WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg told a group of influential liberal Jewish leaders on Thursday that the United States should guide Israel's government away from steps that he says are harmful to both the U.S. and Israel, and said the Trump administration's actions on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights amount to the U.S. intervening in Israel's domestic politics.
The Democratic presidential candidate also pushed back on the Republican argument that Jews who are concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism should flee the Democratic Party and vote for GOP politicians. He said that "fighting anti-Semitism, like fighting all forms of hate, must be a bipartisan cause," multiple individuals who were in the room for his remarks tell NBC News.
"It's pretty rich to see a White House that has welcomed in people who I think are nakedly anti-Semitic," Buttigieg said, without naming anyone in particular. "The White House has made excuses for people who walked in the streets chanting, 'Jews will not replace us.'"
Buttigieg's comments came in a meeting with more than 40 Jewish religious, political and academic figures at the Washington offices of Bluelight Strategies, a communications firm founded by Steve Rabinowitz and Aaron Keyak that advises numerous Jewish organizations. Among those attending were Alan Gross, the former USAID contractor jailed for five years in Cuba, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, former Obama administration sanctions czar Adam Szubin, and Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff, along with several rabbis.
Buttigieg, who said earlier in the day in a "Washington Post Live" interview that he disagreed with "the agenda of the Israeli political right wing," elaborated on his concerns about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government during his meeting with the Jewish leaders, which was conducted off the record. He said American leadership regarding Israel is in particular need "at a moment like this."
"The right approach when you have an ally or a friend that is taking steps that you think are harmful to you and to them, you put your arm around your friend and you try to guide them somewhere else," Buttigieg said, according to the individuals in the room.
Navigating the delicate issue of U.S.-Israel relations has been a particular challenge for the 2020 Democratic candidates this year amid controversial comments by some Democratic members of Congress about Israel and GOP attempts to paint the Democratic Party as insufficiently supportive of Israel and its leader, Netanyahu. Trump's predecessor, President Obama, had a notoriously strained relationship with Netanyahu, and Democrats have struggled to find ways to distance themselves from Netanyahu's policies without being painted as anti-Israel.
The South Bend, Indiana, mayor told the group that the Trump administration's decisions to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights should have been done in the context of a Mideast peace deal or proposal. The administration is getting ready to roll out a peace proposal but hasn't yet done so.
Buttigieg said the way the decisions were timed and structured weren't as much as shift in American policy as "a decision to intervene in Israeli domestic politics through American policy."
"And frankly, we shouldn't be naïve to the domestic political consequences of the things we do or say," Buttigieg said.