After a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on July 8, Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was approached by activists from the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow and asked if she would push Israel to end the occupation of Palestine if elected.
“Hi, we’re American Jews, we really love the way you are fighting corruption,” University of Michigan student Becca Lubow told her, “We’d really love it if you’d also pushed the Israeli government to end occupation.”
“Yes. So I’m there!,” responded Warren before posing with the activists for a quick photo.
The Warren run-in was a part of a much wider effort byIfNotNow to start pressuring Democratic candidates on the campaign trail. “Our focus is going to be trying to push the candidates past giving lip-service to a two-state solution,” co-founder Emily Mayer told Politico last month, “without recognizing the underlying dynamics and explicit moves by the Israel government that are creating a one-state reality where Palestinians are denied basic rights.”
On its face, Warren’s declaration should hardly be considered controversial. A two-state solution with an end to the occupation and a return to the pre-1967 boundaries has been a staple of the mainstream foreign policy consensus for decades now. Even George W. Bush, perceived by many as the face of perpetual imperial aggression throughout the Middle East, said that “There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. An agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.” As Robert Mackey points out at The Intercept, even the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (who bore “personal responsibility” for the Sabra and Shatila massacre while he was a general, according to an official inquiry) declared that the occupation should end. “The idea that we can continue holding under occupation — and it is occupation, you might not like this word, but it’s really an occupation — to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is, in my opinion, a very bad thing for us and for them,” Sharon told fellow lawmakers in 2003.
However, Warren’s short response comes at a time when many believe a major rift has opened up in the Democratic Party over Israel, sparked in part by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s criticisms of AIPAC earlier this year and the subsequent fallout. Predictably, Warren has drawn criticism from pro-Israel organizations. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) put out a statement claiming that the Senator’s four words added up to a condemnation of Israel:
“Sen. Warren has aligned herself with the rapidly growing left-wing, anti-Israel base of her party,” said RJC executive director Matt Brooks. “Her comments quoted yesterday may have helped solidify her ‘progressive’ credentials for that base, but at the expense of our ally Israel and the prospects for a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The United States’ role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to be an honest broker, not to condemn the only democracy in the Middle East,” he continued. “Peace can only be achieved by a negotiation between the two parties, not through US pressure on Israel.”
Amidst the backdrop of this alleged controversy lies a similar supposed scandal currently making its way around right-wing media. On the same day that Warren was questioned by young Jewish activists, the Washington Free Beacon ran a hit-piece on Warren staffer Max Berger, who was actually a cofounder of IfNotNow. In 2013, Berger tweeted “Confession: I would totally be friends with Hamas.” The piece quotes Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who insists that Warren must distance herself from Berger as a result of the now-deleted tweet:
“Anyone who wants to be friendly with Hamas has no business being in a presidential campaign. It’s very straightforward. If that’s the message that Elizabeth Warren wants to send to Jewish progressives and the rest of the American Jewish community, that the person she put in charge of outreach wants to be friends with Hamas, no way. She’s going to have to deal with this right now.”
The Washington Free Beacon piece doesn’t mention the context of Berger’s tweet at all. It was actually a reference to a rumor that was accidentally started by the reporter Dan Friedman. At the time, there was talk that former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (then simply an Obama nominee) had given speeches to controversial foreign organizations. Already a target of some conservatives because of an alleged anti-Israel bias, Friedman joked to a GOP Senate aide that Hagel may have addressed a group called “Friends of Hamas.” “I’d made this name up. It was supposed to sound so absurd and controversial that it was obviously fake,” Friedman wrote recently.
Unsurprisingly, the joke wasn’t obvious to Ben Shapiro, who worked for Brietbart at the time. He wrote a piece the next day claiming a “Senate source” had told him Hagel had received money from the Friends of Hamas. “The story as reported is correct,” he told Friedman at the time,“Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure.”
Spurious controversies aside, the New Hampshire town hall moment begs a deeper question. Warren has gained steam in the polls over the last few weeks, presumably as a result of her detailed and impressive domestic plans, but what’s her plan for Palestine? If she’s serious about ending the occupation, what steps would she take to make this happen?
Fellow candidate Bernie Sanders recently implied that he would cut military aid to Israel unless it began treating Palestinian people with “respect,” and Pete Buttigieg (who might be the most pro-Israel Democrat in the race) said he’d refuse to supply Netanyahu with funds to annex the West Bank. These declarations generated their own set of questions (it remains unclear what Sanders would consider to be “respect” or how Buttigieg could control what Israel spends its military funds on), but even if the statements are just hollow rhetoric, they still point to a strategy.
Becca Lubow (the aforementioned student who asked the town hall question) told Mondoweiss that she hopes Warren comes forward with more details. “I hope to see her put out a specific plan to pressure Israel to end the occupation,” she said, “It’s important for all candidates to engage with this issue. IfNotNow will continue engaging with 2020 candidates to make it clear that American Jews, and the Democratic base, want to see our leaders pushing for an end to the occupation.”
This actually isn’t the first time that Warren has been asked about Palestine by a college student in New Hampshire this year. In April, she was asked a three-part question by Nooran Alhamdan while visiting the University of New Hampshire. 1.) Will you make sure that the free speech rights of BDS supporters are protected? Warren said yes 2.) Would you restore funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which was eliminated by the Trump administration? Warren also said yes. 3.) “Will you actually hold Israel accountable for its continued human rights violations?”
Warren didn’t actually answer this question, but her response is worth examining:
This– I want to describe this way. I think we start with a statement of our values. Israel is entitled to security and Palestinians are entitled to dignity and self-determination. I believe the way we get there is a two-state solution. Netanyahu has clearly indicated he is headed in a different direction. He has made his case now with extremist right wing groups that push both Israel and the entire region I believe in a far more dangerous direction. I believe that as a good ally to everyone in the region that we should be pushing hard back toward a two state solution and toward insisting on both parts, that is, security for Israel and dignity and self-determination for all of the Palestinian people.
Warren’s answer implies that the major impediment to a two-state solution is the Netanyahu government. The conditions of Palestinians prior to Netanyahu taking power aren’t mentioned and (although her response is much longer than what she told the IfNotNow activists) she doesn’t provide any details about how she’d go about “pushing hard” for a two-state solution.
Alhamdan tweeted about the town hall incident shortly after it happened:
“Much respect to IfNotNow but this isn’t an answer. I asked Elizabeth Warren the same question in a much more detailed way and she did not provide an answer to holding Israel accountable for the occupation+human rights abuses…We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and quality of responses to accountability for Israel. ‘Yes the occupation is bad’ doesn’t suffice anymore. Push harder.”
Warren’s previous track record on the issue certainly leaves a lot to be desired from pro-Palestine activists.
In July 2014, she literally ran away from a question about Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” attack on Gaza. Two months later she was questioned by a voter named John Bangert (who identified himself as a Warren supporter) about her vote to send $225 million to Israel so they could construct their “Iron Dome” air defense system. The vote took place amidst the aforementioned attack, which the United Nations says killed at least 2,100 Palestinians, more than 1,500 of which were civilians. “We are disagreeing with Israel using their guns against innocents. It’s true in Ferguson, Missouri, and it’s true in Israel . . . The vote was wrong, I believe,” Bangert told Warren.
Warren doubled down on her support for Iron Dome and Israel:
“I think the vote was right, and I’ll tell you why I think the vote was right. 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 many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”
When Warren was floated as a potential Vice President option for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Forward staff writer Herbert Guttman wrote a piece that referred to her as “surprising Israel hawk” and documented her connections to pro-Israel organizations in Massachusetts. “Warren has attended the annual dinners hosted by the AIPAC Boston chapter and counts among her supporters some mainstream pro-Israel backers, including Steve Grossman, a former Massachusetts treasurer who was also president of AIPAC,” wrote Guttman. The article quotes Greater Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council executive director Jeremy Burton: “She talked to us a lot about this. She has made clear time and again that she believes in the specialness of America’s relationship with Israel.”
In an interview from February, Warren parroted a common racist trope about Israel facing a demographic crisis:
I don’t..draw the conclusion that what happened under the Obama administration was never going to work that you couldn’t keep pushing harder because over time realities are bearing down on Israel, demographic realities, births and deaths. What the region looks like and I think that this is a moment not while Trump is in there playing the game that he’s playing but that the opportunity soon to get Israel back to the table and get the Palestinians back to the table.
In 2016, Warren signed a letter asking former President Obama to veto any “one-sided” resolution that was critical of Israel. The letter was sent in advance of a UN Security Council resolution that denounced the further expansion of Israeli settlements.
Sarah Lazare is a web editor at In These Times and the author of a recent piece on Warren’s foreign policy record titled “When It Comes to U.S. Militarism, Elizabeth Warren Is No Progressive.”
Lazare told Mondoweiss that, while Warren has improved somewhat, she’s still considerably to the right of Sanders on the issue:
“Warren cannot be considered a progressive on this issue. It’s disappointing, because the bar is set so low on Palestine, and it doesn’t take much to distinguish oneself, yet she does not stand out as progressive. She’s done some things that are unforgivable. In the midst of the 2014 “Operation Protective Edge” she said some really hateful things that made her sound a lot like Netanyahu. She claimed Hamas was using human shields and Israel has a right to defend itself. This language is incredibly dehumanizing to Palestinians, and at the time was used to justify the onslaught.
She’s somewhat close to AIPAC (closer than Sanders is), and in 2016 she signed onto an AIPAC letter calling for Obama to veto the UN’s one-sided resolutions. This was ahead of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Sanders didn’t sign onto that latter, but Gillibrand and Booker did. There are some signs Warren is improving slightly, probably due to shifts in the base of the Democratic Party.
That shift can be seen in Warren’s consistent criticisms of Netanyahu and her recent opposition to a federal bill that would help criminalize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS.) Although Warren doesn’t support BDS, she opposes the targeting of its proponents on First Amendment grounds. In 2017, Warren signed a letter urging the Israeli government not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya. Sanders also signed that letter.
Perhaps most notably, Warren called on Israel’s government to respect the rights of Palestinian protestors in 2018 after over two dozen of them were killed at the border. “I am deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries in Gaza,” said Warren at the time, “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.”
As Lazare mentioned, Warren’s shift has mirrored overall changes that have taken place in the Democratic Party. In this respect, she is a good barometer for gauging the positions of mainstream Democrats on this issue and a testament to the work of pro-Palestine activists, who have effectively moved the needle through their dogged organizing.
However, if Warren ends up leading on these issues she will have to face down the vociferous pro-Israel forces within her own party. In January, The Democratic Majority for Israel was formed by party donors. The group aims to squash growing pro-Palestine sentiment and has denounced IfNotNow as a “strongly anti-Israel organization.” After the Warren town hall moment (which they refer to as a “hit and run”) the group put on a memo calling on Democratic candidates to avoid mentioning the occupation and asking them to stress the fact that both sides are responsible for the conflict. The memo contains a sample answer for Democrats to use if they end up being confronted by IfNotNow activists: “I strongly support a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. That solution must give Israelis security and Palestinians a state, but it must also be negotiated directly by the parties, not imposed by outsiders.”
It remains to be seen in which direction Warren will ultimately move (or be pulled toward), but activists on both sides of the issue would have a much clearer idea of what she’d do as President if she released some details.