Where does Georgia senator Warnock stand on Israel and Palestine?

Where does Georgia senator Warnock stand on Israel and Palestine?
Raphael Warnock, who won re-election to the US Senate this week in Georgia, had a history of progressive stances on Palestine. But that appeared to quickly change when he ran for public office.
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
09 December, 2022
US Senator Raphael Warnock [right] previously held progressive views on the Palestinian issue, but appeared to shift shortly before his first race [Getty]

Having served less than two years in office, US Senator Raphael Warnock, who has just won re-election in Georgia this week, does not have much of a record on Israel and Palestine to his name. However, from looking at right-wing and left-wing niche publications, he is either a raging anti-Semite or a betrayer of Palestinians.

The reality appears to be more typical of a left-leaning politician. As a reverend and private citizen, Warnock spoke out on social justice and brought up the occupation of the Palestinian territories in his sermons, though he later modified his views when he ran for elected office.

This led the right to accuse him of anti-Semitism and the left to hope for him to be a progressive voice on Palestine.

"It's funny, but in a way both positions could kind of be true," Adam Shapiro, director of Israel-Palestine at Democracy in the Arab World Now, told The New Arab. "Part of the rhetoric used against Warnock from the right has less to do with him as a senator and more to do with him as the reverend of a progressive Baptist church."

Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta is known for its activism, particularly given its historic ties to the iconic civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who served there as a senior pastor in the 1960s. He often spoke out on and questioned US foreign policy.

Just weeks before his first election, a December 2020 article by conservative news outlet The Federalist condemned Warnock for referring to Israel as an apartheid state during a 2015 sermon at the church.

Around the same time, other conservative-leaning publications shared more sermons in which he was critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. 

Responding to these widespread criticisms just weeks before his election, he wrote an op-ed for Jewish Insider titled "I Stand with Israel". Leaving no doubt about his newfound stance, he compared the Black struggle in the US to the Jewish struggle against anti-Semitism. 

Probably most important for his sceptics, he hit on the main points of their apparent concern.

He firmly opposed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, though noted people's right to exercise their first amendment right to do so.

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He affirmed Israel's need for military assistance, though said he hoped there would be a day when that would not be necessary. He also said he would work to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Days later, he earned the endorsement from the pro-Israel PAC the Democratic Majority for Israel. This was followed by an article in the Electronic Intifada titled "Warnock throws Palestinians under bus and steps aboard with Israel", noting his quick policy position switch that was possibly a calculation brought about by being in a tight race in a historically conservative state.

"He's been in two runoff elections. In runoffs, as close as they've been, any loss could change the result. It's not surprising that he would take a line that would get him more votes," said Shapiro.

"If you abandon your position on Palestine, but keep other progressive positions, it's unlikely it will cost you any votes. If you support Palestinians, there's a risk. When the margins are so small, I can understand how the political calculus works."

Although there are a few exceptions, US senators are generally expected to be pro-Israel, and toe the line regarding long-established US foreign policy toward its main ally in the Middle East.

Apart from some of the most progressive members of the House of Representatives as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, members of both chambers of Congress rarely criticise Israel, and when it happens it tends to be with measured tactfulness on specific issues. 

The most recent notable issue to bring about criticism of Israel in the US has been the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

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Multiple representatives and senators, including Warnock, have called for US involvement in the investigation into her death. Otherwise, US lawmakers, with the exception of a small number of progressives, have remained largely silent on Israeli human rights abuses.

"His role is to not have that radical label. He's trying his best to not seem like he's extremely progressive," Mohamad Habehh, Director of Development for American Muslims for Palestine, told TNA.

Though this stance might have helped him win tight races, he might have lost support from his base, among them young Arabs, Muslims and others sympathetic to Palestinian rights. Habbehh noted that American voters are increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians.

"Muslims and Arabs went out of their way to support him. But when push came to shove, he started getting pushed on Israel," said Habehh.

"He really let down the community over there. He changed his progressive label in a town [Atlanta] where progressive is a good thing," he said.

Shapiro believes it's possible that Warnock might very well feel compelled to speak out against the newly elected far-right Israeli government, especially now that he has six years until his next election.

"The new Israeli government is extremely right-wing. It's going to take steps that will cause conflict with the US. Will members of the senate stand up and push back?" asked Shapiro. "I could potentially see Warnock now that he's secure for six years standing up. There's where somebody like Warnock could find a voice."