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Will Elizabeth Warren Keep Her Promise to “End the Occupation”?

Once a hawkish supporter of Israel, Elizabeth Warren has recently adopted a more balanced stance. That's undoubtedly a good thing — but she’ll have to go much further to truly support Palestinian rights.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the AARP and The Des Moines Register Iowa Presidential Candidate Forum on July 19, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

During a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire, Senator Elizabeth Warren was approached by two members of IfNotNow, an American Jewish progressive group. Asked whether she would pressure Israel to end its occupation if elected president, Warren answered in the affirmative, before posing for a photo with the young activists.

Warren’s response sparked a wave of angry reactions from pro-Israel hawks, who blasted the Democratic candidate for being “caught on camera” endorsing a purportedly antisemitic “attack on Israel.” The Republican Jewish Coalition rushed to excoriate the Massachusetts senator, tweeting out a statement that complained: “Sen. Warren has aligned herself with the rapidly-growing leftwing, anti-Israel base of her party. . . . Her comments will not win her points with voters who support a strong and secure Israel and a stable Middle East.”

More than mere condemnation, the statement almost sounded like a bitter breakup with an old friend. And it’s not hard to see why — until recently, Warren held stridently pro-Israel views.

She supported the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014, blaming Hamas even as Israeli forces killed more than two thousand Palestinians, most of them civilians and children. In her defense of the military assault, Warren sounded more like a spokesperson for right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu than a progressive US senator: “When Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they’re using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself. We have an interest in Israel defending itself and surviving.”

Parroting pro-Israeli talking points, Warren continued: “America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t any liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. We very much need an ally in that part of the world.”

Translating rhetoric into policy, Warren cosponsored the United States–Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014, an AIPAC-backed bill that solidified the United States and Israel’s “special relationship.” The legislation, passed at the peak of the Gaza War, provided emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system while boosting US military aid by $225 million (on top of the already $3 billion in annual funding). The move put Warren at odds with progressive constituents, who pointed out that the funds sent to Israel were offset by deep cuts to a proposed program to aid thousands of child immigrants from Latin America. After the war, in November 2014, Warren made her first trip to Israel, where she addressed Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, and where, in the words of then–US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, “she was impressed by the spirited nature of Israeli democracy.”

Warren has enjoyed cozy relations with AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) representatives in Boston for years. She has repeatedly appeared at local AIPAC events and counted the group’s members among her supporters and donors. Candy Glazer, a Western Massachusetts Democratic leader who has also served as an AIPAC executive committee member, once praised Warren for her “strong voting record on Israel.” That “strong voting record” includes signing an AIPAC-sponsored letter in 2016 urging President Obama to veto a “one-sided” UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, repeated support for sending money and military aid to Israel, and cosponsorship of a Senate bill earlier this year that handed Israel a total of $38 billion over the next ten years. Other pro-Israel PACs have also showered her with donations.

Yet Warren’s recent statement to IfNotNow didn’t come out of nowhere. Attuned to the shifting winds within the party, Warren has become increasingly outspoken about Israel’s violence against Palestinians. During the last Israeli war on Gaza, in 2018, she urged Israel to show restraint toward Palestinian protesters, saying in a statement: “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.” The same year, she coauthored a letter to secretary of state Mike Pompeo that insisted on the need to rebuild Gaza, ease the blockade, and restore US funds to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).

Warren has also started to come out more forcefully for a two-state solution (while stopping short of calling for a single, democratic state with equal rights for Jews and Arabs). In April, she was among the first to speak out against Netanyahu’s pledge to annex parts of the West Bank, and she is currently backing a Senate resolution against Israel’s unilateral annexation of the Occupied Territories.

In 2017, Warren joined nine of her Senate colleagues, led by Bernie Sanders, in signing a letter that urged Netanyahu to abandon plans to demolish the West Bank villages of Khan al-Ahmar and Susiya. “We have long championed a two-state solution as a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the letter read. “Yet, your government’s efforts to forcibly evict entire Palestinian communities and expand settlements throughout the West Bank not only directly imperil a two-state solution, but we believe also endanger Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy.” Later that year, Warren said she opposed the timing of Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, affirming that “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel” while maintaining that “diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians should determine the status of Jerusalem for all parties.”

The statement was another example of Warren’s recent attempts to distance herself from Netanyahu. She was one of nearly sixty Democrats who boycotted Netanyahu’s speech about Iran to a joint session of Congress in March 2015 (although she still voted for new sanctions on Iran in 2017). Warren came out strongly against the prime minister after Israel’s attorney general announced in February that Netanyahu would be indicted on bribery charges. “Corruption — in Israel, in the US, or anywhere else — is a cancer that threatens democracy,” she tweeted.

Inching away from AIPAC, Warren has embraced more progressive Jewish organizations in the United States like J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that opposes the occupation. In March, joining other Democratic candidates, she declined to appear at AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington (though she still sent her foreign policy advisor to meet with a Massachusetts delegation). In another significant move, Warren’s campaign recently hired Max Berger, a founder of IfNotNow.

All of this is a welcome change. There’s no shortage of anti-Palestinian sentiment in Congress, and Warren’s more balanced stance at least provides a check on zealously pro-Israel legislation. Earlier this year, she voted against a bill that would criminalize the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and defended fellow Democrats like Ilhan Omar who support BDS. “Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic,” she said in March, “has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Threats of violence ― like those made against Rep. Omar ― are never acceptable.”

Yet Warren’s record on Palestine still pales in comparison to that of Bernie Sanders, both in political vision and moral clarity. While Sanders is not shy about speaking out against “apartheid-like” conditions in Palestine, Warren is still reluctant to criticize the occupation, the illegal settlements, and the siege of Gaza. And whereas Sanders says that he would consider cutting US military aid to Israel (a position that, to be sure, doesn’t go nearly far enough), Warren has repeatedly brushed off questions about whether to condition future US funding on the halting of settlement-building.

If Warren is genuine about wanting to end the occupation, she must come up with a compelling vision for peace, one that dismantles the lawless settlements, lifts the years-long blockade of Gaza, and provides a just solution to the refugee crisis. For a candidate fond of saying that foreign policy starts at home, ending the occupation also means reversing Trump’s unilateral move on Jerusalem, reestablishing aid to Palestinian refugees and civilians, restoring diplomatic ties with the Palestinians, and ending Israeli impunity for its crimes against Palestinians.

Warren’s recent drift away from pro-Israel orthodoxy is laudable. But Palestinians, whether those under occupation in the West Bank or in besieged Gaza, deserve more from the progressive candidate than occasional condemnations of Israel’s violence. What will she do to make good on her daring promise?