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In all-important US Senate run-off, Israel-Palestine issue enters race

Raphael Warnock, Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia, is backtracking on past criticism of Israeli policies against Palestinians as he faces backlash
Warnock once condemned Israel's deadly crackdown on Great March of Return, proclaiming: 'Palestinian lives matter' (AFP/File photo)

In a US Senate race with enormous ramifications over how President-elect Joe Biden will govern once he takes office, a Democratic candidate is facing attacks over his past criticism of Israeli policies against Palestinians.

Georgia is set to hold run-off elections for two Senate races that will determine which party holds the majority in the upper chamber of Congress for the first two years of the Biden administration. 

Democrats need to win both elections in order to secure 50 out of the Senate's 100 seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the potential tie-breaker.

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In one of the contests, Democratic candidate Reverend Raphael Warnock is trying to distance himself from past criticism of Israel as his Republican opponent accuses him of "anti-Israel extremism".

On Tuesday, Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler said Warnock's record is "as anti-Israel as it gets", sharing a video of a 2018 sermon where the reverend slams Israeli forces for killing Palestinians protesting peacefully in Gaza as part of the Great March of Return.

"We saw the government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey," Warnock says in the sermon.

The video was uploaded to Youtube on 31 May 2018, but the lecture appeared to coincide with events that occurred two weeks earlier when the US embassy in Jerusalem opened on the same day that Israeli forces killed 58 Palestinian protesters

"I don't care who does it, it is wrong," Warnock continued. "It is wrong to shoot down God's children like they don’t matter at all. And it's no more antisemitic for me to say that than it is anti-white for me to say that Black lives matter. Palestinian lives matter."

'Oppressive regimes'

Jewish Insider reported on the video on Tuesday along with an op-ed that Warnock submitted to the publication, asserting that he supports unconditional military aid to Israel.

Warnock also called Israel in his article the "greatest proponent of democracy in the Middle East and America’s most important partner in the region".

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The sermon was not the first statement that spurred attacks against Warnock. Last week, Jewish Insider was also the first to report that the reverend had signed a statement by pastors criticising the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians.

The letter came out last year, after coalitions of church leaders from the US and South Africa visited Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

It decried the blockade of Gaza, settlement expansion and the segregation of Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, among other Israeli policies.

"We saw the patterns that seem to have been borrowed and perfected from other previous oppressive regimes," the statement reads, describing what the pastors witnessed during their visits. 

"The ever-present physical walls that wall in Palestinians is a political wall reminiscent of the Berlin Wall... The heavy militarization of the West Bank, reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa."

'Not antisemitic'

Loeffler, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump and his right-wing agenda, was quick to condemn Warnock after the letter resurfaced.

"Warnock has a long history of anti-Israel statements and positions," Loeffler's campaign said in a statement, citing her opponent's support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which it called antisemitic.

In a phone interview with Middle East Eye, the executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Abdullah Jaber, defended Warnock against accusations of antisemitism.

"The letter [is] stating facts of what was observed, and those facts are not antisemitic."

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On Tuesday, Code Pink, a feminist anti-war group, also backed the observations of the pastors in the letter.

"Israel's military occupation of the West Bank is composed of separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians, checkpoints, and a military court system that subjects two different groups of people to two separate sets of laws," Code Pink's national co-director Ariel Gold said in a statement. 

"Anyone who has traveled to the West Bank city of Hebron, as Reverand Warnock did with the National Council of Churches, is immediately confronted by the visceral and appalling reality that Israel is imposing a system of apartheid on the Palestinian people."

But in his Jewish Insider op-ed, Warnock stressed that he does not believe Israel to be an apartheid state. He also accused the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of antisemitism, but he expressed respect for "the First Amendment right to protest".

The focus on domestic issues during the presidential race showed that foreign policy is largely a secondary concern for American voters, but in a tight race that could be decided by a tiny percentage of the votes, any controversy could prove consequential.

The contests

In the other run-off race, 33-year-old challenger Jon Ossoff takes on Republican incumbent David Perdue.

Georgia's election laws dictate that if no candidate secures the majority of the votes, the top two vote-getters move on to a run-off election. This year, both of the southern state's US Senate seats are up for grabs. 

Last year, Loeffler was appointed to the US Senate by Georgia's Republican governor to succeed Johnny Isakson, who retired due to health concerns. 

Elections were held on 3 November to permanently fill Isakson's seat, and another for Perdue's expiring term. 

Neither yielded decisive results. At the top of the ticket, Biden is projected to win Georgia - the first Democrat to do so since 1992. 

Perdue received more votes than his Democratic challenger, despite falling slightly short of the majority needed to win outright as thousands of votes went to third-party candidates.

In the other contest, Warnock was the top vote-getter as Republican votes were split between Loeffler and GOP Congressman Doug Collins.

The Muslim vote

Loeffler has come under criticism for her association with now Congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who has expressed Islamophobic and racist views and promoted elements of the conspiracy theory QAnon.

Greene and Loeffler are backing each other and have appeared at joint events. "Anyone that is a Muslim that believes in Sharia law does not belong in our government," Greene said in a 2018 video after the elections of congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

The Loeffler-Warnock race may prove critical for the US. Without control of the Senate, a Biden administration will not be able to push through legislation and may face obstruction in appointing judges and cabinet secretaries.

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Jaber, of CAIR, slammed Greene and called on Republicans to disavow her. "Her words are very outrageous and agonising not only to the Muslim community but also to the Black community and to the Jewish community."

Georgia turned blue thanks to the "get out the vote efforts" of organisers like former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

Jaber said the 2020 record-breaking turnout was reflected in the state's Muslim community, and activists are looking to keep the engagement going to ensure that people participate in the senate run-off elections.

"Muslims continue to stay involved, and given that the run-offs are right in front of us, we're continuing to engage the community," Jaber said. 

"We've seen 84 percent of Muslim registered voters turnout from our survey, and we've also seen that 69 percent voted for President Biden and about 16 percent voted for President Trump. They are engaged. They are aware of the issues that matter to them."