Trump Netanyahu and Clinton.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
You had to wait until more than half way through Monday’s debate to hear the one mention alluding to Israel. “I met with Bibi, believe me, he’s not a happy camper,” said Republican candidate Donald Trump, using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname. The comment went unchallenged as part of a wider discussion of the Iran deal and how the US should fight Islamic State.
The candidates spoke a lot about “allies,” but never mentioned the US main, and long-standing ally in the Middle East, Israel. “We need to vacuum up intel from Europe and Middle East. We need to work with our allies,” said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
At the debate hosted at Hofstra University, Clinton focused on the need to work with NATO and “Muslim majority nations” in the Middle East. She noted that Muslims have been on the front lines of the war on terror. “They can provide information to us, not be alienated and pushed away.”
Clinton and Trump Debate
Although Israel went unmentioned, a kind of elephant in the room when discussing the Middle East, the Kurdish allies fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq were mentioned by Clinton in the context of defeating ISIS. “We need to intensify air strikes, and support Arab and Kurdish partners, take out ISIS in Raqqa…[and we will] push ISIS out of Iraq within a year,” she claimed.
The mention of the Kurds was a good step for Clinton in a campaign where neither candidate has acknowledges their essential role fighting the extremists and shouldering the burden. The former secretary of state's prediction that it could take up to a year to defeat ISIS in Iraq is also prescient; the battle to re-take Mosul is just beginning.
It was surprising to see the way in which the Iran Deal has now become a very American issue, removed from its Middle Eastern context. “The Middle East is a mess, under your direction, you started Iran deal, they were ready to fall under sanctions, they will be a major power the way they are going,” Trump asserted. The candidates sparred over the deal repeatedly. What was interesting is that unlike during the debate over its passing, where Israel played a central role in being one of the major voices against it, today questions about it are more grounded in whether it was a US foreign policy failure. Clinton noted that as Secretary of State she helped prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. “They were weeks away,” she told the audience. “I spent a year and a half to put together coalition with Russia and China to put sanctions…[US President Barack] Obama and [Secretary of State John] Kerry got a deal that put a lid on Iran’s program, without firing a shot, that’s diplomacy and working with other nation.” Clinton claimed that compared to the role she and later Kerry played in diplomacy, Trump’s views would get the US into another war.
It is a positive development to see Israel take backstage in US politics. Too often it has seemed like candidates try to outdo each other to show who is more pro-Israel, losing sight of reality and giving the false impression that Israel wields to much influence in US policy. The reality in this debate was that policies such as how to deal with ISIS or whether the US left a vacuum that led to the rise of ISIS, a Trump accusation, were center stage. Trump repeatedly claimed that US allies, such as Saudi Arabia, were not shouldering the burden of their own defense. This is a place in the discussion that the recent $38 billion aid deal to Israel might have been discussed, but wasn’t.
There were other allusions to items that tangentially relate to Israel as well. Trump mentioned Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal, whose son’s anti-Israel work has been an issue before. Clinton emphasized the importance of cyber-security, a field that Israel has excelled in.
All in all the question is what does the debate matter for the Middle East? Both candidates see ISIS as a major opponent that needs defeating. Trump claimed it has tentacles throughout the world and is a global threat. Unfortunately neither candidate bothered to discuss what the post-ISIS Middle East should look like and neither one bothered to even mention Syria, the country where ISIS got its first major foothold, before succeeding in Iraq and committing genocide of Yazidis. It was initially the Syrian conflict that also fueled ISIS, not the Iraq vacuum. Bombs are falling on Aleppo and neither Clinton nor Trump seemed to notice. They were too busy discussing China, Russia and North Korea.
Is this because the candidates have tired of the Middle East, which is viewed as a hopeless morass. Trump wants a retreat from foreign commitments. Clinton wants to focus on US security. “We can’t let those who would destabilize and interfere with America do so at all,” she said. For Israel that’s probably a good thing. Israel has suffered before from candidates who see the need for peace in the Middle East as a lynchpin to the region. Here are two candidates who seem to see Israel as not a destabilizing part of the Middle East, but an almost banal and obvious ally, one so uninteresting, it doesn’t need mentioning. Israel tends to like the limelight, but it does better outside of that light. The region as a whole requires US commitments and interest, and for both candidates the region, Iran and ISIS, seemed to be the major focus. All of that can be welcome news in Jerusalem.