The U.S. Democratic Presidential Candidates on Israeli Occupation: A Brief History 


The U.S. Democratic Presidential Candidates on Israeli Occupation: A Brief History 

By Palestine Center Intern 

In the past, any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by United States presidential candidates has centered around a few main talking points: One, Israel has the right to defend itself; Two, the U.S. values Israel as a beloved ally; and Three, the U.S. is committed to participating as an unbiased, third-party negotiator while securing a fair peace deal for both Israelis and Palestinians. What most U.S. politicians neglected to bring up were the inequalities and injustices faced by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) defied the status quo and went beyond those usual talking points about Israel and Palestine during his Democratic debate with Secretary Hillary Clinton. In their debate, he defended his previous comments stating that Israel used a disproportionate amount of force against Palestinians during its 2014 invasion of Gaza, and even further, he pushed Secretary Clinton to admit that Israel’s actions weren’t always morally defensible. Sanders’ comments simultaneously challenged two long-standing tropes in the way U.S. politicians discuss Israel and Palestine: one, that you can’t critique Israel, and two, that Palestinians can be acknowledged as more than potential terrorists, that they deserve “respect and dignity” like anyone else.   

This current presidential election cycle has demonstrated a major shift in how the Israeli occupation of Palestine is discussed in U.S. politics. This time around, every major Democratic candidate has been asked, and addressed, their stances towards ending the occupation and implementing a viable political solution in the region. Conversations about peace no longer solely revolve around Israeli interests and concerns but also put Palestinian perspectives at the forefront of these conversations. This shift can not only be seen in how frequently the occupation is being mentioned in this election cycle, but also by looking at each candidate’s history of engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their current stances. By observing the evolution of these candidates’ beliefs, one can gain insight into the current political maneuvering at play shaping American policy on the occupation and where this policy might be going in the future. 


The Candidates 

These candidates were picked for review based off of their consistent top ranking in the polls, and therefore, the likelihood of them securing the Democratic nomination. They were also selected based off of their overall contribution to shaping the historic and current U.S. political attitude on Israel and Palestine. 


Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

Sen. Sanders (I-VT) is easily the best candidate to champion the Palestinian cause and implement policies opposing Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, if elected to office. He’s not perfect. He’s a liberal Zionist who’s never addressed (publicly, at least) how that nationalist ideology demanded and contributed to the erasure of Palestinian people from their land. He supports a two-state solution, despite the fact that the large number of illegal settlements in the West Bank has made such an option essentially impossible to implement in practice. And despite criticizing Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 2017, when asked whether he would move the embassy back to Tel Aviv if elected, he declined to comment. That said, Sanders is one of the few presidential candidates in recent history to voice strong support for cutting U.S. military aid to Israel. He pressured Sec. Clinton in 2016 to acknowledge the war crimes committed by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza and consequently moved forward discussions about Palestinian rights that had been stalled in position for decades. In addition, his support for a two-state, however realistically impractical, is in line with every other Democratic candidate’s position and much of the international community’s. Despite his flaws, Sanders is the candidate most likely to give Palestinians a significant voice at the peace negotiating table. 



1960s: Briefly lived on an Israeli kibbutz in the Galilee in the 1960s. 

March 2016: Did not attend the AIPAC conference in the last presidential election cycle in 2016, but he did deliver the speech he would have given. He criticized Israeli settlements, called for greater understanding of Palestinian suffering, and promised he’d demand the entire world to recognize Israel’s right to exist.  

April 15, 2016: Argued for greater “respect and dignity” towards the Palestinian community in a 2016 presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.  

April 25, 2016: Refused to sign a letter from U.S. Senators to President Obama calling for an increase in U.S. aid to Israel.   

February 2017: Spoke at J Street’s 2017 Annual Conference. Subsequently, he spoke at their 2018 and 2017 conferences as well. 

April 2017: Signed a Senate letter to UN Secretary-General Guterres accusing the UN of anti-Israel bias and reinforcing anti-Semitism. It also denounced the BDS movement.  

May 2017: Stated in an interview that he does not see the BDS Movement as effective or a path forward to peace and also does not support a one-state solution because he thinks it would be “an end to the state of Israel.”  

September 2017: Said he would consider voting to reduce U.S. aid to Israel. 

November 2017: Signed on to a letter from Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) to Prime Minister Netanyahu urging Israel to reconsider the demolition of a Palestinian village in the West Bank. 

June 2018: Endorsed by J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group. 

May 2018: Signed a Senate Letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging U.S. humanitarian action in Gaza. 

February 2019: Opposed a bill aiming to criminalize boycotts, divestments, or sanctions against Israel by U.S. entities.

March 2019: Posted a campaign video of activist Shaun King praising him for critiquing “apartheid-like conditions in Palestine.”   

April 2019: Targeted in a Facebook ad campaign sponsored by AIPAC.  

July 2019: Declined to answer whether he would move U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv.  

October 2019: Spoke at J Street Annual Conference


Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Although she is considered one of the farther left candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary field, Sen. Warren’s (D-MA) record shows a complacency with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land that has only recently begun to ease as the 2020 Democratic primaries have gotten closer. In 2014, she rationalized Israel’s invasion of Gaza and co-sponsored a bill to send Israel $225 million in U.S. military aid (in addition to the annual $3 billion package). She also was hesitant towards the idea that U.S. aid to Israel should be withheld while Israel continues to build illegal settlements. In terms of her political alliances, the senator from Massachusetts has been known to attend dinners hosted by AIPAC’s Boston chapter and signed an AIPAC-

sponsored letter in 2016 asking President Obama to veto a U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. 

Nonetheless, Warren’s main competitor in this presidential race has been Sanders. The media has deemed the two senators as the most left candidates in the Democratic primary field, frequently looking to find any major differences between their similar platforms. Due to their primary focus on domestic issues rather than foreign policy, their attitudes towards Israeli occupation are a discernible difference. Because Sanders drove the conversation on Palestine left in 2016, Warren had no choice but to follow if she was to keep up with and satisfy the leftist base in the Democratic Party that she needs votes from to get elected. In recent years, Warren has politely refused to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, called for an end to Israeli settlement building, and voiced concerns about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. She’s not as publicly a war hawk as she used to be. But her reluctance to take pro-Palestinian stances until she was at risk of political isolation on the left leaves questions about what actions she would really take if elected to America’s highest office.  



August 2014: Supported Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014.  

March 2014: Cosponsored an AIPAC-sponsored bill to supply Israel with an addition $225 

million in funding for their Iron Dome defense system. 

November 2014: Visited Israel, Palestine, and Jordan to meet with government officials, military troops, and UN representatives. 

September 2016: Signed an AIPAC-sponsored Senate letter to President Obama urging him to veto a future UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.  

November 2017: Signed on to a letter from Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) to Prime Minister Netanyahu urging Israel to reconsider the demolition of a Palestinian village in the West Bank. 

December 2017: Criticized President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but she affirmed her belief that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. 

April 2017: Signed a Senate letter to UN Secretary General Guterres accusing the UN of anti-Israel bias and reinforcing anti-Semitism. It also denounced the BDS movement.  

April 2018: Urged Israeli military forces to “excercise restraint” with Palestinian protesters participating in the Great March of Return. 

June 2018: Endorsed by J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group.

May 2018: Signed a Senate Letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging U.S. humanitarian action in Gaza. 

February 2019: Opposed a bill aiming to criminalize boycotts, divestments, or sanctions against Israel by U.S. entities. 

June 2019: Cosponsored a bill that would affirm the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution and recognize the threat Israeli annexation of the West Bank poses to peace and democracy. 

July 2019: Declined to answer whether she would move U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv

July 2019: Hired an aide, Max Berger, who helped found IfNotNow, an activist group of young Jewish- Americans that oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank.  

DATE?: Warren’s support from key AIPAC and J Street leaders 

October 2019: Spoke at J Street Annual Conference


Joe Biden 

Vice President Biden’s engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably one of, if not, the most one-sided in this presidential race. He has visited Israel and met with its state leaders more than any other candidate in his field. Although he supports Palestinian self-determination, he’s not a champion of the Palestinian cause. Biden has claimed that Palestinian leaders “incite and glorify violence” and conveniently neglected to mention the Israeli statesmen who do that frequently. He’s the clearest embodiment of typical U.S. politician stances towards Israel and Palestine that were mentioned earlier. This quality of his, the one that insists his position towards Israel and Palestine be as close to the status quo as possible, seems to be in line with his general nature of being part of the Democratic establishment. He’s not trying to break the rules or shake up the game. He’s a candidate who, if elected, would spend more time during a peace negotiation condescending to the Palestinian leadership and its people rather than listening to them. 


September 1973: Traveled to Israel and met Prime Minister Golda Meir right before the war broke out. 

June 1982: Met Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with other U.S. senators. Biden and Begin reportedly got into a tense exchange when Biden suggested that Israeli settlement expansion might threaten support for U.S. funding to Israel. 

November 1984: Blamed the absence of a peace deal on Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization at the Herut Zionists of America’s annual conference.

March 2010: Visited Israel and was surprised with the Israeli government’s announcement of plans to build 1600 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem. Biden condemned the planned settlement expansion.   

March 2013: Spoke at AIPAC’s Annual Conference praising the approval of extra U.S. funding towards Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. 

January 2014: Visited Israel to speak at the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. 

March 2016: Visited Israel and Palestine to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas. This visit was somewhat overshadowed by Netanyahu  rejecting President Obama’s offer to visit the White House.  

March 2016: Spoke at AIPAC’s Annual Conference saying he didn’t believe that either Israelis or Palestinians currently had any political will for serious negotiations. He also highlighted the Obama administration’s efforts to oppose the Palestinian request for non-member observer status at the UN. 

April 2016: Spoke at the J Street Conference about the Obama administration’s frustration with Netanyahu and Israel’s continued settlement expansion due to the threat that settlements pose to a two-state solution. 

July 2019: Said he would leave U.S. embassy in Jerusalem

July 2019: Voiced his support for a two-state solution while condeming Israeli settlements and stating that Palestinian leaders have “incited and glorified violence.”  

Mayor Pete Buttigieg 

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is perhaps the candidate who has most successfully been able to tow both lines of American political rhetoric on Israeli occupation, the old and the new. After visiting Israel with the American Jewish Committee in 2018, he said on their podcast that Israel’s 2014 invasion of Gaza demonstrated how the country was a model for the United States on how to handle security issues. This comment is in line with the American political community’s historical rhetoric on the Israeli occupation, stressing how much Israel faces security issues while casually ignoring the mass murder of Palestinians. That said, Buttigieg has also somewhat become part of the more recent trend of Democratic critique of the Israeli occupation, and perhaps, he also speaks with a candidness that’s representative of the younger generation of presidential candidates in general. 

The New York Times organized a video series of multiple Democratic candidates answering the question, “Do you think Israel meets international standards of human rights?” While most candidates attempted to avoid answering the question directly or cushion their criticisms of Israeli policy by talking about Israel’s “tough neighborhood,” Buttigieg replied, “Israel’s human rights record is problematic and moving in the wrong direction under the current right-wing government. The U.S. can be committed to Israeli security and the U.S.-Israeli alliance while also guiding our ally in a direction that leads towards peace.” The answer is direct and specific, showing no effort to avoid the question or steer the conversation to other topics like the two-state solution. In another interview, he denounced Israeli “overreach” in Palestine, using a term that five to ten years ago would have gotten him labeled as anti-Israel.

Because Buttigieg hasn’t had an extensive or particularly notable political career like some of his competitors (e.g. Biden, Sanders, Warren, etc.), his views on Palestine and the occupation aren’t widely recorded. As a result, he’s been able to maintain a pro-Israel stance in a party that is increasingly showing signs of growing pro-Palestinian sentiment while also speaking with a straightforward tone that many younger American politicians are using today in their critique of Israel. As a young politician without an extensive career, his critique of Israel also can’t be characterized as a hard shift Sen. Warren’s, and his belief in pro-Israel positions doesn’t make him appear as a member of the Democratic establishment, like Vice President Biden. His speaking tone doesn’t make him a friend to Palestinians though, and if elected to office, he would surely prioritize Israeli interests before addressing Palestinian needs. 


May 2018: Visited Israel with the American Jewish Committee. 

April 2019: Received public endorsement from Steve Grossman, a former president of AIPAC.

July 2019: Said he would leave U.S. embassy in Jerusalem

July 30, 2019: Professed his support for a two-state solution, commenting that the U.S. alliance  with Israel is a “fundamental tenet of US national security policy” while also labeling the current Israeli government’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza as “overreach.”

October 2019: Spoke at J Street Annual Conference 



Despite how different the history of each candidate’s political stance on Palestine is, many of the candidates share similar opinions and address the occupation using the same language. When asked about Israel’s compliance with human rights standards or their recommended solutions to the conflict, all candidates mention the importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance, their belief in Israel’s ‘right to exist,’ and their support for a two-state solution. Several also frequently stress how they feel about the ‘danger’ posed by Israel’s neighbors. The truth is that the occupation didn’t start with Netanyahu. His administration is not the first to explicitly make clear how little it values the lives of Palestinians. By focusing solely on the current Israeli government and not on the state’s record of crimes against humanity since its inception, the candidates are still able to dodge accusations of anti-Israel bias and spin their stance as one opposed to a single administration in time and not the whole colonial state. There’s also a universal hypocrisy among the candidates in acknowledging and opposing Israel’s continued settlement expansion, but only choosing to support a two-state solution by which these settlements have made unlikely to occur.  

But with many of the younger, newer politicians, there’s a candidness in how they voice their criticisms of Israel that hasn’t been seen before in American politics. For example, in the Times video series, Julian Castro states how while he thinks Israel attempts to meet human rights standards, it could do better. Andrew Yang and Congressman Beto O’Rourke (who is no longer in the race) make similar comments, consequently acknowledging Palestinian suffering in the process. Castro even goes further and says he believes Israel will have to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic one. Ten years ago, American politicians couldn’t make these statements without being seen as radically left, and candidates like Warren and Biden make it clear that they are avoiding following this pro-Palestinian trend in the Democratic Party for the purpose of not being labeled this way. But newer criticism of the occupation raises hope that one day Palestinian interests will not be a side note in American foreign policy, but an assured tenet of a policy that promotes dignity, human rights, and justice.