Palestine in the 2020 elections: a look at Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren

Palestine in the 2020 elections: a look at Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren

According to Newsweek, Elizabeth Warren is now ahead of Bernie Sanders, with 28 and 21% of the vote, respectively. How do Warren and Sanders score on the issue of justice for Palestinians?

In this If Americans Knew series, we analyze each contender’s position on Israel/Palestine and provide information that voters can use to educate their favorite candidate on the issue. 
Overall, Bernie Sanders has taken the boldest stand for Palestinian human rights, but has pulled back to “safe” positions more than once; Elizabeth Warren has a history of support for Israel despite its long, systemic record of human rights abuses, but seems willing to respond to pressure from voters. Neither has advocated for full Palestinian rights and justice.
To contact them see link at end of post

by Kathryn Shihadah

In the heavily populated battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, there is broad agreement among candidates that Trump must go out, that wages and clean energy use must go up, and that gun violence and prescription drug prices must go down. One other area of near-consensus is on the issue of Israel/Palestine.

We have already examined Candidate Biden’s position – including his contention that Democratic support for Israel “comes from our gut, moves through our heart, and ends up in our head. It’s almost genetic.”

Such Israel-or-bust pandering is commonplace in Washington and the mainstream media. In reality however, this position does not square with the facts. In the words of former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer Philip Giraldi, Israel has been “the principal catalyst for the many missteps that the United States has made in the Middle East,” the country that “manipulates the U.S. government better or more persistently” than any other, and “America’s number one foreign policy problem.” He also points out that pro-Israel organizations in America are immune from scrutiny as foreign agents, and that Jewish Power (see JJ Goldberg’s book by that name here) has “easy access to corrupted politicians.”

Israel has been a “foreign policy problem” for years, but also – especially recently – it has become a diplomatic albatross around America’s neck. While the rest of the world has long acknowledged Israel’s flagrant and ongoing human rights violations, de facto apartheid, and policy of slow genocide – the US has chosen to position itself in the awkward position of defending the Jewish State on the world stage.

Today most Republicans (except a few traditional Republicans, such as Pat Buchanan) and most Democrats toe the pro-Israel line, but where do some of the more progressive candidates stand on Israel? Frontrunners Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are prolific, so it is not hard to find out just how they feel.

After exploring their positions, you may want to urge them to do better in the pursuit of justice for Palestinians. At the end of the article is a link  you can use to contact any or all of the candidates. Be sure to make your voice heard!

both sanders and warren have made positive statements about Palestinians, but could do much betterLegislation, letters

For the cause of justice

Senator Sanders and Senator Warren have been sporadic in their legislative support for justice for Palestinians.

Both Sanders and Warren have added their names to a number of documents supporting Palestinian rights: in November of 2017, they were among just ten senators who signed a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for a halt to the demolition of two Bedouin villages. In May of 2018, at the height of Israel’s killing of unarmed demonstrators in Gaza, they joined eleven other senators calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” (One might well wonder why these letters had so few signatories.)

More recently, both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders signed Senate Resolution 234, opposing Israel’s unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank; neither cosponsored S.567, supporting the annexation of the Golan Heights. They were the only presidential candidates who took these actions.

(One recent pro-two-state solution bill caused a panicked outburst from some right-wing Israeli legislators, who claimed that the solution was “dangerous,” and asked Congress to stop suggesting it.)

Against the cause of justice

On the other hand, in 2017 both Sanders and Warren – along with every single other senator – signed a letter to the secretary general of the United Nations, accusing the organization of “advanc[ing] an anti-Israel agenda.”

On July 17, 2014, ten days into Israel’s war on Gaza, the two joined as the Senate unanimously passed S.Res.498, “support for the State of Israel as it defends itself against unprovoked rocket attacks from the Hamas terrorist organization.”

(Over 200 Palestinians and one Israeli had been killed by the time this resolution was passed.)

A few weeks into the incursion – when the death toll was at over 1,600 Palestinians (mostly civilians) and over 60 Israelis (mostly soldiers) – both houses of Congress passed H.J.Res.76 (unanimously in the Senate, nearly so in the House), giving Israel an extra $225 million in funding for its Iron Dome missile defense system against Gaza.

In August 2014, during the attack, Sanders vehemently supported Israel’s right to self-defense – to the point that he got into a shouting match with one of his constituents. (Two years later, however, he referred to those same Israeli actions as “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate.”)

Around the same time, Elizabeth Warren went on the defensive when her own voters questioned her support of the Iron Dome funding.

bernie sanders speaks up for palestinians Sanders circa 2016 – bold, then backpedalling

By 2016, Bernie Sanders – then a presidential candidate – was more openly critical of Israel, bringing Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour in as a surrogate (he did so again for the current election cycle) and declining to speak at the American-Israeli (AIPAC) conference in March. The first move was denounced by conservative Jewish Americans, the second was so insulting to AIPAC that the org in turn declined his request to address the audience by video link.

(This year, some other candidates followed Sanders’ lead – those also not attending included Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke. The candidates’ decisions to skip the convention came shortly after the liberal group MoveOn.org called upon all 2020 presidential candidates to avoid the event.)

Sanders, however, was ahead of the curve. In 2016 he, gave the speech he had intended to deliver by video:

…to be successful, we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people, where in Gaza unemployment today is 44 percent and we have there a poverty rate which is almost as high…there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored…[Peace] means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people. Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank…[and] ending the economic blockade of Gaza.

In a debate the following month, Sanders added,

There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time. All that I am saying is we cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue.

President of the progressive pro-Israel group J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said at the time that Sanders’ position was “very different from the [usual] stale talking points,” and offered a “meaningful redefinition of what it means to be pro-Israel.” (On the other hand, traditional Israel supporter Senator Eliot Engel (D-NY-16) said, “I thought that Bernie Sanders’s comments were disgraceful and reprehensible, and I thought he was just over the top.”)

Fast-forward just a few more weeks, and Sanders is telling the New York Times that he is “100% supportive of Israel’s right to exist” and that it has the right “to take all actions that are needed to protect itself from terrorism. But,” he continued,

I believe that for too long our country and our government have not given the Palestinian people the respect that they need. Long term, if there’s going to be peace in the Middle East, a lasting peace, the Palestinian people are going to have to be treated with respect and dignity.

Notably absent from this statement was any mention of justice or equality.

elizabeth warren's position on Palestine has improved

Warren makes limited progress

As of early 2016, Elizabeth Warren was still viewed by AIPAC as having a “strong voting record on Israel,” including support for military aid. (She also enjoyed generous donations from pro-Israel PACs.)

Since Trump’s election, Warren seems to have turned a corner, and her constituents have noticed. Jewish leaders in her home state of Massachusetts commented that in her earlier years, she “[did] her homework” on Israel – but lately, not so much.

“Inching away from AIPAC,” in Seraj Assi’s words, Warren’s policy has grown more liberal. In 2017, the senator signed onto a letter to Netanyahu, urging him not to (illegally) demolish Bedouin villages; she opposed the Jerusalem embassy move in front of an audience of Reformed Jews; in 2018 she scolded Netanyahu for corruption and, following the May 14 massacre of Palestinians at the Gaza border by Israeli snipers,  signed a letter (initiated by Sanders) urging the reinstatement of humanitarian aid to Gazans. (The letter made no mention of the border situation.)

This year, she passed up the AIPAC conference, came out against the annexation of parts of the West Bank, and opposed anti-BDS legislation (on a free-speech basis – she opposes BDS).

Data For Progress notes, however, that “Warren has not mentioned human rights or Palestinian suffering when asked about how she would approach Israel/Palestine.”

Campaign donors

The Washington Post reports that many of Warren’s top donors for her 2018 Senate reelection campaign were Israel partisans, including cofounder of Dreamworks, Jeffrey Katzenberg (a strong Israel supporter), Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman (says Israel is “a great place“), media mogul Haim Saban (the New Yorker reports: “…he is most proud of his role as political power broker. His greatest concern, he says, is to protect Israel”), philanthropist Alexander Soros (supports the “pro-Israel” group J Street), Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, film director Steven Spielberg and actress Barbra Streisand. In 2019, Politico reports, a number of Israel partisans again were big donors, including actors Scarlett Johansson and Rob Reiner.

The issues

Great March of Return: Bernie backpedals, Warren waits

The Great March of Return, a grassroots nonviolent protest by Gazans, began on March 30, 2018 and has continued every Friday since. From the beginning, unarmed Palestinian demonstrators were met with Israeli sniper fire. To date, over 320 Gazans have died (273 killed by Israeli forces as they took part in the Great March of Return demonstrations, about 50 in various Israeli incursions during the time period), while 0 Israelis defending the border have died (7 inside Israel died from Palestinian rocket fire during the time period).

Two days after the protest began, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Bernie Sanders about the situation:

TAPPER: The Israeli government called the protests – quote – “violent terror demonstrations.” The ambassador of Israel to the US said Hamas fighters were interspersed throughout the crowd, using human shields, and were killed after making – quote – “direct attacks” on Israeli positions. Do you not accept the Israeli government’s explanation?

SANDERS: No. I don’t…my assessment is that Israel overreacted on that…Gaza is a disaster right now. Youth unemployment is off the charts. And we are going to continue to see those kinds of demonstrations and protests, unless the world community recognizes the problem in Gaza and brings the Israelis and the Palestinians together to start addressing those problems.

Speaking about conditions in Gaza at a J Street conference later that month, Sanders appeared to divide the blame equally between Hamas and Israel:

Hamas, due to its ongoing repression, corruption, and insistence on pursuing a violent struggle against Israel, bears significant responsibility…Israel is to blame as well…its continuing control of Gaza’s air, sea, northern, southern, and eastern borders … have made the humanitarian crisis there even worse.

The presence of Hamas members among a crowd of tens of thousands does not justify the violence that we saw, and frankly, it is amazing to me that anyone would find that point of view controversial.

On April 12 – after more than thirty Gazans had been killed in nonviolent protest – Warren released her first statement on the situation:

I am deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries in Gaza. As additional protests are planned for the coming days, the Israel Defense Forces should exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.

May 14, 2018, the date of the 8th Great March of Return, was a watershed moment in Israel – as the new US embassy opened in Jerusalem (more below), and in Gaza ­– where over 60 protesters were killed in one day, bringing the death toll to about 100 Palestinians and 0 Israelis.

split screen view of US embassy opening and Great March of Return
Screenshot from CNN on May 14, 2018

Senator Sanders issued a statement the same day: “More than 50 killed in Gaza today and 2,000 wounded, on top of the 41 killed and more than 9,000 wounded over the past weeks. This is a staggering toll. Hamas violence does not justify Israel firing on unarmed protesters.”

(Read more about alleged “Hamas violence” here and here.)

In June, Senator Sanders released a video on the situation in Gaza. He prefaced the seven-minute clip: “The voices of the Palestinians are rarely heard. This is what life is like for those who are living in Gaza under a 10 year blockade.”

Peter Beinart characterized the video as “radical” and “unlike anything I’ve ever seen from an American senator,” noting that Sanders broke from political tradition by framing the issue on Palestinian human rights, not “in the language of Israeli self-interest.” Beinart added,

“Sanders lets Palestinians from Gaza speak for themselves. And they say things American politicians simply don’t say. Again and again, the speakers, who are not politicians but rather academics, students and journalists, call Gaza a “prison.””

Senator Warren had no immediate comment following the May 14 killings, but on May 18, she was one of eleven senators who signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking for humanitarian aid to be restored to Gaza. No mention was made of the recent killings of unarmed Gazans, but ironically, the letter stated, “As Israel Defense Forces officials warned earlier this year, the humanitarian crisis increases the chances of incidents at the border fence that can turn deadly.”

On moving the US embassy to Jerusalem

When the embassy move was nothing more than a nasty rumor, Bernie Sanders stated: “I’m extremely concerned by reports that President Trump plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel…It would dramatically undermine the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement…What the US should be doing now is bringing adversaries in the Middle East together to seek common solutions, not exacerbating tensions.”

Two days after Trump’s announcement, Elizabeth Warren claimed (inaccurately) at a Union for Reform Judaism conference, “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” But she added that the timing of the embassy move was not conducive to the two-state solution. More recently, she stated, “in a two-state agreement both parties should have the option to locate their capitals in Jerusalem.”

On “the A-Word” (Apartheid)

The United Nations officially declared Israel an apartheid state in 2017 (the report was later withdrawn – a move deeply criticized by its authors); some analysts used the term much earlier (for example, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2007, 2002, and even as early as 1961; details about its discriminatory system are here).

The 2020 Sanders campaign used the A-word at its formal launch, as activist Shaun King announced,

“[Bernie Sanders] spoke out against apartheid in South Africa when crazily that was an unpopular thing to do and even today he speaks out against apartheid-like conditions in Palestine even though it’s not popular.”

Elizabeth Warren was confronted by a constituent last February, who asked her opinion on the “basically…apartheid situation in Palestine now. The Times of Israel reported that “Warren neither endorsed nor disputed the apartheid claim.”

bds: warren and sanders are against boycott of israelOn the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS)

Neither Sanders nor Warren has supported the worldwide, progressive BDS movement – neither has given a rationale for the position. However, both have come out on the side of BDS as a protected political activity. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called anti-BDS legislation a “threat to free speech rights.”

On the Israeli government

Bernie Sanders said this year, “I am 100 percent pro-Israel.” In a Face the Nation interview he mentioned that when he was young he lived in Israel for awhile and said that he he has family in Israel.

However, he added a number of caveats: he believes the US should “not just support one country which is now run by a right wing — dare I say, racist — government.” (Recent elections in Israel appear to be empowering a new leadership, albeit nearly as oppressive as the previous one.)

Sanders opposes the Nation-State Law, declaring that it “essentially codifies the second-class status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.” He didn’t mention that non-Jews have always been de facto second-class citizens in the Jewish state.

Last month, after Israel announced that Congress members Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were banned from visiting Israel and Palestine, Sanders tweeted “If Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country, maybe they can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.”

Senator Warren accused then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “embracing right-wing extremism” and “manipulating a free press, accepting bribes, and trading government favors” (now most likely heading out of office, he faces probable corruption charges).

Regarding the ban of the Congresswomen, Warren called it “a shameful, unprecedented move.”

On reducing aid to Israel

Bernie Sanders has shown signs of willingness to rethink military aid (worth $3.8 billion a yearover half of the US aid budget to the entire world) if Israel does not end the occupation. In 2016 he was one of only a handful of senators who declined to sign a bipartisan letter calling for “a substantially enhanced new long-term agreement”; in 2017 he conceded that he would even be willing to reduce aid. In an April 2019 interview for the New Yorker, he hedged: “I’m not going to get into the specifics,” but then in June said it again.

Elizabeth Warren has, in the words of Jacobin magazine, repeatedly “brushed off” questions about whether to condition future US funding” on Israeli policy, although she made a very public promise to pressure Israel to end the occupation.

This is a significant difference.

While Sanders failed to speak out about Israel’s oppression of Palestinians for many years and continues to support the country, today he seems willing to pressure it in ways that go beyond words.

On settlements

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders stated that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank violate international law, and, “I think if the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.”

His current platform, however, is less radical: according to his campaign website, he proposes that in exchange for Palestinians’ “halting terrorism” and recognizing Israel’s “right” to exist, he would demand that Israel cease its home demolitions and its building of “further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”

While at first glance, this may sound progressive – putting any restraint on Israel is revolutionary – a closer look reveals some problems:

  • Sanders is not calling for an end to Israeli state violence – only Palestinian resistance against it (resistance against foreign occupation is an internationally recognized human right)
  • There is no call for Israel to recognize Palestinians’ right to self-determination or to a full, sovereign state – only for Palestinians to acknowledge these rights in their occupier
  • Israel’s policies of home demolition and settlement building have been in place for decades, although they are against international law – they should be condemned immediately, without caveat, not as part of a barter

Warren progressed from silence in 2014, to a policy statement in 2018 that is closer to Sanders’:

I am concerned that Israeli military control of and settlement activity on Palestinian territory prolong the conflict and are inconsistent with universal human rights. And I believe that our longstanding alliance with Israel should not prevent us from criticizing its leaders when they take actions contrary to our shared interests…

And in September Warren told the Council on Foreign Relations that if elected President, “I will make clear my unequivocal opposition to Israeli settlement activity and to any moves in the direction of annexation of the West Bank.” In a January article for Foreign Affairs magazine ironically  entitled “A Foreign Policy for All,” she did not mention Israel/Palestine. Unlike Sanders, Warren’s campaign website doesn’t mention Israel-Palestine.

A word on the two-state solution

Most fully informed, committed supporters of Palestine do not support the “two-state solution.” Because Israel has 650,000 settlers entrenched in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the possibility of dividing the land into two states is unlikely (although Israel did remove several thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005).

However, even if this were to happen, such a solution would cement the 1948 ethnic cleansing and the refugee crisis it created, give Israel at minimum 78 percent of the land and Palestinians 22 percent, and merely prolong injustice in a different form. (Also, unless or until it loses US support, Israel would continue to demand that any Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized, noncontiguous, and likely with much of its land, sea, and air subject to Israeli control. In other words, Palestinians would be at the mercy of their heavily armed neighbor. They would not have a viable, sovereign state.)

While Palestinians themselves must ultimately decide what they want, advocates generally favor a single democratic state with equal rights for all. (Read books by  Mazin Qumsiyeh, Virginia Tilley, and Ali Abunimah for more on the one-state solution.)

Bottom line

As the candidates considered most progressive, Reps. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren do not stand out from the pack as much as one would expect when it comes to the issue of Israel/Palestine.

Sanders’ “21st Century Bill of Rights” calls for “a deep and abiding faith in the American people to peacefully and democratically enact the transformative change that will create shared prosperity, social equality and true freedom for all” – but it does not extend to Palestinians.

Elizabeth Warren’s immigration reform platform promises to call out criminal abuse and medical neglect of immigrants, to end unnecessary detention, and to be compassionate toward the refugee. She adds, “If you are violating the basic rights of immigrants, now or in the future, a Warren administration will hold you accountable” – but if the word “immigrant” were replaced with “Palestinian,” all indications are that she would take a step back.

All candidates should promote human rights and justice for all. No exceptions.

bernie sandersPromote better Palestine policy for the candidate of your choice

If you tend to #feeltheBern:

Senator Sanders has shown that he knows many of the the facts (not just Israeli talking points), and he is at least sometimes willing to take a strong stand and to consider stopping aid to Israel – but he often backs off from his best positions. It is impossible to say which Bernie Sanders would enter the White House.

Bernie believes in justice and advocates for the marginalized. Those Bernie fans who care about justice for Palestine must encourage him to be his best self every day on the issue. Endorse his best moments, remind him of his best declarations:

  • He said, “If the expansion was illegal…withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.” Hold him to it.
  • When Israel thumbed its nose at the US, he suggested, “maybe they can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.” This is huge – don’t let him retreat.
  • He reminded us, “The voices of the Palestinians are rarely heard.” And then he listened. He should keep listening, and respond to what he hears.
  • And in June he announced: “The truth is that the parameters of a solution are well known. They are based in international law. They are based in multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. And they are supported by an overwhelmingly international consensus.” Yes, Bernie, invoke international law – it matters.
The tide is turning, and Bernie Sanders should be leading the way instead of lingering with the crowd. Call on him to be consistent: don’t be PEP (Progressive Except Palestine).

elizabeth warren If you’re leaning toward Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren has her die-hard fans too, and those who want her to support human rights for all must insist that she keep challenging the Israel status quo. She should listen more to her Director of Progressive Partnerships and cofounder of anti-occupation (but still Zionist) Jewish organization Ifnotnow, Max Berger (even some “progressive” Jewish groups find him disconcerting) – and less to those organizations that support the occupation, like AIPAC.

Remind her to stick with her most justice-minded positions:

  • She said “yes” to pressuring Israel to end the occupation. Keep saying yes, and add some teeth to it.
  • She demanded restraint from Israeli forces. Call them out when they use excessive force, which is pretty much every week.
  • She criticized Israeli military control and settlement activity on Palestinian land. Stick with it. These are illegal actions. She needs to say that.
Warren has come a long way, and she can come even further (despite her pro-Israel donors) if she knows she has plenty of constituents behind her.

If you favor a different candidate

All candidates need to acknowledge the humanity and human rights of the Palestinian population. PEP (Progressive Except Palestine) is unacceptable. Encourage your favorite candidate to demand equality and justice for all. Justice is for all.

America needs a President who will advocate for the vulnerable, not the strong; who will do what is honorable, not what is expedient.

To contact any of the presidential candidates and make your voice heard, please go here.


Kathryn Shihadah is staff writer for If Americans Knew. She blogs at Palestine Home


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