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The Candidates on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

September 19, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

For decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicated and, indeed, sometimes undermined U.S. diplomatic goals in the Middle East and beyond. With roots going back thousands of years, the conflict’s emotionally charged claims fuel religious, ideological, and proxy violence around the world. With some notable exceptions, candidates of both major U.S. parties put forth similar views on the conflict, stressing their commitment to defending Israel’s right to exist and calling on the Palestinian leadership and extragovernmental factions to renounce terrorism. But beyond rhetoric, each candidate faces a similar challenge: crafting a position which balances the historic U.S. alliance with Israel against the widely recognized need to press Israel to agree an equitable peace with the Palestinians. Most—though not all—accept the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict animates other conflicts far from the Holy Land.

Democratic Ticket on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama has taken a strongly pro-Israel tone in addressing the conflict. In a May 2008 interview with the Atlantic, Obama said the concept of a Jewish state is "fundamentally just," and his commitment to Israeli security is "non-negotiable." In a speech before AIPAC in March 2007, Obama said the United States must "strengthen the hands of Palestinian moderates" and isolate Hamas. Haaretz U.S. correspondent Shmuel Rosner said that before AIPAC, Obama "sounded as strong as [Hillary] Clinton, as supportive as [President George] Bush, as friendly as [Rudy] Giuliani."

In April 2008, Barack Obama's campaign said he disapproved (ABC News) of former President Jimmy Carter's decision to meet with Hamas officials. Obama "does not support negotiations with Hamas until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel's right to exist and abide by past agreements," Obama's campaign said. Despite his pledge to hold diplomatic talks with U.S. adversaries without preconditions, Obama called Carter's meeting with Hamas leaders "a bad idea." (Reuters) He has said his position on Hamas is "indistinguishable from the position of Hillary Clinton or John McCain." In May 2008, Obama also said he would not negotiate with Hezbollah (ChiTrib). His campaign has indicated that Obama would negotiate directly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama has criticized Carter's characterization of Israel as an apartheid state. "There's no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn't advance that goal. It's emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it's not what I believe," said Obama.

Obama has said Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories are "not helpful."

In May 2008, Obama Middle East adviser Daniel Kurtzer said the issue of Jerusalem must be included in any "serious" peace talks. (Haaretz)

Obama cosponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 and has called on the Palestinian leadership to "recognize Israel, to renounce violence, and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region."

Obama says he will "insist on fully funding military assistance to Israel" (JPost) and continue to cooperate with Israel on the development of the Arrow missile defense system.

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE) is a self-described Zionist. Biden believes the United States should maintain extremely close ties with Israel, because in his view, the Middle East has only progressed when "the Arab nations have known that there is no daylight between us and Israel," as he said in a March 2007 interview with Forward. Biden dismissed the Iraq Study Group's claims that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is related to the problems of the Iraq War, saying on Shalom TV in March 2007 that Israel's behavior has "nothing to do" with Iraq.

Biden cosponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. That act, which passed, expressed U.S. support for a two-state solution. It also deemed the Palestinian Authority a terrorist organization and cut off all U.S. funding until it renounces terrorism, acknowledges Israel's right to exist, and holds up its former agreements with Israel. He has regularly supported military and financial aid packages to Israel throughout his long career on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which he is now chairman.

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Republican Ticket on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) has described himself as "proudly pro-Israel." McCain argues that there can be no peace process "until the Palestinians recognize Israel, forswear forever the use of violence, recognize their previous agreements, and reform their internal institutions." McCain says he would be willing to use military force against Iran if it attains a nuclear weapon and poses a "real threat" to Israel.

He also believes the United States should continue to provide Israel with "whatever military equipment and technology she needs to defend herself." He has said that if elected president, he would "work to further isolate the enemies of Israel" like Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, and he would "never pressure Israel to make concessions to states or movements committed to its destruction." (JPost)

In April 2008, McCain criticized former President Jimmy Carter for meeting with Hamas. He called Carter's meeting "a grave and dangerous mistake for an American leader."

McCain said Israel's military action in Lebanon in 2006 was justified. (Arizona Daily Star)

McCain cosponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006.

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Sarah Palin
Republican Party Nominee - Vice President

Palin says she does not think the United States should “second guess (ABC) the measures that Israel has to take to defend themselves, and for their security.”  Palin met with AIPAC’s board of directors (MSNBC) in September 2008 to discuss the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. In June 2008, Palin signed a resolution passed by the Alaska legislature congratulating Israel on the 60th anniversary of its founding, and affirming “strong bonds of friendship” between the United States and Israel.

Palin’s position on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unknown. She has not publicly indicated whether she believes the United States should negotiate with Hamas.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Though her advocacy (NYT) for Palestinian statehood in the 1990s drew criticism from American Jewish groups at the time, Sen. Clinton (D-NY) generally has aligned herself with pro-Israeli interests throughout her political career. In a February 2007 speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Clinton said Hamas, which took control of the Palestinian Authority in January 2006 and formed a coalition government with Fatah in February 2007, should not be recognized “until it renounces violence and terror and recognizes Israel's right to exist.” Clinton also supports Israel’s “security wall,” which divides Israel from the West Bank with the declared purpose of preventing terrorist attacks.

Clinton cosponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. She also sponsored a Senate resolution in 2007 “calling for the immediate and unconditional release of soldiers of Israel held captive by Hamas and Hezbollah.” That resolution was approved. Since taking office in 2000, she has regularly supported military and financial aid packages to Israel.

In March 2008, Clinton condemned Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel, and stressed Israel's "right to defend its citizens." She also criticized the Bush administration, which she said should have "been taking a much more active role in bringing international pressure on Hamas to stop its attacks."

Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel under the Clinton administration, was a foreign policy adviser to Clinton's campaign. Indyk is director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) has taken a solidly pro-Israel stance throughout his political career, according to pro-Israel lobby groups. At a speech before AIPAC in October 2006, Dodd boasted that he has “supported substantial foreign aid for Israel” since he was first elected to the Senate in 1980.  Dodd cosponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. He also cosponsored Clinton’s Senate resolution in April 2007 urging Hamas and Hezbollah to release captive Israeli soldiers. Dodd, a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposes the recognition of any Palestinian government including Hamas, which won the January 2006 Palestinian elections. Throughout his career he regularly has supported large financial and military aid packages for Israel.

Dodd says as president he would send former president Bill Clinton to the region “on a permanent basis for a while" to help negotiate a peace agreement. (DesMoines Register)  Dodd joined Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in a controversial trip (BosGlobe) to Syria in December 2006.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

Edwards’ statements on the conflict have been generally supportive of Israel. In a speech in Herzliya, Israel, Edwards said that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon showed “courage” in evacuating (BosGlobe) the settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005. Edwards also said in that speech that Israel should “upgrade” its role in NATO, and possibly even become a member, and he sharply criticized the late Yasir Arafat in a vice presidential debate in the 2004 election.  Yet pro-Israel lobbyists have criticized Edwards for choosing former Rep. David Bonior (New York Sun) as an adviser to his campaign. Writer Matthew Yglesias describes Bonior as “quite possibly the Israel lobby's least-liked legislator in recent history.”

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

Gravel says the U.S., its allies, and regional actors should “sponsor direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including Hamas” to forge a two-state solution.

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) is critical of Israeli use of force in the Palestinian territories. Although he has said that Hamas should renounce terrorism, he opposed the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, arguing that the legislation would exacerbate a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories. He said the United States should urge Israel to “accept the Palestinians' right to self-determination and economic survival and humanitarian relief, for food, medical care, for jobs.  

In July 2006, Kucinich expressed concern that Israel’s response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers was disproportional and risked worsening conditions for Palestinian civilians. He called on Hamas to back down, but also argued that Israel should “halt its incursion into Gaza” and begin to work again toward a two-state solution.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Richardson says that the United States must “re-engage” both parties in negotiations for peace and a two-state solution. “The suffering of the Palestinians is the most useful propaganda weapon the jihadists have,” Richardson said in a May 2007 interview. Richardson says he would send former president Bill Clinton to the Middle East as a “peace envoy.”

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) calls Israel “a beacon of freedom and hope in an otherwise troubled region.” He advocates a Palestinian state as soon as “the Palestinians have demonstrated their commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and their full acceptance of the State of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital.”  

Brownback cosponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. He also sponsored a resolution in the Senate that would recognize Jerusalem as the “undivided capital of Israel before the United States recognizes a Palestinian state.” That resolution, first introduced in April 2007, has not yet been voted on. Brownback introduced the same resolution in the Senate to no avail in 2003 and 2005.

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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James S. Gilmore
Republican Primary Candidate

Gilmore has made few statements on this topic, but appears to support Israel in its security measures. In a June 2007 Republican debate, Gilmore said the United States should pursue stability in the Middle East to protect its interests in Israel.

Editor's note: Gilmore withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination in July 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani has held up Israel as “the only outpost of freedom and democracy in the Middle East and the only absolutely reliable friend of the United States.” (Haaretz) In a 2002 speech, Giuliani stressed that Jerusalem must “remain the undivided capital” of Israel. He also said at that time that the Palestinian Authority is not a “moral equivalent” to the Israeli government, because “there is a difference between a nation based on law and democracy and one that harbors terrorism.” Giuliani called on the Palestinian Authority to create “institutions of political and economic freedom and religious toleration.” More recently, Giuliani has said that in his view it “makes no difference” whether the Palestinian Authority is run by Hamas or Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. At a March 2007 fundraiser, Giuliani also said that the United States should “not push any peace process” until the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel’s right to exist and condemns terrorism.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee, who has taken nine trips to Israel in past 35 years, calls himself a “steadfast supporter” of Israel. On his campaign site, Huckabee pledges that as president, he would “ensure that Israel has access to the state-of-the-art weapons and technology she needs to defend herself from those who seek her annihilation.”

In October 2007, Huckabee said he believes a Palestinian state should be created (Yeshiva World), but that it should be moved away from Israel. He named Egypt and Saudi Arabia as possible locations.

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA) says Israel should not give up “one inch” of territory.  He supports Israel’s security wall and also says Israel should improve its missile defense system, with assistance from the United States, to “prevent the sort of attacks that country suffered during its war with Hezbollah.” Like Giuliani, Hunter says a peace process will be impossible until Palestinians “renounce terrorism and stop their attacks on the Israeli people.”

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX) has criticized U.S. "meddling" in the Middle East, which, he says, "has only intensified strife and conflict." He has said U.S. financial aid to Middle Eastern countries is only "adding fuel to the fire" and is "foolish and unconstitutional." He says Israel does not "need" U.S. aid (Haaretz), and insists he is "not anti-Israel in any way." Though he advocates some U.S. diplomatic role in brokering an end to violence in the West Bank, he says the U.S. "should draw the line at any further entanglement."

Paul spoke out against a July 2006 House resolution condemning attacks on Israel and "supporting Israel's right to defend herself." He argued that the resolution's "strong message" could lead to an escalation of the war between Israel and Lebanon.

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney declared his commitment to "defeating the jihadists" around the world. His rhetoric regarding Israel largely focused on curbing Iran, rather than resolving tensions between Israel and Palestine. Still, in a speech at the 2007 Herlzliya conference in Israel, Romney called on Arab states to stop providing financial support and weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, and to pressure the Palestinians to "drop terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist." Romney also supports the security wall that divides the West Bank from Israel.

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo (R-CO), who has campaigned tirelessly for a wall to separate the United States from Mexico, frequently has cited the effectiveness of the Israeli security wall cordoning off the West Bank.  In 2004, Tancredo called on then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to “stop settlement expansion on the Palestinian side of the fence.” In 2006, Tancredo cosponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. He joined in resolutions condemning the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat during the early years of the Bush administration.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson called the U.S.-Israeli alliance “essential” in fighting terrorism.  He has not made many comments directly relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or what his policy for the region would be if he were elected. He was criticized by many pro-Israel constituents for saying in a speech that earning money is “part of the Jewish tradition." (Haaretz)

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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