What explains Tom Carper’s recent approach on Israel?

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman told JI he was 'puzzled' by Carper voting with Warren and Sanders against preventing the U.S. Embassy being moved out of Jerusalem

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), a deeply religious Christian who looks forward to weekly Bible study, has frequently told friends and colleagues that he prays every night for a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Despite his personal hope for a two-state solution, however, the senior senator from Delaware has hardly staked out a claim for himself as an active or outspoken voice in foreign policy circles over the years, focusing more on domestic issues like finance, transportation, homeland security, infrastructure and the environment throughout two decades in the upper chamber. His most high-profile cause, at the moment, is D.C. statehood.

But over the past few months, Carper, 74, has indicated he is pursuing a new and more distinctive path on Middle East issues. In early February, for example, Carper was only one of three senators — alongside Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — who voted against a budget amendment preventing the U.S. government from moving its embassy outside Jerusalem or downgrading it to a mission. Carper’s vote came as a surprise in large part because he says he supports keeping the embassy in Jerusalem.

“I was puzzled when I saw that he was with Warren and Sanders,” former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who was recently enlisted by Carper to help with the D.C. statehood effort, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “I just generally had the impression that he sort of had a mainstream, Democratic, pro-Israel position.”

In March, Carper signed a letter asking that the Biden administration “urge the Israeli government to do more to help the Palestinians” with vaccine distribution “in the occupied territories.” And a week later, Carper abstained — as he did the previous year — from signing onto a letter denouncing the International Criminal Court’s newly launched investigation of Israel for alleged war crimes.

Taken together, this trio of seemingly principled stands represents a “troubling” direction for Carper, according to David Margules, a member of Delaware’s tight-knit pro-Israel community. Yet as Carper throws his support behind “statements coming from the fringe of the Democratic Party,” Margules was at pains to explain the senator’s motivations. “I’m really not quite sure, to be honest with you.”

Barry Kayne, a pro-Israel advocate in Delaware, was equally mystified. “I can’t understand why he’s taken the positions that he’s taken,” he told JI. “I mean, it’s absolutely infuriating to me. But I don’t have an explanation.”

Such bewilderment underscores a sense of mounting frustration among some in the state who say they have long struggled to make sense of Carper’s approach, which until recently had been somewhat more muted. “Tom has been a conundrum for me for over a decade,” Kayne added. “I’ve lobbied him for years. I’ve written to him relative to pro-Israel legislation or U.S.-Israel legislation, and he’s always ambiguous.”

In a statement to JI, a spokesperson for Carper defended the senator’s embassy vote as “a principled stance on the belief that President Joe Biden — like presidents before him — should have the ability to develop and pursue his foreign policy agenda in any area of the world without limitations set by Congress, especially just a couple of weeks after taking office.”

“I can’t understand why he’s taken the positions that he’s taken,” said Delaware pro-Israel advocate Barry Kayne. “I mean, it’s absolutely infuriating to me. But I don’t have an explanation.”

“The rationale for the senator’s vote was simply to ensure the Biden administration is not constrained in its ability to conduct its own foreign policy,” the spokesperson added. “Additionally, at the time of the vote, the Biden Administration had repeatedly made it clear that it had no intentions of moving the embassy from Jerusalem or altering the operations there, and Sen. Carper supports the decision not to move the embassy.”

Lieberman said he was satisfied with Carper’s reasoning. “I was concerned about the vote, but I think it’s a good explanation, and I accept it,” he told JI. 

Critics, though, seized on a number of holes in Carper’s logic as evidence of an uneven approach. If Biden had already committed to leaving the embassy in Jerusalem, why not affirm that with a vote in favor of his decision? Moreover, his critics point out, Carper did not seem to hesitate in signing on to a letter in mid-April directly exhorting Biden to reenter the Iran nuclear deal — a clear demonstration of the senator’s effort to influence the administration’s foreign policy. 

“I think he’s full of it in that regard,” said one source who has known Carper for decades but asked for anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the discussion.

Other activists at the local and national level suggested that Carper’s recent actions cohere with longstanding convictions. “I think Carper is generally in the J Street camp,” said Gil Sloan, a Democratic activist and Jewish community member, referring to the left-leaning Israel advocacy group. “So I’m not surprised at Carper’s positions.”

Carper has always held more progressive foreign policy views, according to Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware who sits on the board of J Street’s Delaware chapter, at least in contrast to Chris Coons, Delaware’s other Democratic senator who is well-liked among pro-Israel advocates and positions himself as a foreign policy expert in Washington.

But until now, Carper — who before he was senator served as Delaware’s lone congressman and as governor for more than a decade — has had few occasions to make his views known, Khan argued. “The U.S. terrain is changing,” he said of Carper’s apparent shift leftward. “He would not have had opportunities like this in the past. If he had probably the same opportunities 10 years ago, maybe he would have done it.”

Sen. Tom Carper, right, speaks to President Joe Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 11, 2021, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Sen. Tom Carper, right, speaks to President Joe Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 11, 2021, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

“We believe that, like many of his Democratic colleagues, Sen. Carper’s record demonstrates a nuanced and principled position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American policy in the Middle East,” said Dylan Williams, a senior vice president at J Street. “He co-sponsored resolutions in support of normalization with the UAE in the fall of 2020, has co-sponsored a bill authorizing full security assistance to Israel in 2020, and also co-sponsored a bill reaffirming U.S. policy in favor of a two-state solution and opposing unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank.”

The budget amendment in particular “was, like so many of the amendments that arise in that process, a non-binding messaging vehicle,” Williams told JI. “There was legitimate concern among some Hill offices and advocates that the amendment’s language on embassy operations was intended to signal opposition to President Biden’s pledge to reopen a separate consulate serving Palestinians that Trump harmfully closed and incorporated into the embassy.”

In a lengthy email to JI, Carper clarified his underlying philosophy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a function of what he described as deeply held religious views. 

“As my colleagues can tell you, my favorite activity of the week is Bible study. And every week, the Chaplain will ask us how our faith should guide us in the work we do here and at home, and he reminds us of one of the two greatest commandments — to love our neighbors as ourselves, treating others as we’d want to be treated,” Carper said. “The Chaplain often invokes Matthew 25, one of my favorite lines, which paraphrased says ‘When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was thirsty did you give me a drink? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was a stranger in your land, did you take me in?’”

That was Carper’s way of emphasizing that he understands “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no easy feat to address,” as he put it. “But in the process of working towards an equitable resolution, we must never lose sight of the people — on both sides of the conflict — that are affected every single day,” Carper continued. “When it comes to our foreign policy in the Middle East, and the multitude of issues the United States and our allies face and have to consider, we must never lose sight of the innocent men, women, and children that are impacted by the decisions that are made.”

Still, members of Delaware’s pro-Israel community remain at odds with the senator. “He is a deeply religious man who feels a spiritual connection as well as a kinship based on Israel’s democracy,” Margules acknowledged. But while he concedes that Carper is “committed to Israel’s security,” Margules believes the senator is ultimately misguided. “He has fundamental views about Israel’s security that I just think are not historically justified.”

Carper, who has visited Israel several times throughout his career in public office, sees things differently. “Israel and the United States are connected by a shared set of democratic values and I’m proud to have a voting record that clearly shows my commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity,” he told JI.

Such policy disagreements have also arisen as Carper pushes for a negotiated return to the Iran nuclear deal. “He was in one of the first, if not the first, U.S. congressional delegations that went to Vietnam, and he often talks about this as an example of how entrenched enemies can become friends and have a constructive relationship,” Margules said of Carper, who is a former naval aviator. “If we support the moderates, then the moderates will have a greater capacity to influence their societies in a constructive fashion. Personally, my view is that that perspective defies historical experience.”

“In the process of working towards an equitable resolution, we must never lose sight of the people — on both sides of the conflict — that are affected every single day,” said Carper.

The senator, however, characterized the agreement as “a good deal for our country, our allies, and Israel, one of our closest allies — especially when the alternative to this deal was increased tensions, the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear arms, and maybe even war.”

Carper maintains widespread support throughout the state, according to recent polling. Having faced a progressive challenger last cycle, he prevailed with nearly 65% of the vote, continuing his statewide winning streak of 15 straight elections.

“He is very well respected in Delaware,” said Jack Markell, the state’s former governor. “He’s an extraordinarily hard-working guy. I mean, he is everywhere, and he is great about staying in touch with people. He does his homework. He understands the issues, and you can see that this electoral record. He’s been very easily reelected every time.”

Joe Pitka, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware who specializes in local politics, said that “as a moderate liberal Democrat,” Carper can “appeal to a broad swath of Delaware’s generally pro-business voters.” The longtime senator, he added, “combines a successful mix of moderate policy positions on economic issues” with “more progressive positions on some social issues.”

On U.S.-Israel relations, the senator made clear he was open to dialogue while firmly establishing his approach. “I believe the United States should be committed to the pursuit of comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East and that must include supporting and working closely with Israel, which is our strongest ally in the region, and a nation I’ve had the privilege to have visited as a congressman, a governor, and a U.S. senator,” he said.

“Additionally, I am proud to be a firm supporter of a two-state solution that enables Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace, security and prosperity,” Carper added. “Not only would this outcome give the Palestinian people a place to govern and call home, but it would also provide Israel with greater security and strengthen regional stability.”

But for some, Carper’s views have only become more elusive. “He’s always made himself available to the community, but when the rubber meets the road, he doesn’t walk the walk for us,” Kayne said. “I just don’t get it. When we go to lobby him, I’m usually chosen as the person to handle the conversation, as much as I don’t want to, because every year I come up empty-handed. But we keep at it.”

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