The Democrat and Republican parties have long been polarized. But there’s always been one issue on which they’ve nearly always found common ground: Israel and Palestine. And over the years, that common ground has entailed nearly unquestioned, bipartisan support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian lives, land, and interests.
American support for Israel is not just theoretical: the U.S. gives Israel $3.8 billion annually, the majority of which finances the Israeli military, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. Democrats like Joe Biden and Cory Booker and Republicans like Mike Pence and Lindsay Graham generally justify these funds by maintaining that they are used to protect “the only democracy in the Middle East,” framing aid packages to Israel as a noble act of spreading democracy. Voting rights in Israel, however, are not extended to the 2.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. American politicians also justify U.S. support for Israel in the name of Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Though after decades of pitting one of the world’s most well-funded militaries against civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has been accused of war crimes by the United Nations and condemned regularly by human rights organizations.
Despite this, the rationale behind the U.S.’s relationship with Israel is best summed up by the words of Joe Biden speaking to the Senate in 1986 about arms sales in the Middle East:
“It’s about time we stop apologizing for our support for Israel, there’s no apology to be made. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”
Critics have long used the acronym PEP (Progressive Except for Palestine) to describe the Democratic party, but the 2020 presidential race shows signs that that could soon change. Recently, we’ve seen more Dem candidates attempt to break out of the PEP mold than ever before, replacing their unconditional support for Israel with a more critical, progressive perspective that at least somewhat takes Palestinians into account.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders laid the groundwork for this shift, shocking many by breaking with the party, calling out Israel’s “disproportionate attack” on Gaza, and urging politicians to treat Palestinians with “respect and dignity” on live network television. This year, Sanders isn’t the only candidate joining the Left’s view on the issue. At the same time, some establishment Democrats appear to be attempting to appeal to progressives without losing their Zionist base. But it’s crucial that voters identify who is and is not being authentic: As Israel veers further right, with talks of annexing the West Bank completely in the next few years, the support or opposition of the U.S. after 2020 could be the difference between the complete erasure of Palestine and an end to the occupation.
Here’s where the top 2020 Democratic presidential candidates stand on Palestine and Israel:
According to Joe Biden: “You also gotta pressure Palestinians…”
Establishment Democrat and former Vice President Joe Biden’s views on Israel and Palestine remain conservative, though on the campaign trail, Biden has attempted to appear slightly less hawkish on the issue than he was during his days as a senator. “America must sustain its ironclad commitment to Israel’s security—including the unprecedented support provided by the Obama-Biden administration,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in an interview last month that Vice was directed to when we reached out for comment.
While Biden says he supports a two-state solution, he has committed to the continuation of providing Israel with funds used to enforce the occupation. Recently, he called for an end to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
Earlier this year, when asked by an activist if he’d “commit to meaningfully pressuring the Israeli government to end the occupation,” Biden replied, “Yes, but you also gotta pressure the Palestinians, to stop the hate, to stop calling for violence.”
Some view Biden’s commitment to a two-state solution (thus ending the occupation) as dubious, given the Obama administration’s track record on Israel and Palestine, in which it was criticized for its “unwillingness to challenge Israeli and PA [Palestinian Authority] policies toward Gaza” in 2014 when Israeli forces killed 2,104 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, 495 of whom were children. In the same 2014 Gaza conflict, the Israeli death toll was 66 military personnel and six civilians. Progressive voters have criticized the Obama administration for looking the other way when Israel expanded illegal settlements in the West Bank after Obama forcefully claimed at the beginning of his presidency that his administration would confront Israel’s role in these movements. Foreign affairs wrote that the Obama administration’s legacy “could well be the death of the two-state solution itself.”
Bernie Sanders broke the PEP mold.
In addition to being the only Jewish Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders consistently remains the most outspoken and most progressive candidate when it comes to Palestine and Israel. “The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable,” Sanders told a crowd of reporters, referring to the First Intifada, in 1988. The then-mayor of Burlington, Vermont, went on to suggest that the U.S. use the billions of dollars it gives Israel each year as leverage to stop the humanitarian crisis, a position that is on his 2020 presidential platform today.
Sanders supports a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. “I will call upon Israel to end policies that violate international humanitarian law, such as home demolitions and settlement construction in the occupied territories, and work to ensure that U.S. aid is not used to support these activities,” Sanders said in a statement to VICE. “I will also continue to condemn violence against civilians by all sides.” The senator also proposed restoring funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which were stripped under the Trump administration, a move Sanders called “shortsighted and cruel.”
In the past few years, Sanders has also condemned bipartisan bills that prohibit the boycott of Israeli products as part of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. “While I am not a supporter of the BDS movement, I believe that Americans have a constitutional right to participate in non-violent protest,” he said in his statement to VICE.
Elizabeth Warren has pivoted to progressive.
Elizabeth Warren’s views on Palestine and Israel have changed drastically over the past few years, making it difficult to pin down her stance. Once seen as a “hawkish supporter of Israel,” today she sides with Sanders on many issues concerning the region: she supports a two-state solution, an end to the occupation, and restoring funds to UNRWA. She also voted against anti-BDS legislation in February. Only five years ago, however, she supported the aforementioned Israeli invasion of Gaza, which killed nearly 1,500 civilians in 2014. “Israel has a right to defend itself,” she said that summer.
More recently, though, Warren has surprised some by showing increasingly progressive views on the issue, like when she came to the defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar earlier this year after Omar was accused of anti-Semitism for criticizing pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. “Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians,” Warren said in a statement at the time.
“I believe in the worth and value of every Israeli and every Palestinian,” she told the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month. “I will oppose incitement to violence and support for terrorism by Palestinian extremists like Hamas.” Though she called the situation in Gaza a “man-made humanitarian catastrophe,” she did not mention the incitement to violence and terrorism imposed by Israel on Palestinians.
When VICE reached out to Warren for comment, her campaign directed us to her interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Kamala Harris is committed to Israel’s ‘security and prosperity.’
On the issue of Palestine and Israel, Harris’s history is nearly indistinguishable from that of her Republican colleagues. While the Harris campaign did not respond to VICE’s request for comment, her campaign communications director, Lily Adams, told McClatchy in April, “[Harris’s] support for Israel is central to who she is. She is firm in her belief that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself, including against rocket attacks from Gaza.” Breaking with Human Rights Watch, Harris told the New York Times that she believes Israel meets international human rights standards.
When asked if she opposes illegal expansion of Israeli settlements in July, Harris deflected the question, saying that “the terms of any agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians cannot be imposed by others in the world.” As recently as 2017, Harris, who says she supports a two-state solution, co-sponsored a bill condemning the Obama administration for not vetoing a U.N. resolution that pushed back on the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements.
Harris has come under fire from progressive-leaning Democrats for unapologetically working with AIPAC and posing for photos with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While she maintains that Palestine and Israel should come to an agreement themselves, she told CFR in August, “As President, I would start by reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity, while simultaneously working to rebuild the broken relationship between the United States and the Palestinians.”
Harris has not responded to VICE’s request for comment.
Beto O’Rourke supports Israel, but has condemned violence in Gaza.
Beto O’Rourke also falls into the camp of Democratic presidential candidates who have changed their tune on Israel and Palestine. According to his campaign’s press secretary Aleigha Cavalier, "A two-state solution that realizes the aspirations of the Palestinian people and addresses Israel’s legitimate security concerns is the only way to guarantee peace and the human rights and dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians. Our strong relationship with Israel is key to achieving that outcome, and as president, Beto will support and sustain it."
However, just last year, his Senate campaign issued a statement on Palestine and Israel with a far more conservative tone. “[O’Rourke] believes that Israel is critically important to the United States, because it is the home of the Jewish people, because it is an exemplary democracy that shares our values, and because it is a crucial contributor to our national security measures in the region,” the statement read. Like Harris, O’Rourke has met with AIPAC. O’Rourke has occasionally voiced concern for human rights violations against Palestinians, condemning Israeli violence in the Gaza Strip in 2014 and as a congress member, voting against an aide package for Israel following the attacks.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg has flip-flopped on the issue.
Pete Buttigieg is another Dem candidate who’s become more progressive on the issue of Palestine and Israel while on the campaign trail. Though in the past Buttigieg has shown a strong willingness to back Israel—calling the country a good model when it comes to handling security threats—he’s recently condemned the Israeli government for a “short-sighted focus on military responses” and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Recently, Buttigieg also acknowledged that Israel’s human rights record is “problematic.”
“The United States needs to put its arm around the shoulder of its ally, Israel, and help it to develop policies that will work towards the economic and security benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians,” he told CFR in July. “A two-state solution that achieves legitimate Palestinian aspirations and meets Israel’s security needs remains the only viable way forward.”
Buttigeig has not responded to VICE’s request for comment.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang wants to keep giving Israel money.
Andrew Yang is another presidential candidate who sides with the Democratic establishment on Palestine and Israel. When questioned about U.S. involvement in the conflict, the self-described “human-centered capitalist” says he supports a two-state solution but sees no reason to decrease funding to Israel. “Israel has been an important ally to the U.S., and it will continue to be an important ally. It is a democracy in a region where that is rare,” Yang told CFR. Yang supports reinstating funds to UNRWA.
Yang has not responded to VICE’s request for comment.
Amy Klobuchar was called “the Israeli prime minister of Minnesota” by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Of the Democratic presidential candidates, Amy Klobuchar is among the most conservative when it comes to Israel and Palestine. She was the only Democratic presidential candidate to vote in support of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s anti-BDS legislation. “As staunch allies of Israel, we must also ensure that harmful movements, like the resurgence in anti-Semitism and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement are not successful,” her campaign website reads.
Though she's condemned UNRWA cuts and recent Far-Right Israeli politics, Klobuchar spoke at AIPAC’s annual conference this year, where she boasted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once called her “the Israeli prime minister of Minnesota.”
"As President, Senator Klobuchar will get back to a meaningful peace process that combines—not separates—the political and economic tracks, has buy-in from Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world, and ultimately leads to direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves that can lead to a two-state solution," a spokesperson from the Klobuchar campaign told VICE in a statement.
Cory Booker is committed to bipartisan support for Israel.
Cory Booker is another Democrat who sides with Republicans on Palestine and Israel. Booker co-sponsored the anti-BDS bill, and is extremely friendly with AIPAC. Another Israeli lobby, NORPAC, has been a top contributor to Booker’s campaigns since 2011. Booker’s support for Israel is so strong that an activist group co-opted his “Justice for all” slogan, protesting his campaign kick-off event in April with “Justice for Palestine” signs.
Booker has said that he supports a two-state solution. But when asked by a member of Jewish progressive activist group IfNotNow in July if he believes the occupation is a human rights violation, Booker deflected the question. Asked about violence in Gaza by a CBS reporter, Booker responded, “You have a terrorist organization that actually suppresses its own people, conducts acts of violence and human rights violations against people who live in Gaza. And so Israel has a right to defend itself and it should do that.”
As some candidates move to the left on Palestine and Israel, Booker appears committed to upholding bipartisan status-quo support of Israel. “We need leadership in both parties that is about uniting Americans around a common cause,” he told an AIPAC crowd earlier this year. “And what greater tradition has there been in America, going back to the founding of Israel that we have common cause with the state of Israel. We have a common cause, and they are our allies."
VICE has reached out to Booker for comment.
Julian Castro to Israel: You’re either a Jewish state or a Democratic state.
Former member of the Obama administration Julian Castro says he supports a two-state solution. “Israel has to choose: it’s going to be a Jewish state or a democratic state,” he told The New York Times earlier this year. His plan, put simply, is to “support Israel, remain strong allies, but recognize the value of Palestinians and that they should be treated in a way that we can support on behalf of the country,” he told The Daily Texan.
VICE has reached out to Castro for comment.
Tulsi Gabbard says she’s anti-imperialist, but her votes say otherwise.
Despite putting more emphasis on foreign policy than any other candidate, Tulsi Gabbard has perhaps the most confusing perspective when it comes to Palestine and Israel. Gabbard says her time in the U.S. military made her critical of what she has called “wasteful foreign wars,” and she supports re-allocating war funds toward domestic issues. This seemingly anti-imperialist stance has convinced some that she is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. While that isn’t entirely false, it is misleading. Though Gabbard has been critical of Israeli violence towards Palestinians, her voting record sides with Israel. She voted for the recent anti-BDS bill and co-sponsored a bill reaffirming the United States’ commitment to vetoing U.N. resolutions that ask Israel to comply with international law.
“I know how important our enduring alliance with Israel is,” her website reads. “I co-sponsored H.Res.23 which reaffirms the U.S. commitment to Israel, and a negotiated settlement leading to a sustainable two-state solution that re-affirms Israel’s right to exist as a democratic, Jewish state and establishes a demilitarized democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security.”
VICE has reached out to Gabbard for comment.
This piece has been updated with comment from Amy Klobuchar's campaign.
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