Senator Elizabeth Warren’s remarks to the 2021 J Street Virtual National Conference
Thanks so much for that exceptionally warm and kind introduction, Jeremy. I appreciate it.
Hello J Street! Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today. I’m sorry that we’re still unable to gather in person. I wish we could shake hands and give hugs and, most of all, doing some selfies. But even without those things, I’m glad to have the chance to participate in this important conversation with you. First let me thank you for the critical work you do every day to advance our progressive values. For the past 13 years, since Jeremy Ben Ami founded J Street, you have been a leader in ensuring that pro-Israel, pro-peace voices are represented and heard in our national political debate, and I’m grateful for your leadership.
We’re at a critical juncture. The Trump administration’s disastrous policies made the two-state solution further from becoming a reality. But Trump is gone, and Biden and his team are very different. The Biden administration has the values, judgment, and experience to undo that damage and set the conditions that can make the two-state solution viable again.
Israel is a strong ally and partner to the United States. We share many common interests and common values. I am committed to the U.S-Israel relationship and I’m committed to Israel’s security and safety. But one of the most sacred aspects of friendship is speaking honestly, and, sometimes providing tough love.
One example comes immediately to mind: as we recognize the critical importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, it is critical also to recognize the moral imperative of Palestinian rights. The United States cannot stand for security, human rights, and dignity and, at the same moment, turn a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Palestinians deserve to live in freedom and prosperity. No Israeli child from Beersheva should have to hide in a bomb shelter, no Palestinian child from Hebron should be evicted from their home to make way for a settlement.
I believe in the worth and value of every human being — and that means every Israeli and every Palestinian. And I believe that a two-state solution is the path to respect for every human being. This is a moral issue, and it is also the best outcome for U.S. interests, the best outcome for Israel’s long-term security and economic future, and the best outcome for ensuring that Palestinians have the rights, freedom and self-determination to build a secure future for themselves. A two-state solution will mean an end to Israeli occupation and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — living alongside Israel in peace and security.
Any hope of achieving a two-state solution begins with honesty. Today the two-state solution is on life support. But there is no compelling, workable alternative that allows a democratic Israel to remain a Jewish state while also affording the Palestinians full rights and citizenship. The two-state solution is the only path forward that has widespread international support and that meets our moral imperatives.
Successive U.S. administrations have failed to deliver a negotiated settlement that achieves these goals, but the Trump administration did something else: They undermined 50 years of U.S. leadership as an effective mediator by abandoning any pretense of neutrality and jumping directly into the peace process in a way that put a thumb on the scales by giving a green light to settlements, cutting off aid to and communication with the Palestinians, and publishing a one-sided peace plan. This was highlighted by his administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem without any equivalent step for the Palestinians. I opposed this move because, as I said at the time, while Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the Israelis and the Palestinians should determine the final status of Jerusalem.
Israel’s long-term strategic interests, meanwhile, have been served poorly by its longest serving prime minister. He has precipitated four stalemate elections in two years in his frenzied effort to immunize himself from well-documented charges of corruption. Netanyahu does not command a majority of the new Knesset, but Israel’s President has told him to try anyway, lamenting that the law does not allow him to do anything else even while Netanyahu is currently on trial. If Netanyahu fails in this task, the majority that opposes him must decide what to do next. Will they continue to fight amongst themselves and in the process prop up a corrupt leader who puts his own interests ahead of his country, or will they join together to begin the difficult task of rooting out corruption and reinstating the rule of law? This is the same fork in the road that the US faced in the election of 2020. Despite our differences, a significant majority of Americans concluded that the integrity of a democracy is far more important than the personal interests of one leader and banded together to defeat Donald Trump. Israel’s elected leaders should do the same and give the Israeli people a new Prime Minister.
The continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a growing threat to the two-state solution. Expansion policies that have been aggressively pursued by Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, were also supported for years by earlier Israeli governments. And let’s be clear about this: The Netanyahu government may have put aside formal annexation for now, but the continued growth of these settlements and the destruction of Palestinian homes amounts to de facto annexation.
The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, continues to show that it is unable to meet the current challenges. The West Bank is ruled by a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian leadership under President Abbas. While he has shown a genuine commitment to non-violence, he has also consistently failed to take real risks for peace. Gaza, meanwhile, is governed by Hamas — a terrorist organization that has yet to renounce violence. This internal political division and feckless governance within and among the Palestinians themselves remains a major impediment to peace.
The obstacles to achieve the two-state solution are enormous and they are many. In the past, U.S. administrations and members of Congress relied on the comfortable talking point that the parties must get together and work out their differences through negotiations. That approach is no longer enough. When the imbalance of power between the two sides is as vast as it is between Israel and the Palestinians, passive calls for a negotiated solution do little more than perpetuate the status quo. It’s time to act. The U.S. should take immediate steps to improve the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians on the ground today and to make a negotiated two-state solution more likely.
One immediate step would be to insist that Israel do more to help Palestinians get vaccinated against the deadly threat of COVID-19. The success of Israel’s vaccination program is an impressive and historic achievement. Israel today is the most vaccinated nation in the world. Amazingly, clubs and bars are reopening in Tel Aviv. This success stands in stark contrast to the West Bank and Gaza, which remain under lockdown as COVID-19 continues to spread out of control. Jewish settlers in the West Bank are receiving vaccinations while few Palestinians have any access to life-saving shots. Israel controls the West Bank and all movement of people and goods that go into and out of the Palestinian Territories, which means it has a moral and legal obligation under the Geneva Conventions as the occupying power to take on responsibility for vaccinating the population, period.
Second, the United States should take steps to restore our relationship with the Palestinians and undo some of the damage done by the Trump administration. President Biden took the first step last week by restoring funding to critical aid programs — but his administration should do more. We should immediately reopen the U.S. consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the PLO delegation office in Washington, DC.
Third, living our progressive values also means that we must not turn a blind eye to the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, where two million civilians are stuck between a repressive Hamas leadership that supports terrorism and an Israeli blockade that has devastated civilian and economic life. The Biden administration should press for immediate steps to increase access to water, electricity, and healthcare in the Gaza Strip as well as support increased freedom of movement. We should then seek a political arrangement that ends the rocket attacks and blockade, and that brings about the political reunification of Gaza with the West Bank.
Fourth, we should talk about the elephant in the room — America’s military assistance to Israel. I said earlier that I’m committed to Israel’s security, and I am. I support military assistance to Israel. But 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. 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. In addition to destroying Palestinian lives and livelihoods, the continued de facto annexation of the West Bank is one of the greatest long-term impediments to the two-state solution; if we don’t solve that riddle then we can’t solve the problem.
Critically, we also need to support the Palestinians in their efforts to hold elections. I get it, this one is hard because Hamas is a terrorist organization and it’s likely going to win many seats. But the answer cannot be to stand in the way of democracy or reject democratic outcomes we don’t like. The Palestinians remain divided between separate leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza. They continue to suffer under corrupt governance. These elections could play a meaningful role in addressing these problems and we should support them. However, we must also insist that any new Palestinian government renounce violence if it is to expect American engagement.
Finally, we also need to address our own role in this story. Historically, successive U.S. administrations have pushed our European allies and Arab partners to the side instead of working with them in genuine partnership. That was folly. Our allies and partners are a great source of strength, and we should be working with them to achieve a just and lasting two-state agreement, just as we worked successfully with them to secure the Iran nuclear agreement.
We must press for a lasting, just peace. If we fail, we doom successive generations of both Israeli and Palestinian children to lives of insecurity and indignity. If we fail, we solidify injustice with inaction and suffering with empty rhetoric. If we fail, we let the seeds of conflict deepen their roots. The consequences of failure are too great, and we don’t have a minute to waste.
Thank you again for allowing me this opportunity to speak with you today. The fight for justice is long and hard, but it is a righteous fight. I am honored to fight alongside each of you.