How do Bernie & Buttigieg stand on Israel-Palestine?

How do Bernie & Buttigieg stand on Israel-Palestine?
One supports Palestinian human rights. One says he’d keep the $10 million per day flowing to Israel no matter what it does. Which is which? Spoiler alert: 18 pro-Israel billionaires have donated to Buttigieg…

by Kathryn Shihadah and Alison Weir

For over 70 years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the core issue of the Middle East, central to tragic wars – some involving American troops – and escalating violence. In the past ten days Israeli forces have shot dead nine unarmed Palestinians, seven of them teenagers. In 2019, 149 Palestinians were killed in the conflict along with 10 Israelis.

US Middle East policies, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, have been largely driven by the pro-Israel lobby in the US for many decades. Campaign donors like Sheldon Adelson have influenced Trump policies, while other billionaires such as Haim Saban have influenced Democratic ones.

The US blockade against Iran (which, under international law, constitutes an act of war), was begun by Bush and continued under Obama. The Trump “Muslim Ban” focused on countries that had been selected by the Obama administration and that had long been targeted by Israel.

A plan to give Israel $38 billion+ over the next ten years began with Obama and continues under Trump. This amounts to over $10 million per day ($7,000 per minute), and works out to approximately $23,000 per Jewish Israeli family of four. US support for Israeli aggression and violence has caused growing extremism in the region and beyond and dangerous hostility to the U.S.

Yet, despite the profound significance of this issue, the issue of Israel-Palestine didn’t even come up in the last debate, and was only discussed twice, briefly, in all ten.

Over the past months our organization has examined the stands by all the Democratic candidates on this issue here.

In this article we’ll specifically focus on the two current frontrunners, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. (Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren seems to be growing a bit bolder in her statements on the issue, recently saying that she plans to skip the AIPAC convention.) We’ll also examine Buttigieg’s 40 billionaire donors and their views on Israel-Palestine.

Below is what we found:

Stands on Israel-Palestine

The stands taken by Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg on Israel-Palestine have been markedly different. While both swear their commitment to Israel, a foreign country founded through a war of ethnic cleansing and based on systemic discrimination, the candidates’ statements on the current situation have been significantly different.

Israeli soldier holds Palestinian woman at gunpoint
An Israeli soldier points his gun at a Palestinian woman in the occupied West Bank city of al-Khalil.

While Sanders has increasingly spoken out against Israeli violations of international law and human rights, Buttigieg has largely done the opposite. Each one’s approach to the issue drew the expected roster of supporters (and detractors).

For example, Steve Grossman, former president of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – and former DNC chairman – threw his weight behind Pete Buttigieg, boosting the candidate’s profile among uncompromising Israel supporters.

Buttigieg was already familiar to the staunchly pro-Israel American Jewish Committee (AJC) ever since his visit to Israel, subsidized by AJC’s Project Interchange. The visit had taken place just days after Israeli sharpshooters had killed sixty mostly unarmed Palestinians as they peacefully protested (more below).

The mayor’s comments in a later interview characterized the trip as “balanced” and praised Israel’s security policy – one that “hopefully, Americans can look to” in dangerous times.

Journalist Whitney Webb chastised him for these comments:

Buttigieg calls Israel’s draconian security policies “very effective,” yet does not mention their human costs, such as Israel’s regular imprisonment of Palestinians without charge or its arrest of children for allegedly “throwing stones”…his claim that Israel’s security policy offers a “very important lesson” to the United States suggests that Israel’s apartheid, police-state security policies are a model for homeland security policy in the U.S., a suggestion that concerns the “progressive” voters to whom Buttigieg is currently attempting to appeal.

Philip Weiss also took the mayor to task, stunned at

how completely the Rhodes Scholar imbibed the official pro-Israel version of events, and showed contempt for Palestinian understanding. There is no sense in Buttigieg’s remarks that Israel is a militarized, rightwing country… that answers resistance to the existing order with overwhelming force that…were likely war crimes.

Among Senator Bernie Sanders’ endorsements are some that make the pro-Israel camp cringe: he has the backing of Linda Sarsour and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.

Actively opposed to Sanders are (among others), the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a Dem iteration of AIPAC, and fellow candidate Mike Bloomberg, a longtime Israel advocate. DMFI spent at least $800,000 on anti-Bernie ads in Iowa.

While Sanders has rejected billionaire cash, Buttigieg has actively gone after it, obtaining the most exclusive billionaire donors of any Democrat. A number of his billionaire backers are Israel advocates.

SHOULD AID TO ISRAEL BE CONDITIONAL?

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has recently changed his position on conditioning aid to Israel.

Supporters of Palestine were excited last June when he stated that he would “take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill [for annexation].” He reiterated his position at a J Street conference:

The US law framework for security cooperation in aid to any country has very specific expectations about how that will be used. This is built into the Arms Export Control Act. This is built into a Leahy Law. And we need to make sure that any such cooperation and funding is going to things that are compatible with US objectives and with US law…
[W]e need to have the visibility to know whether U.S. funds are being used in a way that are not compatible with U.S. policy.

But something must have happened in the months following those declarations. In a December 2019 questionnaire from the New York Times, Buttigieg declined to answer the question “Should the United States maintain its current level of military aid to Israel?” (He also declined to answer, “Should all Palestinian refugees and their descendants have the right to return to Israel?”and “Do you support the establishment of a Palestinian state that includes West Bank land as demarcated by pre-1967 borders, except for longtime Israeli settlements?”)

Last month, when Buttigieg was asked whether he would withdraw aid in the event of Israeli annexation of Palestinian land, he responded, “the answer is no.” He then stated that he has consistently held this position.

Following this event, Emily Mayer of IfNotNow pointed out,

it seems as if the closer we get to the election, and the closer he gets to Democratic establishment donors, the more out of touch his approach becomes both with what Democrats want and what is morally right.

On the other hand, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has taken a stronger position than any other candidate, suggesting at the J Street conference (and maintaining the opinion) that some aid money earmarked for Israel could be diverted to Gaza:

My solution is to say to Israel: you get $3.8 billion every year, if you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza, in fact I think it is fair to say that some of that should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza.”

Sanders is also on record saying,

…the United States government gives a whole lot of money to Israel and I think we can leverage that money to end some of the racism that we have recently seen in Israel.

and referring to the billions in annual aid Israel receives from Washington,

I would sit down with Israel and say, look … if you want military aid from the United States, you’re going to have to treat the Palestinian people and that region with respect.

Most recently, Sanders said he 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. (Read more on Bernie Sanders here.)

Below are their statements on four aspects of the issue:

DEAL OF THE CENTURY

When the Trump/Kushner “Peace to Prosperity Plan” (aka Deal of the Century) became public, not surprisingly, Dem candidates had something to say.

Candidate Buttigieg, declining to criticize the status quo of Israel’s separate-and-unequal policies, tweeted a reminder about the need for negotiation:

This president’s Mideast “Deal of the Century,” like so much else he’s done in foreign policy, makes complex situations worse. Peace requires both parties at the table. Not a political green light to the leader of one for unilateral annexation.

Candidate Sanders, on the other hand, called out the occupation and enumerated outcomes of what he would consider an acceptable peace plan:

The United States can bring unequaled leadership to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we must use that leadership to promote a just and durable agreement. Any acceptable peace deal must be consistent with international law and multiple UN resolutions.

It must end the Israeli occupation and enable Palestinian self-determination in an independent state of their own alongside a secure Israel. Trump’s so-called ‘peace deal’ doesn’t come close, and will only perpetuate the conflict. It is unacceptable.

SETTLEMENTS

When the Trump administration announced last November that settlements are not “inconsistent with international law” (a false statement), both candidates condemned the move. Buttigieg decried only its negative impact on achieving a two-state solution; Sanders pointed out,

Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal. This is clear from international law and multiple United Nations resolutions. Once again, Mr. Trump is isolating the United States and undermining diplomacy by pandering to his extremist base.

Gaza in ruins after Israeli airstrike
Rafah: A Palestinian looks at the remains of a commercial center, which witnesses said was hit by an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip, Aug. 24, 2014.

PALESTINIAN RIGHT OF RETURN

The right of return is guaranteed by the United Nations and international law, but Israel has refused to grant Palestinians this right since 750,000 – 80% of the population – were exiled in the months surrounding the creation of the state of Israel

In December, the New York Times asked the candidates, “Should all Palestinian refugees and their descendants have the right to return to Israel?”

Mr. Buttigieg did not answer this question.

Mr. Sanders did:

The right of refugees to return to their homes after the cessation of hostilities is an internationally recognized right, but this issue will be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians as part of a peace agreement.

For almost two years, Palestinians in Gaza have been gathering every Friday for largely peaceful demonstrations, protesting Israel’s devastating blockade, now in its thirteenth year. Israel has responded with snipers, killing hundreds of innocent people – including children, the disabled, medics, and journalists.

Pete Buttigieg, as mentioned above, visited Israel just days after Israeli snipers had killed sixty Gazans. In an interview after the trip, he praised Israel’s response and admired its approach to security:

[I saw] the way that a country can be on the one hand very intentional, very serious, and very effective when it comes to security, and on the other hand not allowing concerns about security to dominate your consciousness. I think that’s a very important lesson that hopefully Americans can look to when we think about how to navigate a world that unfortunately has become smaller and more dangerous for all of us.

In contrast, Sanders said,

Instead of applauding Israel for [killing nearly 60 unarmed Palestinians],
Israel should be condemned. Israel has a right to security, but shooting unarmed protesters is not what it is about.
and
I don’t think that any objective person can disagree that Israel has massively overreacted to these demonstrations.

FRIENDSHIP WITH ISRAEL

Israel has long been considered “America’s greatest ally.” Right or wrong, it is part of most politicians’ platform. It is rare, for this reason, to hear a politician criticize Israeli policy.

Pete Buttigieg explains how the nations’ special relationship should play out:

what Israel can expect from the U.S., as any friend ought to be able to expect from an honest friend, is that when they take a step that is harmful, you put your arm around your friend and you try to guide them somewhere else.

The United States needs to put its arm around the shoulder of its ally, Israel, and help it to develop policies that will work towards the economic and security benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians…A two-state solution that achieves legitimate Palestinian aspirations and meets Israel’s security needs remains the only viable way forward.

Sanders prefers a “tough love” approach (From a statement on Middle East policy):

To my mind, as friends — long term friends with Israel — we are obligated to speak the truth as we see it. That is what real friendship demands, especially in difficult times…But it is important among friends to be honest and truthful about differences that we may have…to be successful, we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people…You can’t have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side.

Candidate Pete Buttigieg and four of his billionaire donors
Candidate Pete Buttigieg and four of his billionaire donors: Mimi Hass, Reed Hastings, David Geffen, and Jennifer Pritzker

18 Pro-Israel Billionaires Back Buttigieg

We found evidence that at least 18 billionaires who support Israel have donated to Buttigieg’s campaign. Sanders has specifically eschewed big-money fundraisers and does not have any billionaire donors.

While it may be an exaggeration to suggest that “billionaires in wine caves” are choosing the next president of the United States, it may be that some wealthy donors have an agenda that they can advance in a wine cave event, while a teacher or pipefitter has little more to wield than a vote.

The danger is those who use campaign contributions not just to support, but to influence a candidate. (Also, when a candidate expects that a major donor holds certain views, it is unlikely that the candidate will be eager to take a counter position.)

As the documentary The Lobby – USA demonstrated (perhaps too well – it was blocked from broadcast in the US – but you can view it here), pro-Israel lobbyists know that campaign contributions can be used as leverage.

As outlined above, Pete Buttigieg retreated from his position on Israel – in place of his vow to hold Israel accountable for at least some of its misconduct, he promised to keep military aid flowing, regardless of Israel’s behavior.

We don’t know what caused him to change his position, but it’s not impossible that he wants to keep the money flowing and growing.

Below are 18 billionaires who are likely pleased with his change of heart.

LEN AND EMILY BLAVATNIK, pro-Israel donors
Net worth: $19.6 billion. Source of wealth: Diversified. Also supported: Joe Biden
LEN AND EMILY BLAVATNIK

Len Blavatnik is an Israeli-Russian billionaire (his wife is American) who funds scholarships for Israeli military veterans; is a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “billionaires club” (a list that also includes Sheldon Adelson, Charles Kushner, and Donald Trump); may be part of an alleged corruption scandal involving Netanyahu and Israeli Hollywood producer and Mossad asset Arnon Milchan.

In an article entitled “U.S. Politicians Can’t Stop Taking Len Blavatnik’s Money,” Bellingcat reported that he “has been offering record-breaking donations to American politicians and political committees on both sides of the aisle.” In 2016, he donated $6 million to Republicans and $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. As suspicion of corruption began to swirl around him, organizations began turning down his donations.

Jo Carole and Ron Lauder, billionaire donors
Spouse’s net worth: $4.3 billion. Source of wealth: Estée Lauder. Also supported: No one directly
JO CAROLE LAUDER (WIFE OF RONALD LAUDER)

Husband Ron Lauder is fervently pro-Israel. He is head of the World Jewish Congress and Chairman Emeritus of the Jewish National Fund, which advocate for Israel.

Seth Klarman, Buttigieg donors
Net worth: $1.5 billion. Source of wealth: hedge funds. Also supported: Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, John Delaney, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar
Seth Klarman

(Klarman is one of the billionaires behind the creation of the app that caused chaos at last week’s Iowa caucuses.)

Militarist Monitor reports, “In 2012, Klarman helped establish the Israeli newspaper The Times of Israel. He has been the paper’s primary funder and serves as the chairman of its board….Klarman is also a major funder of The Israel Project (TIP), a hawkish advocacy organization [now defunct]. A member of TIP’s board of directors, he gave the group nearly $4 million between 2008 and 2011.

Klarman has funded other Israel advocacy groups, including the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a spinoff of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the neocon Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Middle East Media Research Institute, and Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum.

Mondoweiss reports that Klarman has given over $1.5 million to CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America – an American, non-profit, pro-Israel media-monitoring organization.

David Geffen, pro-Israel donor
Net worth: $8.7 billion. Source of wealth: Movies, record labels.
David Geffen

David Geffen established the David Geffen Foundation – one of its five major areas of giving is “issues of concern to the Jewish community” – such as a grant to “Friends of the Israel Defense Forces” (for information see this), and Israel advocacy organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federation Council.

Jennifer Pritzker
Net worth: $2 billion. Source of wealth: Hotels, investments. (www.allamericanspeakers.com)
Jennifer Pritzker

Israel: She notes that one of her most memorable experiences was “personally witnessing the Yom Kippur War as a civilian at Kibbutz Kfar Blum in Israel, October 1973, where she spent a year after high school.” (Former name was James.)

The Pritzker family is one of the wealthiest families in the U.S. It is known for being pro-Israel. The Chicago Tribune reported in 1985: “The Pritzker family buys $500,000 worth of Israel bonds each year and, besides their other philanthropies, also makes donations to universities and institutions in Israel.
(Penny Pritzer was instrumental in the rise of Barack Obama.)

Her cousin, Thomas Pritzker (also a billionaire), was also friends with Epstein and flew on his plane together.

William Ackman and Neri Oxman, Buttigieg donors
Net worth: $1.7 billion. Source of wealth: hedge funds. Also supported: Cory Booker, Michael Bennet
WILLIAM ACKMAN AND NERI OXMAN

Founded the Pershing Square Foundation – which in 2018 gave more grants to Israel than to any other country outside the US, and has given grants to the Birthright Israel Foundation and The Israel Project.

Neri Oxman is an Israeli citizen who enlisted in the Israeli military.

Jeffrey Epstein gifted Neri Oxman’s Mediated Matter research group $125,000 at MIT’s prestigious Media Lab. Oxman first met Epstein after he had already served prison time for sex offenses with underage girls, was invited to the Media Lab. (She later expressed regret at having accepted the funds.)

Marc and Cathy Lasry, billionaire pro-Israel donors
Net worth: $1.8 billion. Source of wealth: hedge funds. Also supported: Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Sestak
MARC AND CATHY LASRY

“He has been to Israel many times both for business reasons and because he is “involved in a number of charities” there, though he would not say which because ‘we’re doing it kind of anonymously.’” His son-in-law is an Israeli from a family that funds extremist groups in Israel.

Connected to Harvey Weinstein.

Wendy and Eric Schmidt donated to Pete Buttigieg's campaign
Spouse’s net worth: $15.4 billion. Source of wealth: Google.
Wendy Schmidt (wife of Eric Schmidt)

Eric Schmidt, former chairman of tech giants Google and Alphabet, had nothing but praise for Israel when he visited in 2012: “There are no disadvantages to investing in Israel – just advantages. Israel has the most important high-tech center in the world after the US.” Algemeiner pointed out that “Glowing reviews and endorsements…from leaders such as Schmidt go a long way in inspiring global investor confidence in Israeli markets.”

Barry Diller, billionaire donor
Net worth: $4.1 billion. Source of wealth: Online media. Also supported: Amy Klobuchar
Barry Diller

The Jewish Standard has reported that the website of his family foundation (with wife Diane Von Furstenberg) listed a “number of Jewish organizations among its grantees: Temple Sholom in New Milford, Conn., The Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of New York, American Friends of the College of Judea, the Anti-Defamation League, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,” most of which are openly pro-Israel.

Amy Goldman Fowler, pro-Israel billionaire
Net worth: $3.4 billion. Source of wealth: Real estate. Also supported: Amy Klobuchar.
AMY GOLDMAN FOWLER

Other notable contributions: over the years, Fowler has made individual political contributions of $100,000 or more, totalling almost $10 million, as well as hundreds of smaller donations.

The Goldman family also gives steady support to select Jewish organizations.

Fowler led a Jewish philanthropists roundtable in 2012 that stated among its goals “support for Israel.”

A Goldman family foundation gave $500,000 to “Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces.” Israel Defense Forces (IDF)

Tisch family:

Billionaires – Steven, Jonathan, and Laurie Tisch are siblings. Their cousin, James Tisch, was elected chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel in 2011, and is currently an honorary member.

Jonathan Tisch, billionaire donor
Net worth: $1.6 billion. Source of wealth: Insurance, NFL team. Also supported: Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar.
Jonathan Tisch

Tisch is a co-owner of the New York Giants and co-chair of Loews Corporation. In 2016, he donated $15 million to Tufts University – for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

This college sponsors student trips to Israel, high profile pro-Israel speakers as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series, e.g.: “Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro spoke at Tufts University as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series” and “The Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty at 25: A Conversation with Ambassador Dennis Ross.”

Laurie Tisch, pro-Israel billionaire
Net worth: $1.1 billion. Source of wealth: Insurance, NFL team. Also supported: Joe Biden, Cory Booker , Other notable contributions: Planned Parenthood Votes ($10,000), Iowa Democratic Party ($10,000)
Laurie Tisch

Laurie Tisch is the daughter of Loews co-founder Preston Robert Tisch.

She has an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University (whose campuses are in both the US and Israel). Her foundation, The Illumination Fund, supports projects in the U.S. and in Israel. One of its projects, the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, has featured numerous exhibits from and about Israel (examples here, here, here, and here).

Tisch has donated well over $1 million to candidates, parties, and pacs.

Watermelon Eaters
“Watermelon Eaters,” recently on display (Laurie M. Tisch Gallery)
Steven Tisch, Buttigieg billionaire donator
Net worth: $1.1 billion. Source of wealth: Insurance, NFL team. Also supported: Cory Booker.
Steven Tisch

As co-owner of the New York Football Giants, Tisch has won two Super Bowl rings; as producer of Forrest Gump, he won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1994, and has received two Super Bowl rings as Chairman of the Giants.

Tisch gave a $10 million donation to create “The Steve Tisch School of Film and Television” at Tel Aviv University in Israel, which will “help further cement Israel’s growing reputation as ‘Hollywood on the Mediterranean.’” In 2014 he gave $2 million to Friends of the IDF. (for information on Friends of the IDF see this.)

Tisch has donated over $500,000 to candidates and pacs (all Democrats).

Daryl and Steven Roth, pro-Israel billionaires
Spouse’s net worth: $1.1 billion. Source of wealth: Real estate.
DARYL ROTH, WIFE OF STEVEN ROTH (Trump business partner)

Inside Philanthropy reports that the Roths’ foundation supports: “Jewish Causes: Grantees include UJA Federation, Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Center of the Hamptons, and Chabad Center for Jewish Discovery.” All advocate for Israel. (Information about Chabad is here.)

Steven Roth is a trustee of The Jewish Seminary of America, a strongly pro-Israel institution.

Mimi Haas, billionaire donor
Net worth: $1.2 billion. Source of wealth: Levi’s jeans.
Mimi Haas

Haas is the widow of Peter E. Haas, great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss, founder of Levi Strauss & Co. In July 2004, Haas became a director of Levi Strauss & Co. She has been president of the Miriam and Peter Haas Fund since August 1981.

The fund, with assets of more than $200 million, supports many Jewish causes in Israel and the United States. She was previously married to Rabbi Brian Lurie, whom she had met in Israel when on an American Friends of the Hebrew University program.[1] Her son is president of the progressive, pro-Israel New Israel Fund, whose motto is “Taking a stand for a better Israel.” It works for equal rights for Palestinians within Israel.

(Haas has made $600,000 in contributions to PACRONYM, the super pac affiliated with the pac Acronym – a Washington, DC-based American 501(c)(4) non-profit corporation. The organization owns Shadow, Inc., a technology company that made the mobile application software that malfunctioned during vote tallying at the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses. Acronym has been widely described as a dark money group.)

In addition to the individuals above, more of Buttigieg’s billionaire donors may be pro-Israel, for example:
Dirk and Natasha Ziff
Net worth: $5 billion. Source of wealth: Investments. Other notable contributions: DNC Services Corp./Dem. Nat’l Committee – $678,000), Big Sky Values PAC ($5,000) to support Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
DIRK AND NATASHA ZIFF

Connection to Harvey Weinstein, a strong Israel partisan who employed former Israeli agents to silence victims.: according to Fortune, “Ziff and Weinstein were renowned in show biz circles for partying together.” At one point, Ziff loaned the Weinstein Company tens of millions of dollars.


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Kathryn Shihadah is staffwriter for f Americans Knew. Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel.


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