Elizabeth Warren’s first encounter with Israeli democracy was a memorable one.
In November 2014, during her first foreign trip as a freshman Massachusetts senator, she stepped onto the balcony of the Knesset just as a massive brawl was breaking out in the main hall below. Then-Deputy Knesset Speaker Moshe Feiglin and Arab lawmaker Jamal Zahalka were involved in an argument, with Zahalka branding Likud MK Feiglin “a fascist and a racist.” Zahalka was forcibly removed from the Knesset by security as Arab and left-wing lawmakers screamed in protest.
In the midst of these chaotic scenes, Minister Yuval Steinitz was visibly embarrassed as he tried to calm the angry legislators long enough so they could greet Warren, who was being escorted by then-U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Steinitz begged them to stop fighting and welcome the distinguished visitor in the balcony. The MKs stopped what they were doing just long enough to give Warren a round of polite applause — and then returned to their skirmish.
“I remember it well,” recalls Shapiro, who can be witnessed translating the raucous debate to Warren as she nods and laughs. “Let’s say she was impressed by the spirited nature of Israeli democracy,” he says, adding, “It was as good an education as possible on how Israeli politics is conducted.”
Five years on, Warren is set to be the star of a far more decorous democratic debate. The presidential contender will cast a large shadow at the first of the two Democratic primary debates this week. As a result of the luck of the draw, the two front-runners the 70-year-old has been closing in on — senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, along with several other high-profile candidates — will only take the stage 24 hours after her, on Thursday night. She is perceived as gaining on the two veteran senators in key primary states, and has been the focus of flattering profiles over the past week in major U.S. publications.
Warren is still a bit of an enigma to the pro-Israel advocacy community. She lacks the long history of warm ties enjoyed by other contenders like Biden, or even senators such as Cory Booker or Kamala Harris. But neither is she viewed as being in the forefront of Israel’s critics on the progressive left.
One Massachusetts Jewish leader who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity believes that, at heart, the Oklahoma City-born Warren possesses the Harry Truman-esque “Midwestern view of the U.S. and Israel of her generation.” He believes that her commitment to the well-being of the Jewish state “is real.” However, he admits to being worried about the resilience of that commitment and her thoughtful, nuanced position in today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere and the fierce battle for securing the progressive wing’s support.
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The former Harvard law school professor has made her name with impressive plans for key domestic economic issues, but her background and record on foreign policy is far less substantial.
While she has appeared at local American Israel Public Affairs Committee events and there are AIPAC activists among her supporters, most of the positions she has taken hew more closely to those of J Street (the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby that emerged in the Obama era). That may not be a coincidence: Massachusetts businessman Paul Egerman, one of Warren’s longtime supporters and campaign treasurer, served on the advisory council of J Street.
Both as a Massachusetts senator and now as a presidential candidate, Warren has walked the line between the more established pro-Israel Democratic positions on Israel and the further-left views of many of her most enthusiastic supporters.
The road has not always been smooth. While her state has one of the most progressive and left-wing electorates, it also has an influential and politically active Jewish community to whom Warren actively reached out when she was preparing to run for Congress — and continues to consult frequently on issues involving Israel.
That balancing act was first on display when she disappointed many left-wingers by appearing too conventionally pro-Israel during the charged days of the 2014 Gaza War. To them, the rookie senator’s defense of Israel at a town hall meeting in Cape Cod portrayed her as being a pro-Israel hawk.
Warren was defending her decision to support AIPAC-backed legislation to provide emergency funding for the Iron Dome air defense system, which put her at odds with an unhappy constituent who said the funds sent to support Israel and its anti-missile batteries could have been spent on infrastructure or helping immigrants fleeing Central America.
Warren said she had to “agree to disagree” with him, and launched into pro-Israel talking points. “America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, a part of the world where there aren’t any liberal democracies,” she said, adding that Israel had been attacked “indiscriminately” with projectiles “aimed not at military targets but at anybody they can hit in Israel — the fundamental notion of terrorism.”
“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,” she said to applause.
At the same event, when another constituent proposed that U.S. funding should be conditional on Israel’s agreement to stop building settlements, Warren responded: “I think there’s a question of whether we should go that far.”
Reaction from Warren’s supporters on the far left was swift and harsh. Glenn Greenwald, the editor of news organization The Intercept, wrote that she “sounds just like [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.” The progressive Young Turks commentators bemoaned the fact that Warren — who until then was viewed “as something of a saint” and “unmarred” by liberals — could have such conventional views on Israel and so little sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza.
Strong Iranian stance
The progressive left has had less to complain about when it comes to Warren’s positions on the Iran nuclear deal. She was one of nearly 60 Democrats who chose to boycott Netanyahu’s (in)famous speech to a joint session of Congress about Iran in March 2015. She was one of the first Senate leaders to issue a statement of support for the Iran nuclear deal that ultimately emerged, praising it in August 2015 as “a comprehensive set of restrictions to block Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb.” She argued that it “is far easier to counter the ambitions of an Iran that has no nuclear weapon than it is to counter an Iran that can threaten the world with a nuclear bomb.”
In May 2018, she condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the deal, releasing a strong statement that doing so “breaks our word, hurts our credibility with our allies, empowers Iranian hardliners, and doesn’t make us any safer here at home.” President Donald Trump, she charged, “pulled the US out without offering any real alternative to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, creating chaos and confusion across the Middle East, and the world. This isn’t a strategy. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
She said in March that if she becomes president, she would seek to reenter the Iran deal.
Local Jewish leaders in Massachusetts, speaking on background, draw a distinction between the early years of Warren’s first term, where she appeared to be “doing her homework” on foreign policy issues — including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and her increasingly strong stances as she has emerged as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination following Trump’s election in 2016, marked by her decision to sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Speaking to the Reform movement’s biennial convention in December 2017, she once again toed the J Street line, criticizing the timing of Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, affirming that “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel” while declaring “neither the U.S. nor any other outside power should impose a solution, and that is why I am concerned about Trump’s decision, which I believe makes it more difficult to reach that goal.”
Last year, she criticized Israel’s approach to confronting protesters on the Gaza border, stating that she was “deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries,” calling on the Israel military to “exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.”
Her domestic battles against corruption dovetailed with foreign policy when she came out strongly against Netanyahu after Israel’s attorney general announced in February he would be indicted on bribery charges pending a hearing. “Corruption — in Israel, in the US, or anywhere else — is a cancer that threatens democracy,” she tweeted. “We need to fight back. And we can start by having the courage to call it out wherever it occurs. Even among our allies. Especially here at home.”
This month, she and Sanders were the only two presidential contenders to support a proposed Senate resolution, warning that “unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank would jeopardize prospects for a two-state solution, harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors, threaten Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity, and undermine Israel’s security.”
In a state that enjoys extensive business ties with Israel, Warren has pleased Massachusetts’ Jewish community by clearly opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. But at the same time she has squarely opposed any proposed anti-boycott legislation, saying that making anti-Israel boycotts illegal violates the constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Despite her friendly relations with AIPAC supporters in Boston, in March she defended Rep. Ilhan Omar with a vehemence that surprised many of her supporters, after the Minnesota congresswoman was criticized for using anti-Semitic language to attack the pro-Israel lobby.
Warren said that “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. Threats of violence ― like those made against Rep. Omar ― are never acceptable.”
Warren’s admirers in the Jewish community say that even when they disagree with her positions, they admire her willingness to listen, talk and learn.
Candy Glazer, a Western Massachusetts Democratic leader who has also served as an AIPAC executive committee member, is a self-described “friend, supporter and admirer” of Warren, who praised her “strong voting record on Israel.” Glazer has known and backed Warren since her first Senate run, when she reached out to her during a pre-campaign listening tour.
“Elizabeth Warren is a unique personality who loves discussion, to hear the opinions of everybody,” said Glazer. “She believes in democracy, is constantly discussing the issues in town hall meetings and behind the scenes, welcomes questions. I’ve seen a lot of candidates and, one on one, there is nobody like her. She has always reached out to the Jewish community, and is continually speaking to us,” Glazer added, dismissing concerns that Warren may pivot left on Israel in the heat of the race for the nomination.
“I don’t think anybody here would doubt her commitment to Israel’s security,” said Glazer. “I have no doubt about it — or I wouldn’t be supporting her.”