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Sens. Sanders, Warren call for ‘restricting’ US aid to Israel at J Street confab

Progressive lawmakers urge Israel to help vaccinate Palestinians, say foreign assistance shouldn’t be used to advance policies that ‘violate Palestinian rights’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C., co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C., co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Prominent progressive senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both used their Monday addresses at the J Street lobby’s national conference to call for regulating US aid to Israel, asserting that such assistance should not be allowed to bankroll Israeli policies in the West Bank that damage prospects for a two-state solution.

The stances appeared to mark a shift by more left-wing Democrats away from talk of “conditioning” aid to Israel to “restricting” it.

The former term was used by several candidates during the recent US presidential campaign, including Sanders and Warren — implying that some or all of the $3.8 billion in aid that the US has agreed to give Israel over a 10-year period should potentially be withheld based on actions taken by the Israeli government.

In shifting to talk of “restricting” aid, progressive Democrats, with J Street’s backing, are not calling to limit the amount of already-agreed-upon aid, but are rather seeking greater control of how it may and may not be used.

“If we’re serious about arresting settlement expansion and helping move the parties toward a two-state solution, then it would be irresponsible not to consider all of the tools we have at our disposal,” Warren told J Street in prerecorded remarks played on the second day of the left-wing, pro-Israel lobby’s virtual conference.

“One of those is restricting military aid from being used in the occupied territories. By continuing to provide military aid without restriction, we provide no incentive for Israel to adjust course,” she added.

The Republican Jewish Committee lashed out at Warren’s remarks, calling them “disgusting.”

“To advocate, as Sen. Warren does, that the US pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians while the Palestinian Authority condemns Israel’s existence, incites violence against Israel and Jews everywhere, and continues its ‘Pay for Slay’ salaries to terrorists and their families, is disgusting,” said RJC executive director Matt Brooks.

For his part, Sanders also declared himself in favor of the US using its aid as leverage.

“I strongly believe that we must also be willing to bring real pressure to bear, including restricting US aid, in response to moves by either side that undermine the chances for peace,” he said.

“The truth is that the United States gives an enormous amount of military aid to Israel. It also provides some humanitarian and economic aid to the Palestinians. It is totally appropriate for the United States to say what that aid may and may not be used for,” Sanders argued.

“In terms of aid to Israel, in my view, the American people do not want to see that money being used to support policies that violate human rights and treat the Palestinian people as second-class human beings,” he added.

Sanders insisted the strategy is not about “singling out any one country” but rather “acting in an evenhanded way” to advance American values in the region.

Warren also used the opportunity to chastise both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

On Netanyahu, she said that if the long-serving prime minister fails in the task of forming a government, “the majority [in the Knesset] that opposes him must decide what to do next. Will they continue to fight among themselves and, in the process, prop up a corrupt leader who puts his own interests ahead of those of his country? Or will they join together to begin the difficult task of rooting out corruption and reinstating the rule of law?” she asked.

As for the Palestinian leadership, Warren said that “the West Bank is ruled by a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian leadership under President Abbas” while Gaza is governed by “Hamas — a terrorist organization that has yet to renounce violence.”

Both Warren and Sanders called on Israel to do more to ensure that Palestinians are vaccinated.

“Jewish settlers in the West Bank are receiving vaccinations, while few Palestinians have any access to life-saving shots,” Warren said.

While Israel has been a world leader in inoculating its citizens, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza lag well behind. So far, only around 3.44 percent of them have received a coronavirus vaccine, with supplies rapidly depleting in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians received 72,000 doses of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine through the international COVAX initiative on Monday. But even with that shipment, Palestinians are still far from herd immunity. Ramallah has received some 196,200 doses from various sources, far fewer than it needs to vaccinate the nearly 3 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank.

Israel has immunized 105,000 West Bank Palestinians who hold permits to work in Israel and the settlements. It has also transferred several thousand more of its own doses to Palestinian officials and medical workers.

Nonetheless, the Jewish state has come under criticism for not vaccinating Palestinians, many of whom live under Israeli military rule. Human rights groups charge that international law requires Israel as an occupying power to provide vaccines for Palestinians.

Israel rejects the characterization that it occupies Palestinian territory, deeming the West Bank “disputed.” Israeli officials have also pointed to the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, which assign responsibility for health care to the PA. However, the agreement also states that the sides should cooperate on such issues.

While Sanders and Warren typically receive warm receptions at J Street conferences, it is unclear whether their more critical approach on Israel will reign supreme in the Democratic Party.

US President Joe Biden is similarly supportive of a two-state solution and has already acted to restore aid to the Palestinians slashed by his predecessor Donald Trump, but as a candidate he pushed back against efforts by J Street and others in the progressive wing of the party to insert language more critical of Israel onto the party platform.

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