Beto O’Rourke denied on Tuesday that donations from supporters of Israel had influenced his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in stark terms, saying that Israel’s leader had “openly sided with racists.”
As the Texas Tribune correspondent Patrick Svitek reported, the comments came during an event at Keene State College in New Hampshire, after O’Rourke was asked about rumors that he had taken “pro-Israel lobbyist money” during his failed Senate run in 2018.
O’Rourke explained that, in fact, he had taken no money from political action committees in that race — although J Street, a pro-Israel lobbying group that aids candidates who favor a two-state solution and oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, helped solicit $170,000 in individuals donations to his campaign.
“If you’re asking if the contributions I accept connect to the policies I support, the answer is no,” the former Texas Congress member replied, according to Paul Steinhauser of Fox News.
“I believe in peace and dignity and full human rights for the Palestinian people and the Israeli people,” the former Texas representative said. “The only way to achieve that,” he added, “is a two-state solution.”
The difficulty, O’Rourke continued, is that “right now we don’t have the best negotiating partners on either side: We have a prime minister in Israel who has openly sided with racists — who, in a previous election, warned that the Arabs were coming to the polls — and on the Palestinian side, you have an ineffectual leader, in Mahmoud Abbas, who has not been very effective in bringing his side to the table either.”
O’Rourke’s condemnation of Netanyahu centered on the Israeli prime minister’s recent efforts to boost the electoral prospects of an openly racist, far-right party, Jewish Power, which he had hoped to include in a new coalition government after elections next month. The party’s leaders are former followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the virulently anti-Arab founder of the Jewish Defense League, whose extremist Kach party was designated a terrorist organization in 1994 after one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs shrine in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.
Netanyahu’s outreach to the racist party was stymied this week by Israel’s Supreme Court, which barred Jewish Power’s leader, Michael Ben Ari, from running in the April 9th general election. The 8-1 decision was supported by Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, who cited Ben Ari’s well-documented history of incitement against Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Mendelblit also recently approved the indictment of Netanyahu on corruption charges.
One day after the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling, Israel’s justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, boasted of her plans to rein in the high court by insisting on political control of the judiciary. In a bizarre, satirical campaign ad, Shaked reeled off a list of measures she intends to impose and then sprayed herself with a perfume labeled “Fascism,” before saying, “To me, it smells like democracy.”
When he was asked about Israel again on Wednesday by a Palestinian-American student at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, O’Rourke repeated his condemnation of Netanyahu as, “someone who has openly sided with racists in that country,” the Washington Post correspondent Dave Weigel reported. The student shared video of O’Rourke’s full response on Facebook, while noting her disappointment that he did not pledge to restore funding to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that supports Palestinians who were expelled from or fled their homes in what is now Israel in 1948, or to “support the free speech rights of Americans who support the BDS movement.”
Last week in Iowa, O’Rourke had offered much the same criticism of Netanyahu for “aligning his party with a blatantly racist party,” in response to a question from another Palestinian-American.
O’Rourke’s Senate campaign described him last year as “a proud advocate of Israel,” but he was singled out for criticism by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2014, for voting against sending additional aid to Israel during its Gaza offensive that summer. “I could not in good conscience vote for borrowing $225 million more to send to Israel, without debate and without discussion, in the midst of a war that has cost more than a thousand civilian lives already, too many of them children,” O’Rourke explained on Facebook after the vote.
As Connie Bruck reported for the New Yorker that year:
Within hours, O’Rourke was flooded with e-mails, texts, and calls. The next day, the El Paso Times ran a front-page story with the headline “O’ROURKE VOTE DRAWS CRITICISM.” In the story, Stuart Schwartz, who is described as having donated a thousand dollars to O’Rourke’s previous campaign, commented that O’Rourke “chooses to side with the rocket launchers and terror tunnel builders.” A mass e-mail circulated, reading “The Following Is Shameful, El Paso Has an Anti-Israel Congressman. . . . Do Not Reelect Beto O’Rourke.” At the bottom was the address of AIPAC’s Web site.
Stuart Schwartz, an AIPAC activist who had donated to O’Rourke’s 2012 congressional campaign, was among those who denounced his 2014 vote. Schwartz met the representative to urge him to support Israel later that year, and again in 2017, when the pro-Israel lobbying group shared a Facebook post from O’Rourke in which he said they had discussed U.S. support for Israel and sanctions on Iran.
Despite pressure from AIPAC, however, O’Rourke has been a steadfast supporter of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. He boycotted Netanyahu’s address to Congress in 2015 in which the Israeli leader made the case against the American president’s diplomacy. In a Medium post explaining his decision to boycott Netanyahu’s speech, O’Rourke said he was committed to “improving the historic bipartisan relationship with Israel and work together against common threats like Iran. But ultimately my commitment is to this country and our interests, and I won’t support any action that will undermine them.”
Later in 2015, after traveling with J Street to Israel and the Israeli occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, O’Rourke told Jewish constituents in El Paso that he had gained a deeper understanding of the conflict. He was particularly struck, he said, by a visit to the Israeli town of Sderot, near the besieged Gaza Strip, where residents had experienced shelling and witnessed the Israeli air campaign with their own eyes.
Asked if he regretted his vote against the supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system, O’Rourke said that American aid to Israel deserved scrutiny. “I think our unequivocal support at times has been damaging to Israel,” he said.
Updated: March 20, 2019, 8:03 p.m. ET
This article was revised to report that former Rep. Beto O’Rourke repeated his criticism on Wednesday night of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for siding with racists.
Correction: March 21, 2019
This article was revised to correct a description of the college student who asked Beto O’Rourke about Israel on Wednesday night in Durham, New Hampshire. She is a Palestinian-American, not a Palestinian immigrant, as a Washington Post reporter incorrectly described her in a tweet from the event. Facebook video of her full exchange with O’Rourke was also added.