Last May, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg went to Israel with the American Jewish Committee and two weeks later discussed his trip with that organization. At the time Israel was killing Palestinian protesters at the Gaza fence– 60 on one day within days of Buttigieg’s visit, getting global attention — yet after those killings, Buttigieg repeatedly praised Israel’s security arrangements as “moving” and “clear-eyed”, said the U.S. could learn something from them, and blamed Palestinians and Hamas for the “misery” in Gaza.
Jews make up less than one percent of the Texas population. And yet the “Israel question” has reared its head in this year’s most-watched Senate race between up-and-coming Democratic hopeful Beto O’Rourke and former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, both considered by many to be the faces of their parties’ futures.
O’Rourke, El Paso’s favorite son, has gone on a journey almost every rising U.S. politician is familiar with: establishing positions on Israel, convincing the local Jewish community of their pro-Israel bona-fides, voting the right way—and then, despite all that, at some point down the road when an election gets tough, getting hammered for not being sufficiently pro-Israel. O’Rourke, who experienced a meteoric rise, went through this entire process in only four years.
It began in the summer of 2014, when Israel was engaged in its latest round of fighting against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Rockets rained on Sederot and other towns along the country’s border, and the Iron Dome system, designed to shoot down short-range rockets, was running out of funds. Back in Washington, DC, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC took on the task of delivering emergency relief in the form of an immediate $225 million cash infusion for replenishing the Iron Dome rockets. Congressional support for the funding was overwhelming. In the House, 395 members voted for the bill, with only 8 voting against it. Among them was Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. A September 2014 Connie Bruck article in The New Yorker described how Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat and one of the few to consistently stand up to the pro-Israel lobby, tried to warn the El Paso freshman about the consequences of his vote. “I’m afraid he may have a tough race in November,” Moran said.
The backlash was immediate. Members of the small local Jewish community and other Jewish donors expressed their dismay with O’Rourke’s refusal to back the funding: Angry emails flooded his inbox, and local papers quoted Jewish community members questioning their future support for the congressman. O’Rourke explained that his concern was procedural: He did not oppose providing Israel with funds for the Iron Dome, but he was uncomfortable with the idea of appropriating money without a proper debate process. Already a savvy politician, he also immediately reached out to Jewish community leaders, attending a series of listening and discussion meetings with pro-Israel activists, and agreed to visit Israel.
The trip to Israel took place the next year. In the meantime, O’Rourke had become more involved in issues relating to the Middle East, and in March 2015 he joined dozens of fellow Democrats in walking out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress in which he denounced the Iran nuclear deal. And the trip was not the run-of-the-mill tour organized by AIPAC’s affiliate organization that American politicians take on a regular basis. Instead, he chose to see Israel on a tour organized by the left-wing lobby J Street. “Both sides have this problem where if they suggest anything that the other side accepts without pain, it is some kind of failure,” was one of O’Rourke main takeaways from the trip, according to an El Paso Times account of a conversation he held at a local synagogue upon his return.