Why what Elizabeth Warren said this week on Israel matters

Pressed if she would freeze aid, Warren repeated, “Everything is on the table.”

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (photo credit: REUTERS/KAREN PULFER FOCHT)
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
(photo credit: REUTERS/KAREN PULFER FOCHT)
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Leveraging Israel
Left-wing Jewish activists have been ambushing Democratic presidential candidates at campaign events for months, asking them to outright condemn Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. One of their tactics is to ask the candidates whether they would consider withholding aid from Israel to get it to change its policies.
This past week they got results, kind of.
While Bernie Sanders has endorsed the idea for decades (since he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont), now Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have said they won’t count out that maneuver.
Despite the room for interpretation, their comments are a big deal. Here’s why.
What they said
For all the Twitter mileage from the news won by the groups IfNotNow and J Street, the candidate statements were less than committal.
Warren appears to have fielded questions on the issue in South Carolina and Iowa. The clip from Iowa is longer and more to the point.
“Right now, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu says that he is going to take Israel in a direction of increasing settlements. That does not move us toward a two-state solution,” the Massachusetts senator said. “It is the official policy of the United States of America to support a two-state solution, and if Israel is moving in the opposite direction, then everything is on the table.”
Pressed if that means she would freeze aid, Warren repeated, “Everything is on the table.”
Buttigieg, speaking at a University of Chicago event, was a little more expansive, and like Warren referred to Netanyahu’s pledge shortly before national elections in April to annex some settlements.
“The aid is leverage to guide Israel in the right direction, and if for example there is follow-through to these threats on annexation, I am committed to ensuring that the U.S. is not footing the bill for that,” he said.
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, went on to say that “our policy goal will be to do what we do when a friend is moving a way that you’re worried about, which is to put your arms around your friend and guide them to something better.”
Pressed as to whether that would mean he would pull aid, Buttigieg said, “I’m not going to put that string on today.”
The reactions
As expected, there was consternation from the mainstream pro-Israel camp. The Democratic Majority for Israel, with a board close to the American Israel Public Affair Committee, did not directly address the remarks when I asked. Its director, Mark Mellman, did email this comment:
“U.S. military aid to Israel helps both the U.S. and Israel. It has little to do with the Palestinians in the West Bank and mainly helps protect Israel from threats presented by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and its proxies. President Obama promised U.S. military aid to Israel for 10 years in writing. Presidents Obama and Clinton both understood that aid was vital for the U.S. and Israel, and never publicly threatened to cut it. Both also got Israel to freeze settlement construction without such public threats. Unfortunately, the Palestinians never reciprocated those moves as those Administrations asked them to.”
More direct was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who cited a Times of Israel story on Buttigieg’s remarks and said on Twitter: “U.S. aid to Israel has long had bipartisan support. Aid strengthens both nations, and is essential to advancing U.S. interests in a volatile region.”
J Street posted on Twitter: “Candidates who care about Israel’s future as a democracy and a Jewish homeland should *absolutely* be considering how the US can do a better job of curbing settlement expansion and working to end the occupation. Props to @ewarren for doing so.”
So this argument about aid represents a split between liberal Jews within the establishment tent (Jacobs) and without (J Street).
IfNotNow similarly called the Buttigieg and Warren comments “encouraging.” (I should note that I don’t know if IfNotNow activists specifically asked the questions that prompted replies, but credit/blame goes to the group for starting this ball rolling — its activists have been bringing up the aid question for months.)
Does it matter?
Warren and Buttigieg spoke vaguely and in broad terms, so nothing the candidates said is unprecedented. In fact, withholding loan guarantees to Israel commensurate to what it was spending on settlements was American policy from George H.W. Bush’s time through the era of his son, George W. Bush. Who actually ended that policy? Barack Obama.
Prior to the implementation of that policy, presidents from Truman through Reagan leveraged aid to influence Israeli policy in a variety of spheres. (I think the only exception is Lyndon Johnson, who withheld nothing from Israel.)
It will be an election issue
If Warren or Sanders get the nomination, expect the “Democrats distancing themselves from Israel” narrative that Republicans and President Donald Trump have been eager to peddle to start sticking. The narrative also includes the first Congress with Democrats who back the boycott Israel movement (Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota), and a phalanx of rising stars (Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ro Khanna of California) who have said that aid should be used to pressure Israel.
The fact that Buttigieg, a centrist, has said he would consider leveraging aid will be used to show that the antipathy to Israel has infected the entire party.
But there’s a chance that Democrats will want to play down threats to cut aid. They now have a high-profile foreign policy claim against Trump relating to his abandonment of Kurdish allies. At least one centrist Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, has held up the alliance with Israel as a means of repudiating Trump’s isolationism.
In Other News
Bernie is back and has heart
This is the first video ad since Sanders recovered from a heart attack, and it emphasizes the size of the crowd that packed his rally in Queens, New York. The event, which  featured an endorsement announcement by Ocasio-Cortez, is called the largest so far in the presidential race. (I mean, it looks packed but … it’s New York!) The ad mocks the media for suggesting the attack might have sidelined Sanders.
At least one Bernie stan said it’s cool he had a heart attack because he survived. “He’s probably even healthier now,” she said.
Here’s hoping this does not trigger a heart attack war among candidates.
Muslims heart Bernie
My colleague Josefin Dolsten digs into why the candidate likeliest to earn Muslim kudos is a 78-year-old Jewish guy from Brooklyn.
J Street and the candidates
Five of the 20 or so Democratic presidential candidates will address the J Street conference next week: Sanders, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro. Also speaking will be both Democratic chiefs in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The inclusion of centrists like Klobuchar, Bennet and Buttigieg, as well as Schumer, signifies how much progress the liberal Jewish Middle East lobby has made with a wide spectrum of the Democratic Party, underscoring that J Street is a Democratic organization in all but name — in its earlier years, there were attempts to bring on Republicans. A big chunk of the Sunday breakouts focus on anti-Semitism, including on the left.
The Trump hump
The latest American Jewish Committee survey shows that almost nine in 10 Jewish Americans see anti-Semitism as a problem. And perhaps a problem for Republicans ahead of 2020: Disapproval for Trump’s handling of anti-Semitism is at 72 percent, and 62 percent strongly disapprove. Asked about the president’s overall performance, 76 percent of respondents disapprove. And respondents are much likelier to rate Republicans as responsible for the perceived rise in anti-Semitism than they are Democrats.
Worth A Look
At The New York Times, Matt Apuzzo and Benjamin Novak profile David Cornstein, Trump’s Jewish ambassador to Hungary, who has emerged as an unlikely defender of the Orban regime against charges that it is authoritarian and at times anti-Semitic.
Tweet So Sweet


Justin Bieber got married. Twitter wants to know whether there’s a more beautiful couple. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has a less-than-kosher answer involving a recent popular meme.

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The Tell is a weekly roundup of the latest Jewish political news from Ron Kampeas, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Washington Bureau Chief. Sign up here to receive The Tell in your inbox on Thursday evenings.