing the same kind of clashes that we saw in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship,” said Gelman. “It’s unquestionable, his commitment to the relationship between the United States and Israel. He’s made it very clear that that is something he intends to maintain, and hopefully strengthen.”

After 100 days, Jewish leaders weigh in on Biden’s domestic policy

As President Joe Biden reaches his 100th day in office tomorrow, the president is touting his administration’s achievements on vaccinations and the passage of a massive stimulus package. 

While the White House is largely focused on the pandemic, the first 100 days also offer insight into how the administration will approach key issues of interest to the American Jewish community. A clearer picture is emerging of how Biden plans to address antisemitism and domestic extremism, and how the White House is engaging with Jewish organizations and other faith-based groups. 

So how is Biden doing? Jewish Insider checked in with community leaders across the ideological spectrum to see where they think the president is doing well, and where there is room for improvement. 

“The Biden administration is taking a go-slow approach to many things of strong interest and concern for American Jews,” said James Loeffler, director of Jewish studies at the University of Virginia. “I think that that has frustrated Jewish progressives who want bigger, faster change. I think it’s also frustrated conservatives, who expected to see more telltale signs of radical change and were looking for ways to differentiate and say, ‘Oh, the Biden administration doesn’t take antisemitism seriously, or it doesn’t take Israel seriously.’ Centrist liberals are kind of calmed and content.”

Parts of the American Rescue Plan — Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill — received widespread praise throughout the Jewish nonprofit world. Jewish social service agencies lobbied for certain components of the legislation, such as the expanded Paycheck Protection Program, and additional aid for parochial schools, including Jewish day schools.

“It’s very significant that we were able to expand eligibility for PPP loans. We also got the second round of a historic $2.75 billion for a total of $5.5 billion of aid to nonpublic K-12 schools, including Jewish day schools, to deal with their COVID costs,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. “Other components of the Rescue Plan, whether it’s the child tax credit, or various other pieces, are also going to significantly help people in the Jewish community that are struggling economically.”

“The Biden administration is taking a go-slow approach to many things of strong interest and concern for American Jews”

James Loeffler, director of Jewish studies at the University of Virginia

Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, argued that the more than 200 million vaccine doses administered in Biden’s first 100 days are good news for the Jewish community: “Not only does [vaccination] help save lives and livelihoods, but it also allows us all to get back to our life and return to camp this summer, which for Jewish parents like myself is a priority,” Soifer explained. 

Despite polling that showed strong bipartisan support for the legislation, it did not receive any support from congressional Republicans. “The American Rescue Plan IS a bipartisan plan — one that unifies this country,” Biden chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted in February, with a link to a poll showing a majority of Americans supported the proposal. 

Not everyone buys it. 

“If you’re going to unite the country, you’ve got to figure out how to do it. The first bill that passed through Congress of any note since he became president was this relief package. The prior relief packages have bipartisan support. This one didn’t,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation and a self-described centrist who has donated to both Democrats and Republicans. “It would seem to me that every effort should have been made, even if concessions had to be made, to have bipartisan support.”

Biden’s “idea of bipartisanship is not having a meaningful dialogue and a negotiation and working together to come to a common goal,” said Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks. “They’re not really interested in collaboration with the Republicans. They’re interested in capitulation with the Republicans.” Brooks also expressed concern about “the incredible runaway spending and printing money that the administration is doing under the guise of COVID relief and infrastructure.”

Some Democrats have argued that bipartisanship is not an option in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the many Republican members of Congress who voted to challenge the results of the presidential election. 

“I view that as being derelict in your responsibilities as a representative, as a leader,” said Sandler. “If you don’t like what they did on a certain day, what they said, that doesn’t mean you don’t make an effort to work with them. You might not be able to work with them. Then you could make that decision after that.” 

Biden took office on the heels of the January 6 attempted insurrection, at an unprecedented inauguration ceremony with just a few hundred spectators due to both the pandemic and the lingering threat of violence. “The shadow that was cast over these first 100 days was the assault on the Capitol. And as Jews, as we think about the first 100 days, the assault on the Capitol was white supremacy rearing its head in a very ugly, antisemitic, and anti-Black racist way,” said Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. 

Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken attend an event at the State Department on June 30, 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken attend an event at the State Department on June 30, 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland — both of whom mentioned their Jewish heritage in their confirmation hearings — have pledged to focus on domestic extremism, particularly in the wake of the events of January 6. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a review of domestic extremism in the military, while Mayorkas recently announced a similar probe of staff at the Department of Homeland Security. 

Rooting out domestic extremists, many of whom also harbor antisemitic sentiments, has long been a priority for the Anti-Defamation League, which in January wrote to the chair and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee that “confirming an extremely qualified secretary of Homeland Security is especially crucial in the wake of the domestic terrorist threat that has rocked our nation in recent years, including the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.” 

The Orthodox Union wrote to those senators praising Mayorkas, and Diament told JI that the OU has remained in contact with the administration on the issue. “We’ve been having a lot of discussions with the relevant offices about antisemitism in particular and domestic extremist violence in general,” he said. “Obviously, this administration is looking to combat domestic violent extremism in a very aggressive way.”

Biden is still naming appointees to prominent roles, though the White House has been notably slow in picking ambassadors. The Washington Post reported this week on an internal document that appears to name Biden’s first slate of political ambassador appointments, which are still unofficial and are coming at a later stage than in previous administrations. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both began naming their ambassador picks before their inaugurations. 

“An administration faces an enormous number of problems. The president can’t handle them all himself, nor can the secretary state or the national security advisor,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as special envoy on Venezuela and Iran under Trump and deputy national security advisor under former President George W. Bush. “This administration has been extremely slow, I think, by historical standards, in getting its people in place. That’s a mistake.”

Two of Biden’s early picks, Colin Kahl for under secretary of defense for policy and Kristen Clarke for assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, have been criticized for past comments and actions regarding Israel, Iran and the Jewish community. 

Republican senators opposed Kahl’s nomination in part over his position on Iran and work on the nuclear deal during the Obama administration. During Senate debate before a vote on Kahl’s nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said: “I have come to believe Colin Kahl’s judgment is irreparably marred by obsessive animosity towards Israel.” The Zionist Organization of America and Christians United for Israel urged senators to oppose Kahl’s nomination. He was confirmed this week in a party-line vote.

“This administration has been extremely slow, I think, by historical standards, in getting its people in place. That’s a mistake”

Elliott Abrams, former national security advisor and special envoy on Venezuela and Iran

Clarke, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, apologized after facing condemnation for inviting an antisemitic speaker to Harvard when she was a student in 1994. “She is a friend of the Jewish community,” said Pesner, whose organization was one of a number of liberal Jewish groups that came to Clarke’s defense. “She has a long track record of fighting for religious freedom, including specifically Jewish religious freedom — the right to observe Shabbat, or the right to be free of white supremacy and the violent antisemitic form of white supremacy.”

The White House has not yet nominated an antisemitism envoy, an appointment that is expected after Biden begins naming ambassadors. Jarrod Bernstein, who served as director of Jewish outreach in the Obama administration and is a co-host of Jewish Insider’s Limited Liability Podcast, suggested that appointing a visibly Orthodox Jew as antisemitism envoy could send an important signal. “A lot of antisemitism these days tends to be focused at Jews who are visibly Jewish, usually yarmulke-wearing Jews,” Bernstein noted. “It would send a strong statement to that community and other communities that it’s okay to be visibly Jewish, and that antisemitism against that community won’t be tolerated.”

One of the administration’s early moves on antisemitism was affirming its support for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. In a letter sent to the American Zionist Movement last month, Secretary of State Tony Blinken wrote that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA definition, and the administration is “eager to work with allies and partners to counter Holocaust distortion and combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance abroad while we strengthen our efforts at home.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, meet with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, meet with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“I think antisemitism is something that affects all of us. It has certainly raised its ugly head here in the last several years,” Sandler noted. “I’m very confident that the president and his administration will not tolerate that.” 

Loeffler said Biden is making the right choice in not upending previous administrations’ positions on antisemitism. “I think that the Biden administration has correctly realized that antisemitism has the potential to become a terrific wedge issue for American Jews,” Loeffler noted. “This is a significant issue that conservatives and many liberals in the Jewish sphere are really, really focused on. I think it’s ripening as an issue. And the ‘go-slow’ approach by the administration helps them not to avoid obvious missteps as they try and figure out how to handle it.”

The White House has also not yet announced whether it will appoint someone for the role of liaison to the Jewish community. Bernstein noted that for now, some current administration officials are solid liaisons themselves. “Tony Blinken being at every AIPAC and ADL event for the last 20 years as a staffer, national security advisor to the vice president and civilian — he knows this community really [well],” Bernstein explained. “It’s also very important not to understate how important having Ron Klain as chief of staff is. Ron is a member of this community.”

One new initiative, taken from the Obama years, is the creation of an Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “The White House is doing a very, very good job and a very, very proactive job in engaging with faith communities — not only the Jewish community, but faith communities across the board, and the nonprofit charitable sector across the board,” said Diament. 

Now, as Biden turns to the next phase of his administration and looks to pass marquee legislation including a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, Brooks says Republicans won’t let him ram through bills that lack Republican support.

“Thankfully, we have Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema who understand the value and the need for the continuity of institutions like the filibuster in the Senate, not to have a tyranny of the majority, which is what the Democrats want,” Brooks added.

Illinois’s Jewish community praises VP contender Tammy Duckworth

With the Democratic National Convention just weeks away, speculation over Joe Biden’s running mate selection has hit a fever pitch. Biden told reporters on Tuesday that he’ll likely announce his pick next week, and one name reportedly on the shortlist is Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).

Members of Chicago’s Jewish community largely described Duckworth — a former Army combat helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq — as a popular and well-respected senator who has a strong relationship with the local Jewish community.

“Senator Duckworth has been a great friend to the Jewish community and a champion on the issues they care about, from helping the widow, orphan and stranger, to ensuring a safe and secure Israel as a democratic, Jewish state,” Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), who is Jewish, told Jewish Insider.

Steve Sheffey, a Democratic activist in Chicago, echoed Schneider’s sentiments.

“She’s been absolutely outstanding on issues of concern to the Jewish community,” Sheffey told JI. “She’s very supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, she’s open, she’s got a great voting record on Israel.”

Alan Solow, a national co-chair of the 2012 Obama-Biden reelection campaign and the former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JI that Duckworth’s relationship with the Jewish community has been harmonious.

“There have been no issues,” Solow said. “It’s been what one would expect in a state like Illinois, where we have a tradition of political leaders here hav[ing] strong, affirmative relationships with the Jewish community, and she’s done the same thing.”

Lauren Beth Gash, a former member of the Illinois House of Representatives and the vice chair of the Illinois Democratic Party, said she has known Duckworth for more than 15 years, since Duckworth’s first run for office. In 2006, Duckworth was the Democratic nominee in the race to replace retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), but lost 51-49 to Peter Roskam, then a state senator.

“One of the reasons that I have supported Tammy is because she truly shares our values and the value of tikkun olam,” Gash told JI. “Personally, I feel as an American Jew that she is the kind of leader we can trust to fight for Israel, and that matters to me.”

Duckworth is largely in line with the Democratic mainstream on Israel — she supports a two-state solution, backed the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran, opposes BDS and supports continued U.S. military aid to Israel

In the House, Duckworth co-sponsored a resolution condemning antisemitism and comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, as well as a bill providing resources to social services agencies to assist Holocaust survivors.

Recently, Duckworth has been vocal in her opposition to Israel’s potential unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank. She signed a letter, along with 18 other Democratic senators, criticizing annexation as a “dramatic reversal of decades of shared understandings between the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and the international community.” She also co-sponsored a Senate resolution that said annexation would “jeopardize prospects for a two-state solution.”

Local supporters described Duckworth as well-informed about issues relating to Israel and the U.S. Jewish community.

“I’ve personally talked to her about Israel, and I have no doubt that she understands the issue and that she’s a good friend of both the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community,” Sheffey said.

Gash agreed, noting that Duckworth’s military service has given her a particularly keen understanding of Israel’s security needs.

“When you listen to her give a speech or just talk, you can tell that it’s real, and you can tell that she shares our values, and you can tell that it comes from a deep place of caring and concern, and not just someone who’s just running for office,” she said. “Tammy is the real deal, and that’s not as common as I’d like to to be.”

Gash told JI that Duckworth speaks frequently to local Jewish organizations, as well as national groups including J Street and AIPAC. Duckworth’s positions have earned her an endorsement from J Street PAC.

“The J Street Chicago chapter is proud to have a very strong relationship with Senator Duckworth and her staff,” J Street’s Midwest Regional Director Sam Berkman said in an email to JI. “The Senator has proven herself time and again to be a true friend of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.”

Duckworth has received criticism, however, from Republicans in the state.

“There’s a lot of fluff around her in the media, and most of that is because of the story of her service and sacrifice, which is all honorable, but if you actually were to put her on a national stage and have scrutiny, it would not go well for Biden in my view,” a GOP operative from Illinois told JI. 

“On issues in the Jewish community [she’s been] absent or on the wrong side,” the Republican added, pointing to her opposition to annexation and endorsement from J Street.

While the Democrats who spoke to JI avoided endorsing any individual as Biden’s running mate, they agreed that Duckworth would be a strong choice.

“If Vice President Biden selected Senator Duckworth, I would enthusiastically support that,” said Solow — who added that he knows most of the individuals who are reported to be in consideration. “I’m sure she would do an excellent job if she were called upon to assume the duties of the presidency,” he added.

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