Yang Walks Back Stance on Israel After Ocasio-Cortez Calls It ‘Shameful’

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted this week, Andrew Yang issued a statement on Monday that in years past might have seemed politically unremarkable, perhaps even expected, from a leading candidate to be New York City’s next mayor.

“I’m standing with the people of Israel who are coming under bombardment attacks, and condemn the Hamas terrorists,” Mr. Yang said. “The people of N.Y.C. will always stand with our brothers and sisters in Israel who face down terrorism and persevere.”

Then came the backlash.

At a campaign stop in Queens, Mr. Yang was confronted about his statement and its failure to mention the Palestinians killed in the airstrikes. Mr. Yang was uninvited from an event hosted by the Astoria Welfare Society to distribute food to families at the end of Ramadan.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who has condemned the “occupation of Palestine,” called Mr. Yang’s statement “utterly shameful,” noting that it came during Ramadan.

And Mr. Yang acknowledged that volunteers with his own campaign were upset by his statement, prompting him to release a new one on Wednesday admitting that his first was “overly simplistic” and “failed to acknowledge the pain and suffering on both sides.”

“I mourn for every Palestinian life taken before its time as I do for every Israeli,” he said.

Mr. Yang’s clarification reflects the reality that what was once a given in New York City politics — unquestioning support for Israel — has become a much more complicated proposition for Democratic candidates.

New York City has the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel. While the mayor has no formal foreign policy powers, the position often affords opportunities to showcase New York’s posture toward Israel.

Mayor Robert F. Wagner in 1957 barred a welcome for a Saudi king he deemed anti-Jewish. Mayor Edward I. Koch zealously expressed support for Israel and had an argument at City Hall with the Austrian foreign minister in 1984 about whether the Palestine Liberation Organization served as the voice of Palestinian people.

But more recently, many members of a growing progressive left have criticized the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians and are pushing for public acknowledgment of Palestinians’ suffering.

The shift mirrors the way that on a national level, some Democrats have challenged the decades-long norm of blanket support for Israel.

The differing views were apparent among the mayoral contenders.

Among those considered to be more centrist candidates, some maintained a stance similar to that of Mr. Yang’s initial statement. Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and another leading candidate, said on Monday, “Israelis live under the constant threat of terrorism and war, and New York City’s bond with Israel remains unbreakable.”

Asked on Wednesday about how he would respond to criticism that his initial statement did not refer to the Palestinians killed, or whether he had anything to add to his original statement, Mr. Adams said that “no act of aggression can justify the deaths of innocent children.”

“Never again should religious sites be targeted — whether it be a synagogue or a mosque,” he said. “Never again should oppression come from persistent fear or aggression from past conflict.”

Raymond J. McGuire, a former Citi executive, interrupted a news conference in Times Square on Monday to make a statement of support for Israel.

“There’s clearly terrorism that has taken place in Jerusalem. Hamas just claimed credit for rocket attacks aimed at Jerusalem,” Mr. McGuire said. “We stand with our brothers and sisters from Israel.”

But others offered more nuanced statements. Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, said on Tuesday that the “world needs leaders who recognize humanity and the dignity of all lives. Whether in N.Y.C., Colombia, Brazil or Israel-Palestine, state violence is wrong. Targeting civilians is wrong. Killing children is wrong. Full stop.”

Asked on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC on Wednesday about her position on the conflict and whether Israelis or Palestinians should bear more of the blame, Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner, said it was not appropriate for the mayor “to be doing foreign policy.” But she said she wanted to support the diverse communities in New York City that have ties to the parts of the world embroiled in conflict.

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    “Clearly the state of Israel needs to exist,” she said. “We have strong partnerships with them. They’re like our fourth largest trading partner with the City of New York. But this escalation of violence is incredibly sad to see. And the loss of life, you never want to see that.”

    In a statement on Wednesday, Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing secretary, criticized Mr. Yang’s remarks, saying that they lacked “responsibility and empathy.”

    “Kids are not terrorists, and whatever our differences on this emotionally challenging issue, we should at least display a common humanity,” Mr. Donovan said, referring to the fact that children were among those killed in the conflict. “Unfortunately, this is what happens when you tweet before you think, something that Andrew has done a number of times in this race.”

    Most recent New York City mayors, dating back at least to John V. Lindsay, have made visits to Israel, and the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, who has close political ties to the New York City Orthodox community, has made efforts during his administration to portray himself as a supporter of Jewish concerns.

    On a trip to Israel in 2015, meant to court Jewish voters, the mayor was careful not to delve deeply into the details of Middle East policy.

    The mayor has voiced opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets Israel and support for a two-state solution in the Middle East, which he reiterated on Wednesday. He also criticized the surge in violence on both sides, saying, “The targeting of civilians is despicable and unacceptable.”

    Mr. de Blasio suggested that Mr. Yang’s comments did not appear genuine and needed to be more carefully considered.

    “Anyone who’s speaking about issues this complex and difficult should speak from the heart, and ideally, speak from some experience,” he said at his daily news briefing Wednesday. “And not do it as a throwaway line or for expediency, but really think about the meaning here.”

    Reporting was contributed by Jeffery C. Mays, Michael Gold and Liam Stack.

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