Politics & Government

On Israel, Kamala Harris breaks with liberal 2020 pack

California Sen. Kamala Harris is resisting pressure from the left flank of her Democratic party to take a more critical stance on the Israeli government and its policies towards Palestinians, holding firmly to her moderate approach to U.S.-Israel relations in her 2020 run for president.

In the Senate and on the campaign trail, Harris is opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel, foreign aid cuts to the state, condemnatory votes on Israel at the United Nations and public criticism of its leadership — all tactics increasingly popular with the Democratic base and adopted by several of her Democratic presidential rivals.

Unlike those rivals, Harris is standing by her association with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, as the advocacy organization becomes a lightning rod within the Democratic Party.

“Her support for Israel is central to who she is,” Harris’ campaign communications director, Lily Adams, told McClatchy. “She is firm in her belief that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself, including against rocket attacks from Gaza.”

Harris’ embrace of Israel — one of her first foreign travel destinations as senator — and her diplomatic response to some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most controversial policies are consistent with Democrats’ traditional support for the Jewish state.

Her centrist positions on Israel could help her hit back against inevitable attacks from the Trump campaign, which has signaled that it plans to play up Democratic divisions on the issue in the general election.

But that stance is likely to make her a target in the presidential primary. Many of Harris’ 2020 rivals have been much more outspoken in their criticism of an increasingly right-wing Israeli government, amid polling that shows Democrats are less sympathetic toward Israeli policy on the Palestinians than at any other time in over 40 years.

The debate over that policy has sharpened since first-term Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, created a firestorm with a series of February tweets asserting that U.S. support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” and that Israel advocacy groups and politicians were “pushing allegiance to a foreign country.” Jewish groups claimed her criticisms of Israel veered into antisemitism.

Harris’ response to that Omar controversy focused on bigotry and race, but was vague on the antisemitism charges against Omar.

On another controversy, Netanyahu’s pledge to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Harris was also restrained in her response. Harris “believes taking unilateral action to annex the West Bank would be a mistake and would jeopardize the peace process,” according to Adams, who did not mention Netanyahu in her statement.

The response on the settlements echoes language recently used by Jewish leaders in the Democratic House caucus, who have traditionally led on Israel policy. Senior Democrats Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel, both of New York, and Ted Deutch of Florida, expressed “great concern” over Netanyahu’s proposal in a statement.

But other presidential candidates used far starker language. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke labeled Netanyahu a “racist” for pursuing annexation, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he hoped Netanyahu would lose his reelection. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg called Netanyahu’s pledge “a provocation” on Twitter, adding that “supporting Israel does not have to mean agreeing with Netanyahu‘s politics. I don’t.”

In an interview published Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, one of the most prominent freshmen in the House, said that cutting congressional aid to Israel should be “on the table” and characterized Netanyahu as a “Trump-like” and “authoritarian” figure.

Not everyone in the Democratic party supports those positions. Several Democratic presidential hopefuls — including Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, expected to enter the race this month — have years-long ties to AIPAC and extensive voting records demonstrating their support for Israel. That would give Harris company on a debate stage in the likely event that foreign policy questions about Israel are raised.

Liberals’ more vocal criticism of Israel has also spawned the formation of a new group, the Democratic Majority for Israel, whose founders are hoping to prevent hostility toward the state from “metastasizing.”

President Donald Trump has seized on Omar and other Democrats’ rhetoric, labeling the party “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish.” Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual conference on April 6, Trump lamented how Democrats “aren’t fighting for Israel in Congress” and warned that “if implemented, the Democrats radical agenda … very well could leave Israel out there all by yourselves.”

But the president also faced cries of antisemitism, himself, for telling the audience of American Jews that he supported “your prime minister,” referencing Netanyahu. The Anti-Defamation League urged Trump “to avoid language that leads people to believe Jews aren’t loyal Americans.”

One senior Trump campaign official told McClatchy that Israel policy has become part of a new “progressive litmus test” for the Democratic nominee.

“Not only do you have to fail to support Israel – you cannot support Israel in public – you have to go further than that. You have to actively oppose Netanyahu, and in fact call him a racist if you can slip that in,” the Trump campaign official said.

“All of this goes into, whoever comes out of that primary, will not be a friend to Israel, will have signed on to the Green New Deal, will have embraced a government takeover of healthcare,” the campaign official said. “It goes on down the line.”

Harris learned early on in her Senate career of the perils that Israel policy holds for Democrats with national ambitions.

The first-term senator found herself in the middle of a political spat between the Trump administration and the Palestinian Authority when she visited Israel in November 2017, one of just a handful of foreign trips she’s taken since coming to Washington.

She was in the West Bank when the Trump administration threatened to close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas moved to immediately cut off all contact with American officials, including a meeting with Harris planned for the same day.

“It was deeply disappointing for her,” one former Harris staffer told McClatchy. “She very much wanted to hear from both parties.”

A day later, Harris drew heat from the other side of the Atlantic after Netanyahu’s staff tweeted out a photo of the two officials smiling in a meeting in his office. Liberal Democrats pounced: How could she possibly meet with Netanyahu and not with the Palestinian side?

Harris has continued to walk a tightrope on Israel since then. After speaking at AIPAC’s annual conference in 2017 and 2018, she skipped it last month, as did fellow 2020 Democrats, after several liberal groups called for a boycott. But she did meet with AIPAC board members from California, tweeting out a photo from the meeting in her office.

Harris has also maintained close personal ties with several leading figures in California’s pro-Israel Jewish community. In her 2017 remarks to the AIPAC conference, she singled out “my dear friends and AIPAC board members, Anita Friedman and Cissie Swig and Amy Friedkin,” all wealthy San Francisco-area philanthropists and political donors. Friedkin also served as AIPAC’s first female president from 2002 to 2004, just as Harris was coming up in local politics.

In 2014, Harris married Doug Emhoff, a Jewish attorney, who accompanied her on the 2017 visit to Israel and the West Bank.

Adams said that the California senator has no plans to stray from the positions she has laid out on Israel since being elected to the Senate. “She’ll continue to support the U.S.-Israel alliance and peace through a two-state solution as a senator, as a candidate, and as president. For the senator, Israel should not be a partisan issue,” Adams said.

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.