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Conditioning US aid to Israel? Here's what 2020 Democrats had to say about it

Bernie Sanders says some aid to Israel should go to Gaza, while Elizabeth Warren pledges to reverse Trump's anti-Palestinian policies
L-R: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren (Reuters/File photos)
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Israel is the top recipient of American foreign aid, yet the Israeli government continues to defy the policies of successive US administrations that have been opposed to the expansion of Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank.

At liberal Jewish group J Street's annual conference in Washington, several Democratic presidential candidates said they would be open to using US assistance to Israel to pressure the country to stop building new settlements or annexing occupied Palestinian land.

That's a marked departure for the party, as unequivocal support for Israel has been a bipartisan position taken by both major parties for decades in the United States.

But today, with Donald Trump pursuing staunch pro-Israel policies, Democratic candidates have become more willing to criticise the Israeli government.

Here's what some of top 2020 Democratic contenders said at the J Street event, which concludes on Tuesday:

Bernie Sanders: 'We cannot give carte blanche to the Israeli government'

Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a stern rebuke of Israeli policies at J Street's annual conference on Monday, saying he would use US aid as "leverage" to advance human rights. He also suggested that he would repurpose some of the assistance to Israel as humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

"What's going on in Gaza right now... is absolutely inhumane; it is unacceptable; it is unsustainable," Sanders said.

'If you want military aid, you're going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza'

- Bernie Sanders, US senator

"So I would use the leverage - $3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it, carte blanche, to the Israeli government or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy."

Sanders, who was recently endorsed by Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, also pledged to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The Palestinian enclave has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007.

"If you want military aid, you're going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza," Sanders said. "In fact, I think it's fair to say that some of that $3.8 billion should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza."

Elizabeth Warren: 'Our aid should not be used to support annexation'

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has been rising in the polls, said US assistance to Israel should not be used to annex parts of the West Bank, stressing the need for a two-state solution to the conflict.

"If Israel's government continues with steps to formally annex the West Bank, the US should make clear that none of our aid should be used to support annexation," she said in a video address to the conference.

Before the Israeli elections took place last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to "apply Israeli sovereignty" to the West Bank's Jordan Valley, which constitutes about a third of Palestinian territory.

'I will make clear that in a two-state agreement, both parties should be able to have their capital in Jerusalem'

- Elizabeth Warren, US senator

On Monday, Warren did not elaborate on how she would ensure that American aid would not go towards annexation.

But when asked last week whether she would use US assistance to stop settlement-building, Warren did not rule out the possibility.

"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," she said at the time.

In her video to J Street's conference, the senator also said she would take "immediate steps" to reverse some of Trump's policies against Palestinians, pledging to resume funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and welcome Palestinian diplomats back to Washington.

Warren also said she would open an American diplomatic mission for the Palestinians in Jerusalem after Trump moved the US embassy to the holy city earlier this year.

"I will make clear that in a two-state agreement, both parties should be able to have their capital in Jerusalem," Warren said. 

Joe Biden: 'Israel must be able to defend itself'

Former Vice President Joe Biden, whom some public opinion polls suggest is leading the Democratic race, did not address aid to Israel during the J Street conference, but stressed the need for a two-state solution, in a brief video played at the event.

Biden, who has previously called himself a "stalwart supporter of Israel", criticised Israeli settlement expansion, and called on Palestinians to "stop violent attacks on Israel". 

"Israelis wake up every morning facing an existential threat from their neighbours in the region, and they live each day with tremendous courage, but also anxiety," Biden said.

"That's why we always have to be adamant that Israel must be able to defend itself."

Pete Buttigieg: 'Aid needs to be compatible with US objectives'

Similarly to Warren, Buttigieg said he would ensure that US assistance is not used for settlement expansion or annexation.

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He did not explicitly say, however, that he would withhold the funds.

"We need to make sure that any such cooperation and funding is going to things that are compatible with US objectives and US law," Buttigieg said at the conference on Monday. 

"And if we continue to see steps that are potentially destructive, I think it is a reminder that we need to have the visibility to know whether US funds are being used in a way that's actually not compatible with US policy."

In June, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, slammed Israel's annexation plans, saying that Netanyahu "should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to make sure that American taxpayers won't help foot the bill".

Julian Castro: 'Conditioning aid wouldn't be my first move'

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said conditioning aid to Israel would not be his "first move" as president.

Castro, who has been struggling to gain popularity in a crowded field of Democrats, said he would work "like crazy" to not reach a point where leveraging aid is needed to prevent Israeli annexation of Palestinian land.

"I would not take it off the table," he added.

Castro also suggested that a new Israeli government under Benny Gantz, who was recently tasked with forming a coalition, may be a better partner for the US.

"What I believe, what I hope, is that as Israel forms a new government, they're going to have a new opportunity to work with our ally, to ensure that there's no unilateral annexation, that we pursue a two-state solution," he said.

Amy Klobouchar: No comment

Senator Amy Klobouchar, who called Israel a "beacon of democracy in the Mideast" during a presidential debate earlier this month, declined to comment on whether she would condition aid to Israel when asked on Sunday.

"It's not a good idea to negotiate these things right now," she said.

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The senator acknowledged, however, that Israeli annexation of Palestinian land is "wrong".

In February, Klobouchar was the sole Democratic presidential candidate to back a bill that encourages US states to not do business with companies that boycott Israel.

Civil liberties advocates had decried the legislation, saying it violates the right to free speech.

At the J Street conference, Klobouchar defended her vote, blaming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for attaching the anti-BDS provision to the legislation that addressed other Middle East policy issues.

"Instead of bringing people together in support of Israel on a bipartisan basis, [McConnell] and President Trump are always looking for those wedges," she said.