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One Cheer for Pete Buttigieg

He said one smart thing about Israel, but got the rest of it all wrong.
June 18, 2019
One Cheer for Pete Buttigieg
(photo credit: Hannah Yoest)

We live in a time when it sounds positively groundbreaking on the rare occasions when a Democrat says something moderate. But South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg appears to be making it part of his brand. Last month he had a Sister Souljah moment at the Human Rights Campaign, taking a stand against the radical identity politics (in this case, sexual identity politics) of the Democratic party’s left wing. More recently, he separated himself from the Ilhan Omar crowd during an interview about Israel.

The showstopper was this: If elected president, Buttigieg would not move the American embassy in Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv. “I think what’s done is done,” he told Axios. “I don’t know that we’d gain much by moving it to Tel Aviv.”

It may not seem like much, but any measure that indicates friendship between the United States and Israel is likely to be received as a moral abomination among the loudest and most prominent of Mayor Pete’s generation of Democrats.

Unlike Reps. Omar and Rashida Tlaib, Buttigieg’s stance treats Israel like a country with which the United States has normal but slightly distant relations. While not exactly a warm embrace of one of the world’s most embattled democracies, Buttigieg’s lukewarm approach at least tacitly admits that Israel isn’t a genocidal, neo-colonialist, apartheid regime propped up by mass brainwashing.

One cheer for the mayor of South Bend.

Only one, though, because the policies that Buttigieg embraced ignored both the Constitution’s separation of powers and the basis for the long-standing American-Israeli alliance.

He refused to say that President Trump “did the right thing” by moving the embassy in the first place. Trump was only fulfilling the wishes of a supermajority of Congress, which passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995 with near unanimity. Clinton, Bush, and Obama delayed the move, using a provision of the statute that provided for six-month delays if the president “determines and reports to Congress in advance that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

Buttigieg can’t have it both ways. Either the embassy in Jerusalem is a national security risk, in which case President Mayor Pete should do everything in his power to mitigate the risk, or it isn’t, in which case he’s bound to follow the law.

Buttigieg also distorted the fundamentals of the Israeli-American relationship. “[I]f you’re going to make a concession like [moving the embassy], if you’re going to give somebody something that they’ve wanted for a long time in the context of a push-pull, even with a strong ally like Israel, right?”

Not quite. There are two ways of interpreting what Buttigieg meant. The first is that the United States has a push-pull relationship with every ally. In this case a “push-pull” ally is no different from a “special relationship” ally like the U.K. or a “two countries have never been more closely connected” ally like Canada. “Push-pull” doesn’t mean anything.

The other interpretation is that Israel is an ally we keep close enough that they don’t cause too much mischief, like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. If, as Buttigieg said, American foreign policy “should be designed around American values, [and] American interests,” Israel should be considered a model ally. Freedom House gives it’s democracy a score of 78 out of 100, placing it firmly in the “free” column (with room for improvement). The U.S. scored an 86.

Israel has its problems, but its defining characteristics have a distinctly American flavor: free, fair, and competitive democratic elections; the rule of law; an independent judiciary; freedom of speech, press, association, and (yes) religion; protected rights for those accused of crimes; no secret police; civilian control of the military – not to mention protections for religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Regarding Middle East peace talks, Mayor Pete imagines his future administration holding firmly against “concessions” to Israel. But that seat at the table belongs to the Palestinian Authority if it belongs to anyone. Who is Buttigieg to decide what the Palestinian people or their government (two almost unrelated things) will accept for peace? While he’s at it, what other rogue, semi-legitimate governments would Buttigieg champion against free and open democracies?

In the same interview, Buttigieg called for “a big-picture strategy on the Middle East.” Step one should be identifying who our friends are.


Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.