Back from the Holy Land

Senate Democrats offer positive outlook on major Middle East challenges following trip to region

The senators expressed optimism about a two-state solution, progress on controversial PA policies and more

Mark Neyman/GPO

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (c) meets with (from left) Sens. Jon Ossoff, (D-GA) Chris Murphy (D-CT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

Three Senate Democrats who recently returned from the Middle East expressed optimism about a range of challenges in the region — including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contentious issues in the U.S.-Israel relationship, controversial Palestinian Authority policies and the political crisis in Lebanon — in a briefing with reporters on Friday.

Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) traveled to Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon last week for a series of meetings with top officials. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) was also on the trip, but did not participate in the briefing.

The senators offered few details on their discussions about one well-publicized area of disagreement between the delegation and the Israeli government: the fate of the shuttered U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that traditionally served Palestinians. President Joe Biden has announced his intentions to reopen the consulate, a move opposed by the Israeli government, which must approve it.

“[Foreign] Minister [Yair] Lapid did say, with respect to a lot of those issues, ‘Do no harm,’” Van Hollen said regarding the consulate and other sensitive topics such as the possible eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Blumenthal added that the U.S. and Israel “tolerate differences” and “listen to each other as friends,” emphasizing their shared goal of keeping Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition government in power.

“I think the consulate issue is as much one of timing as anything else,” Blumenthal continued. “I know that President Biden has raised this issue with Prime Minister Bennett, and I think it will be worked out.”

This sense of optimism on Israeli-Palestinian issues carried throughout the senators’ remarks, despite the deep chasm between the Democrats and the Bennett government on the subject.

Murphy, who said he was “impressed” by the new ideologically diverse government, emphasized that in spite of Bennett’s opposition to a two-state solution, he sees significant room for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

“They’ve made significant steps just in the last few months, that are promising whether it be opening up a high-level dialogue with the Palestinian Authority or beginning to open up pathways for humanitarian relief into Gaza,” Murphy said. “We’ve met with Israeli leadership that seems very pragmatic and very willing to try to work with both parties in Congress to address a pathway towards, at the very least, a meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians.”

Van Hollen indicated that the delegation had found common ground with Lapid on the issue.

“In our conversations with all of these individuals, we emphasized the importance of doing no harm,” he said. “That’s a phrase that Foreign Minister Lapid used, urging all sides to take no actions that compromise the possibility of moving forward with a two-state solution… There’s still a door there in the future so long as we don’t see further changes that could make that an impossibility.”

Blumenthal said the Israeli government “must counter a perception that it is somehow subjugating human rights in some way,” but that “the perception and the reality can be changed and… the two-state solution can be preserved as an achievable goal.”

Blumenthal applauded the new Israeli government for its approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“I was very excited and inspired by the commitments made by the prime minister and the foreign minister to a different approach to the United States, a really, genuinely bipartisan approach,” he said. “I will say, as a member of the American Jewish community, that one of the great threats to the bonds between our two nations… has been the attempt to drive a partisan wedge politically in this country, between Israel and the United States. And the previous Israeli administration and the United States administration in effect promoted that wedge.”

Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, further indicated that he plans to support adding supplemental funding to replenish the Iron Dome missile-defense system to the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, on top of the $500 million provided in the bill under the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the United States.

The senators also offered a largely positive readout on their conversation with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. PA President Mahmoud Abbas did not meet with the delegation because he had just returned from a trip to Egypt, according to Van Hollen.

In a statement to Jewish Insider following the press breifing, Murphy expressed hope that the Palestinian Authority might end its “pay for slay” program, in which the Palestinian government provides compensation to the families of individuals who have conducted terror attacks against Israelis, which he called “unacceptable” and “a priority for me.”

“The political benefit they perceive to get from making these payments is greatly outweighed by the fact that it cuts them off from funding from the United States,” Murphy said. “I had a candid conversation with the prime minister about the need to change this law and the role that the United States can play in helping to make that happen. The proof will be in whether there are actually any actions taken.”

Murphy continued, “The fact that there’s now a dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis makes it more likely that the Palestinians can make the necessary reforms to their prisoner payment policy because now they can do that in consultation with both the Israeli government and the U.S. government.”

The senators seemed encouraged that the PA would soon hold long-delayed elections. Abbas is currently serving the 16th year of the four-year term to which he was elected in 2005.

Shtayyeh “said they would be prepared to move forward with the elections within six months of getting assurances from the Israelis that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem could participate in those elections, which is how those elections have been conducted in the past, and which I believe is a very reasonable request,” Van Hollen said. 

Murphy was more circumspect about the current state of recovery efforts in the Gaza Strip following an 11-day conflict earlier this year with Israel, acknowledging that the PA “is not in a strong enough position in Gaza right now to administer the reconstruction.” He proposed that the international community would likely have to come together to create a plan, as well as relying on the Egyptians or another country to lead the efforts.

“Part of what we were there to speak with the Israeli government about was a willingness on their behalf to get creative about how we bring aid into Gaza, and what kind of organizations would be able to move forward with that reconstruction,” he added.

The senators, speaking on the same day Lebanon’s new cabinet was announced, expressed hope for reforms and progress under new Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has served in the role twice before.

“We pushed very hard for the establishment of a new government,” Van Hollen said. “We had hoped it might happen by last Friday but are very pleased to see it happen today.”

“[Mikati] certainly talked the right talk,” Blumenthal added, referring to the delegation’s meeting with him. “And how he’s really got to walk that walk. And whether he can successfully fight corruption in a corruption-ridden country remains to be seen. But I am very hopeful… He clearly cares about his country.”

The group also met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun

In Washington, Lebanon experts argued that the new cabinet does not, fundamentally, change the situation on the ground for Lebanon or the region and that Hezbollah remains the most influential actor in the country.

“It doesn’t affect anything in terms of the balance of power in Lebanon,” Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JI. “The predominant power on every level — military, security, political, financial, economic, democragraphic — is Hezbollah… The birth of this government at this moment came because Hezbollah deemed it so.”

“What we call the ‘state’ is the show that’s run by Hezbollah, which includes the other sectarian oligarchs, who are junior partners who have no power to match Hezbollah,” he continued. In terms of U.S. and Israeli interests, “none of this matters, really.”

Badran and Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also pointed out that many of the leaders in Lebanon’s new government held government positions before and failed to enact reforms or were actively involved in corruption.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” Pletka said. “Mikati was the prime minister before. He’s part of the same Hezbollah clique that led the country to destruction. And there’s no reason to believe that they’re going to do anything different.”