(November 8, 2019 / JNS) Once a staunch pro-Israel Illinois congressman between 2011 and 2013, Joe Walsh launched this past summer a long-shot Republican primary challenge to U.S. President Donald Trump, whom many have deemed to be the most pro-Israel figure ever in the White House.
After losing re-election in 2012, Walsh, 57, hosted a radio show until he announced his candidacy.
He and his wife, Helene, have five children.
JNS talked with Walsh by phone on Nov. 1. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How can you get support from pro-Israel Republicans, including the Republican Jewish Coalition, who have overwhelmingly supported the president’s Israel policies?
A: I may not. That’s not why I’m running. This is not about issues to me. This is about who Trump is. I’m running against him and so there may be conservatives who disagree with me. There may be Republican Jews who disagree with me. There may be some I can’t convince.
Q: Don’t you need the support from the Jewish community, especially pro-Israel Republicans?
A: Absolutely. I need and welcome the support from every sector that I can get it from to defeat him in a primary. Donald Trump right now, in my mind, has a very pro-Israel record. I am extremely pro-Israel. There may be single-issue voters on any issue that like what Trump has done on their issue, and I may not get them. For me to get them, I got to make the broader case that Donald Trump is a pathological liar who’s unfit to be president. I may not succeed in getting everybody.
Q: How are you going to be able to convince those voters even if they disagree with his rhetoric, but like his policies on Israel?
A: If those people are only voting for Trump because of Israel, there may be plenty of those voters I don’t get. I acknowledge that. All I can say is there is no more pro-Israel person on the planet than me, so if you vote for Joe Walsh, you’ll get the same and even more pro-Israel policy. But you won’t get all the other bad stuff that all of us get with Donald Trump. That’s the case I have to try to make.
Q: Can you appeal to pro-Israel Democrats who disapprove with their party on Israel? Can you appeal to pro-Israel independents?
A: Absolutely. I’m running in a Republican primary. If I become the Republican nominee, it would be quite easy to run in the general because the Democratic Party and most of these leading Democrat contenders have made very clear, and we saw recently with [Massachusetts Senator] Elizabeth Warren, where they are on Israel. They’re not nearly as strong on Israel as any American president should be. I would welcome trying to make the case in a general election to Democrats and independents.
Q: Can you try to get pro-Israel Democrats and independents to vote for you in the Republican primary?A: Maybe. But that’s a more difficult thing to do because the Democrats right now have a very wide-open primary going on, so to get Democrats to come over and vote Republican in the primaries would be difficult. Maybe independents who care about the Israel issue.
Q: How do you plan to be more pro-Israel than Trump?
A: I would push for a one-state solution from Jordan to the Mediterranean. I don’t believe in the two-state solution. The two-state solution is a fallacy. It’s a pipe dream. I would advocate a one-state—an Israeli state—for the entire region. I would make very clear at the outset that that’s what I support.
Q: What would happen to the Palestinians in that land?
A: They’d be much better off than they are today. Every Palestinian and every Arab who lives in Israel is better off than Palestinians and Arabs who live in any other country. They’re more prosperous, they’re freer, and they’re treated better in Israel than all of the surrounding countries.
Q: You supported Trump moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Did you also agree with him closing the PLO mission in Washington, recognizing the Golan Heights and designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group?
Q: Did you agree with the president defunding U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, in addition to the United States leaving the U.N. Human Rights Council and UNESCO?A: Yes. Generally, I’ve got my problems with President Trump in a lot of areas, but as I’ve said, I voted for him in 2016. He’s done some good things. He’s done some bad things. When it comes to Israel, being the very pro-Israel person that I am, I’m almost supportive of everything he’s done.
Q: How else would your pro-Israel agenda be different than the president’s?A: I don’t know. To me, that’s the biggest one. American president after American president has tried to push this notion of a two-state solution down our throats. It is an impossibility as long as one party, those opposed to Israel, the Palestinians don’t even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. I would bring truth to that impossibility and I would be very outspoken in my support for Israel.
Like most things, I don’t think Donald Trump really believes in anything. I do, and I believe in support for Israel in my bones. You would see that expressed verbally throughout a Joe Walsh presidency.
Q: Did you agree with the president’s decision to withdraw almost all U.S. forces from Syria?
A: Let’s be clear. He didn’t withdraw any forces from Syria. That’s just another Trump lie. He redeployed them, and he’s actually brought troops back into Syria.
The utter reckless way that Donald Trump made that decision, basically doing what a Turkish dictator told him to do was beyond irresponsible. If you want to pull troops out of Syria, you got to do it the right way and not abandon our friends, the Kurds. Donald Trump made that region imminently more dangerous by his recklessness.
Q: Do you agree with the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran?
A: Yeah. Vis-à-vis Iran, we need to sanction the hell out them and do what we can to bring them to their knees, and do what we can to protect Israel. We need to remind Iran constantly that we are the biggest, toughest country on the planet. We need to do that and try to do that with some broad-based coalition with our allies around the world to put pressure on Iran.
At the end of the day, what we’re doing is put pressure on the Iranian regime to join the world and not be an anti-peace, anti-Israel regime.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan?
A: I don’t know what it is. I’m not trying to be funny. I really don’t know what the Trump administration’s peace-plan initiative is.
I can tell you what a Joe Walsh peace plan initiative is: I’m not sitting down with the Palestinians until the Palestinians acknowledge that Israel has a right to exist. I’m not talking to the Palestinians until the Palestinians stop teaching children to hate Israel. I’m not speaking to Palestinians until the Palestinians remove from their charter the utter destruction of Israel. If the Palestinians are willing to do that and stop engaging in acts of terror, then I will sit down and we can talk about a peace-plan initiative.
Q: In August, you criticized the president as anti-Semitic for accusing those who don’t vote Democratic as disloyal to Israel and the Jews. How has Trump responded to the rise in anti-Semitism?
A: There is anti-Semitism on the right and on the left. That is one of the ugly truths about anti-Semitism. There’s no doubt we’ve seen a rise in anti-Semitism in this country and around the world. What we’ve seen is a rise in anti-Semitism since the election of Donald Trump. Donald Trump has not done a strong enough job at all in condemning the rise in anti-Semitism on the right.
Q: What’s your reaction to the rise in pro-BDS sentiment on college campuses nationwide?
A: It’s an outrage. It’s horrible and it needs to be called out. I do not believe in stifling speech or restricting speech. If we’ve got people on college campuses who want to express ugly, anti-Semitic views, in America they have a right to do that. But we have to overwhelm that hateful speech with more speech.
It’s why I had a real problem with Israel not allowing those two anti-Semitic members of Congress [Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)] to enter to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should’ve been bigger and better than that. They are members of Congress. They have a right to be anti-Israel. He should’ve allowed them to see Israel. Maybe if they had seen some of Israel, they would have gained a greater appreciation for how wonderful it is.
Q: Has the Democratic Party become both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel?
A: I was in Congress about eight or nine years ago. It was clear to me then that support for Israel was not bipartisan. The truth is—and it’s a truth many people in America don’t want to acknowledge—support for Israel is much stronger among Republicans. It was that way eight or nine years ago. It’s that way now. Mainline Democratic Party thought is more anti-Israel and then the extreme Democrat thought that we see from some of these newly-elected Democrat members of Congress is more anti-Semitic. Like with their domestic politics, that’s where the Democratic Party is right now.
Q: Has Democratic leadership handled well the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments echoed by members of Congress, including Tlaib and Omar?
A: Not at all. In February, Omar made anti-Semitic remarks, and there was a big move by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to issue a resolution condemning what Omar said. It turned into a resolution condemning hate against everybody because the Democratic Party was afraid to call out a colleague and afraid to call out specifically anti-Semitic thought.
Contrast that with how the Republican Party rightly came down on [Iowa] Congressman Steve King for the bigoted speech he expressed. The Democratic Party was afraid to call out Ilhan Omar and her anti-Semitism, so they turned it into a resolution against all kinds of hate. They’re not adequately addressing the anti-Semitism in their midst.
Q: What’s your reaction to 2020 Democratic candidates, including South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have said they would condition U.S. assistance to Israel on Israel not annexing the West Bank?
A: It’s wrong, and it’s just further evidence of how anti-Israel even the mainstream Democratic Party thought is becoming.
Q: Who do you blame for the U.S.-Israel relationship becoming a partisan issue?
A: In the last 10 to 15 years, the Democratic Party has become more pro-Palestinian. The Democratic Party, because of their voters and their base, they’ve begun to view Israel as an occupying force. They’ve begun to view Israel as the destructive side in the Middle East conflict. That has affected the way mainstream Democrats think.
Because the Democratic Party has become so anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian, it’s created a real divide. Support for Israel used to be more bipartisan. When I was in Congress, AIPAC was even becoming more Democrat and that continues. Because the Democratic Party has moved so far to the left on Israel, that’s created the divide.
Q: AIPAC has become more Democratic?
A: Absolutely. AIPAC fell in love with Barack Obama and—as I said at the time and I continue to say—Barack Obama was not pro-Israel. AIPAC was dominated by Democrats who loved Obama. Over the course of the last few years, there’s been a backlash against AIPAC, and AIPAC has lost members because they were so Democrat and the Democratic Party became so anti-Israel, so it put an organization like AIPAC in a real bind. It’s trying to figure out how to see this through.
Q: Is there anything else our readers should know about and why they should support you?
A: There’s nobody in this country more pro-Israel than I am. If you’re happy with some of the pro-Israel things Trump has done and you’re unhappy with a range of things he’s done on a whole bunch of other issues, you get even more pro-Israel policy with a President Walsh.