Was the Awful Presidential Debate Somehow Good for Israel? 

By | Jul 01, 2024
Illustraive. Donald Trump and Joe Biden stand on the CNN Debate stage. A map of the Middle East is between them.

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1. A weak Biden makes a weak Middle East—or at least that’s what Republicans believe

Minutes after Joe Biden and Donald Trump stepped off the stage at the CNN studio in Atlanta, reporters swarmed into the so-called “spin room” located in the adjacent building to hear each side’s take on the debate.

Spin rooms are a long-standing debate tradition, but this time was different. A dozen or so pumped up, energetic Trump surrogates marched in eager to address any microphone and camera and spend time with each reporter. As Trump surrogates celebrated their guy’s clear victory in the debate, Democrats were hard to find. Only a handful stepped out, giving brief statements, taking a few questions, and disappearing. There was no way for them to spin the unspinnable.

Among the Republican surrogates was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the GOP’s leading voices on foreign policy and national security.

“The situation in the Middle East is more dangerous tonight than it was before tonight,” he told me. Graham, known for his staunch support of Israel and his hawkish Middle East worldview, went on to lay out what he sees as a scary scenario: America’s and Israel’s enemies in the Middle East watched the debate and saw a weak U.S. president, and in the Middle East, weakness invites trouble. “Iran is really recalculating about their efforts to get a nuclear weapon. They feel that if Trump comes in their window will close, so I worry that they’ll sprint out [to reach a nuclear bomb] before November,” he said, adding: “I worry that Hezbollah will take advantage between now and November. I worry that things in the Middle East could sharply deteriorate after tonight.” Graham explained that the world has now seen that “the president is compromised” and therefore he is worried about what Iran, Hezbollah and Russian president Vladimir Putin will do now that this vulnerability has been exposed.

While Senator Graham seemed sincere in his concern, there doesn’t seem to be much support to the notion that on Thursday night Iran and Hezbollah learned anything they hadn’t already known about Biden, or that the fear of Trump returning to the White House will drive Israel’s foes to take desperate steps.  Graham was elaborating a regular policy line Trump has repeated in his debate responses and public appearances—that he was in some way tougher on Iran and on terror than his Democratic successor and therefore bad actors in the Middle East are fearing that November might mark the end of their free rein.

In the debate itself, Middle East policy was hardly mentioned. The Gaza war and U.S.-Israel relations, which a month ago were expected to make up a central part of the debate, received only a short mention. Biden argued he is Israel’s greatest defender and recalled the April Iranian attack that America, under his command, helped block. He also tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to explain his decision to halt a shipment of heavy bombs to Israel. Trump, no more coherent than Biden on this issue, called the president a “very bad Palestinian…a weak one,” using the term Palestinian as a jab at Biden.

After the debate, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Trump surrogate who gained national and worldwide fame after her pointed questioning of Ivy League presidents about their failure to ensure the safety of Jewish students on campus, argued that it was clear that “Joe Biden has turned his back on Israel at every opportunity,” and that “Trump is the president that supports the U.S. relationship with Israel.”

These two Republican critiques of Biden don’t easily align. Post-debate Biden is either, as Graham claims, so weak that all the adversaries in the Middle East will take advantage of his next few months to wreak havoc, or, as Stefanik suggested, is so nefarious and such an effective anti-Israel leader that only his disappearance from the world stage can save Israel’s future.

2. Israelis stayed up all night to watch presidential debate

Thursday’s dramatic presidential debate took place at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. In Israel, it was 4 a.m. when Joe Biden and Donald Trump took the stage. Tens of thousands of Israelis set their alarm clocks and tuned in to watch. In fact, all major TV broadcast networks in Israel carried the debate live, with simultaneous translation to Hebrew.

Perhaps it was a deep understanding that this debate may determine who will serve as the next U.S. president, an issue that Israel, more than practically any other nation in the world, should care about. Or maybe it was just a need for a good show about distant political fights that can provide a much needed escape from the harsh reality at home.

So as the sun rose over Israel, the distant debate dominated the news. With a months-long war in Gaza, hostages still held by Hamas, and a looming military outbreak in the north, Israelis took some time to rehash Biden’s performance, to speculate over what happens next, and perhaps take some solace in the fact that their own political system may not be the worst.

3. The Jamaal Bowman watershed moment

The long and the short of New York’s 16th Congressional District’s primary race is that Rep. Jamaal Bowman adopted an anti-Israel approach and $14 million later he is out of a job. Or at least, that is how progressives are telling this story.

Last Tuesday, the most expensive House primary race in history came to the ending everyone had expected for weeks: Incumbent Bowman, a first-term progressive congressman and former middle school principal, suffered a resounding defeat to local politician George Latimer.

The district—made up of the northern Bronx, parts of Westchester County and the cities of Yonkers, New Rochelle and White Plains—quickly emerged as a key battleground for pro-Israel activists. During his brief term in office, Bowman made himself a reputation as Israel’s leading critic in Congress, exceeding even the views of his fellow Squad members. After the Gaza war broke, Bowman stood out not only for his calls for the United States to stop aiding Israel and cut funding for Iron Dome defense systems, but also in denying some of the October 7 atrocities committed by Hamas.

AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups set out to defeat Bowman, a formidable task given he was an incumbent. As primaries approached, the issue of Israel and AIPAC increasingly dominated the race. The pro-Israel lobby, through its affiliated super-PAC, poured an unprecedented $14 million into the race, and Bowman, alongside fellow New York Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, turned his campaign’s focus into a battle against AIPAC and what he described as “outside money” from wealthy donors, some of whom are not even Democrats, who sought to meddle in a local primary race.

Bowman’s loss is seen as a defining moment in the battle over the role views on Israel play in America’s political scene. For many, the race demonstrated more clearly than ever before that being anti-Israel is a career ender, even for an incumbent. It was a warning sign to progressives that staking harsh anti-Israel positions comes with a cost that many of them won’t be able to bear.

4. Show of force or double-edged sword?

AIPAC celebrated its show of force. “This week’s victory illustrates what is possible when our community rallies together to support our friends and oppose those who undermine our values,” AIPAC wrote in a fundraising email to supporters sent out a day after the elections. The message explained that Latimer was trailing Bowman in the early stages of the race, but then, “the resources our community surged to Latimer through the AIPAC Political Portal ensured that he could get his message out to voters.”

But was it the pro-Israel’s lobby greatest night?

First, as many commentators following New York politics noted, Bowman was an imperiled candidate to start with. His district, according to Ami Eden at JTA, has been redrawn and now includes a much larger Jewish population than two years ago, when Bowman beat incumbent long-time ally of Israel Eliot Engel. In addition, critics noted that Bowman failed to use his first two years in office to deepen ties with constituents and to deliver for his district, making AIPAC’s job all the more easy.

Even so, it was an impressive feat for the pro-Israel lobby, which only entered the super-PAC world four years ago and has never successfully taken on a prominent incumbent before.

In the long run, however, this victory could prove to be a double-edged sword.

Sure, politicians will now think twice before expressing anti-Israel views and may choose to moderate their positions or muffle their criticism in order to save their seat. But at the same time, this victory branded AIPAC in progressive circles as the neighborhood’s political bully, one that will pull out as many millions of dollars needed to defeat anyone who crosses their red lines.

Wait, but isn’t that what all interest groups do? How is AIPAC different from the gun lobby or environmental groups? Don’t they all, at the end of the day, use political donations and super PACs to bolster those who support their cause and to undermine those who don’t?

Yes, but context also matters. Outside money always looks worse than fundraising within the district, the state and the party. And amounts matter too. Helping out a candidate with some cash is nice—drowning out their rivals with a never-ending stream of funds looks different.

5. Pointing to the next target

Bowman was AIPAC’s top target, but not the only one.

Next up is another progressive critic of Israel, Cori Bush, who represents Missouri’s 1st district in Congress.The dollar amount spent in that race so far isn’t that high—AIPAC’s super PAC has put in only $2.5 million. The group hopes, however, that it can end this election cycle with two Squad members down.

So why not go after all progressives?

AIPAC, like any other savvy political player, knows its limits.

The only way to bring down an incumbent is by having the stars align: a problematic candidate, a district that has changed its character, and a strong challenger. Most races are safe for sitting members of Congress, and so even though many in the pro-Israel world would love to see Rashida Tlaib or Ilhan Omar or Mark Pocan lose their seats, they know money alone will not be enough to make that happen.

Top image: credit: TownDown (CC BY-SA 3.0) 

One thought on “Was the Awful Presidential Debate Somehow Good for Israel? 

  1. Susanna Levin says:

    AIPAC didn’t need to spend all that money defeating Jamaal Bowman (they could have used that money better elsewhere…). Bowman was not popular in his district, while George Latimer is. Mr. Latimer has strong, deep ties with the Jewish community and beyond, is a real mensch (unlike his opponent) and he has never lost an election in his many years of service to the community.

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