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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Jewish moderators will grill Trump and Biden at CNN’s debate. What should they ask about Israel?

Israel will likely get significant airtime next week during the first presidential debate of the 2024 presidential election between President Joe Biden and Donalt Trump. Two Jewish journalists, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, will moderate the matchup, hosted by their network in Atlanta, and set the stage for this summer’s national political conventions.

U.S. President Donald Trump and former U.S. Vice President/Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at the first debate on Sept. 29, 2020. Source: Screenshot.

Former President Donald Trump’s court battles, immigration and threats to democracy will demand even more attention during the 90 minutes of back-and-forth on June 27. Still, the expanding Middle East conflict, and a persistent pro-Palestinian protest movement that flexed its muscles during the Democratic primaries, mean President Joe Biden and Trump can expect challenging questions from journalists who have reported extensively on the region. And though Israel is hardly the biggest point of contention between Biden and Trump, the candidate who gets a second term will chart a course for U.S.-Israel relations that could differ markedly from his rival’s.

| RELATED: Survey: Jewish voters strongly favor Biden over Trump in possible 2024 rematch

Trump is appreciated in Israel, and by many American supporters of the country, for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and brokering the Abraham Accords. Biden won Israeli hearts for visiting following the Oct. 7 attack, offering moral and military support to combat Hamas and advocating for the release of hostages. In more recent months, however, he has walked a fine line between boosting Israel and criticizing its conduct of the war.

Both leaders also have complicated relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have called for a swift end to the war, and favor a comprehensive regional accord involving Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic recognition of Israel.

Where do they differ?

Biden has repeatedly recognized the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Trump hasn’t talked about it much. And while Biden has embraced the relatives of American hostages, Trump has kept his distance. He’s remarked on the poor optics of the devastation in Gaza and suggested the war would have never happened under his watch. Unlike Biden, he has presented no plan to resolve the crisis.

| RELATED: Trump: Jewish Biden voters ‘should have their head examined’

Here are some questions that the moderators could pose to the candidates about Israel, the Middle East and antisemitism, and how Biden’s and Trump’s responses may play with voters — plus more on Tapper and Bash, and how they are particularly prepared to plumb the candidates’ thinking on Israel and antisemitism.

Mr. President, you have drawn up a proposal for a ceasefire, the release of the hostages and the beginnings of a reconstruction plan for Gaza. Hamas has so far rejected it, and Israel has continued its assault on Rafah. What more can your administration do to end this conflict? And former President Trump, you have advocated for Israel to finish the job quickly. What measures would a Trump administration undertake to bring this war to an end? 

This is a toughy for Biden, who takes risks no matter how he pivots.

The president has in recent weeks tempered his criticism of Israel to give its right-wing government some leeway to secure a settlement with Hamas. His warning, that the U.S. would withhold offensive weapons from Israel if its military entered Rafah, seemed to have no impact on Israel’s plans. The administration has assured Israel that weapons supply and existing arms sales will move forward without delay.

But Biden can’t ease up on Netanyahu indefinitely without inviting serious political consequences for himself. If the prime minister continues to cater to the demands of his far-right partners, pressure on Biden to speak out more forcefully will intensify. Amid dismal polling, the president cannot afford to lose hold of his base. The progressive left that voted “uncommitted” in the primaries demands a policy shift toward Palestinians. And mainstream Democratic and independent voters want an end to the war and the suffering it has caused.

Trump benefits from obfuscating on this question. His promise to major donors to back Israel’s war on terror and his harsh stance toward pro-Palestinian campus protesters keep his conservative Jewish and pro-Israel base satisfied. Still, he sees an opportunity to capitalize on Biden’s vulnerabilities in Michigan. His criticism of  Israel’s tactical maneuvers in Gaza and call for a quick end to the war could attract Arab and Muslim voters disgusted with Biden.

Expect Trump to repeat his one-liners on the issue: It wouldn’t happen under me. Hamas was broke, but Biden gave money to Iran. Israel has to finish the job. And I will bring peace to the Middle East.

Both of you were once regarded as close allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but your relationships with him have deteriorated. Mr. President, Netanyahu has rebuffed your demands and refused to engage in discussions about a postwar strategy. Former President Trump, you accused Netanyahu of betrayal following the 2020 election and implied that he failed on Oct. 7. Do you prefer a change in Israel’s leadership, a partner more aligned with your vision for peace?

Allies don’t relish interfering in each other’s elections. As long as Netanyahu is in power, he is the leader with whom the U.S. president has to engage. But Biden may be able to answer this question more easily than Trump.

A majority of Americans, including most Biden voters, strongly dislike Netanyahu. The overwhelming majority of Israelis want him to resign. In March, Biden endorsed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s call for new Israeli elections. Biden could take the same approach he took during last year’s protests against the judicial overhaul, aligning himself not with Netanyahu, but with the Israeli people.

Trump initially told his allies in October that he wanted to see Netanyahu ‘impeached.’ And he recently suggested that Netanyahu shares the blame for the failures that led to the Hamas attacks. He is likely to offer a vague response to any question about Netanyahu’s future. After securing a $100 million commitment from Miriam Adelson — a Netanyahu supporter — and ahead of Netanyahu’s address to Congress, Trump may now have to treat Netanyahu more as an ally than adversary.

Mr. President, you recently signed a $14.3 billion emergency bill for Israel, lifted a hold on offensive weapons and have reaffirmed your commitment to Israel’s security. Is there any circumstance under which you would consider halting aid to Israel? And former President Trump, what is your position on assistance to Israel? Should the U.S. finance wars in the Middle East? 

Biden described his recent suspension of the delivery of heavy bombs to Israel as an isolated incident to caution the country about a large-scale operation in Rafah. Israel went ahead with it anyway, and Biden’s critics lambasted him for doing nothing after Netanyahu crossed this line. Biden also faced backlash from his Jewish donor base for conditioning aid to Israel. Expect Biden to look into the camera and repeat his “ironclad” commitment to Israeli security.

Trump has never been a fan of foreign aid, which he views as transactional. In 2017, Trump reportedly expressed frustration when told he couldn’t leverage U.S. aid to broker a peace deal with the Palestinians. Many Republicans and Democrats reject conditions on aid to Israel, deeming it critical for U.S. national security and stability in the Middle East. Trump could refuse to discuss an increase in the annual $3.8 billion in U.S. assistance package to Israel. He could say it’s premature before negotiations set to begin next year in advance of a 2026 deadline for the 10-year Memorandum of Understanding between the nations. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Trump’s position on the matter remains unclear.

What would you do to counter rising antisemitism? And former President Trump, you have accused American Jews of disloyalty to Israel and said repeatedly that “any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion.” Do you understand why that’s widely considered antisemitic?

Trump will likely try to shield himself from such criticism by invoking his support from the Republican Jewish Coalition and his Jewish allies in Congress. Biden could use the question to remind voters of his 2020 campaign theme, and point to Trump’s “both sides” comments about the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Expect Biden to showcase last year’s publication of a national plan to counter antisemitism now being implemented in government agencies.

Jewish moderators with deep knowledge of the Middle East

CNN anchors Tapper and Bash both have done significant reporting on the Middle East and used their programs to delve into the conflict and rising antisemitism.

Tapper, 55, host of the network’s afternoon program, The Lead With Jake Tapper, regularly leads live coverage of major political stories, such as the Trump hush money trial and the Jan. 6 committee hearings. Broadcasting from Tel Aviv and near the Gaza border in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, he covered the challenging tasks of identifying the remains of victims, highlighted the allegations of sexual assaults and rape by Hamas, and interviewed both survivors and relatives of the Israeli hostages. As the conflict escalated, he also reported on Palestinian Americans trapped in Gaza.

In some of his opening monologues, Tapper has addressed the rise in antisemitism from both the political left and right.

Bash, 53, anchors the daily Inside Politics show and with Tapper co-hosts the Sunday morning program, State of the Union.

Both have interviewed with Netanyahu, and pressed him about accusations of war crimes, his lack of a plan for the governance of Gaza and the humanitiarian crisis there. (Notably, Netanyahu has not done any interviews with Israeli networks since Oct. 7.)

During Trump’s first presidential campaign in 2016, Tapper and Bash, then CNN’s chief political correspondent, reported on antisemitic campaign rhetoric and Trump’s hesitancy to denounce it, including the targeting of Jewish journalists.

Tapper, who moderated two Republican presidential primary debates in 2016, persistently challenged Trump to disavow David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke, this weekend in Detroit, accused Jews of committing genocide on Americans “just like the Palestinians.”

Last year, Bash conducted a comprehensive report on antisemitism for a CNN documentary, Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America.

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.



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