Conor Lamb calls for ‘delicate balance’ on U.S.-Israel relations in Pa. Senate bid

The moderate congressman is walking a fine line between ‘maintaining our support’ for Israel, yet criticizing Israeli moves he says jeopardize the two-state solution

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), who gained national prominence when he pulled off a surprise upset in a Trump-leaning House district outside of Pittsburgh four years ago, launched his Senate campaign last summer with an argument that he is uniquely capable of repeating that success across Pennsylvania.

With little time remaining until next Tuesday’s high-stakes Senate primary, however, the two-term congressman has struggled to gain momentum, notwithstanding a continued effort to position himself as a centrist foil to the frontrunning Democrat and lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, an outspoken progressive who holds a sizable polling lead.

But Lamb’s messaging on at least one major Middle East foreign policy issue has, perhaps unexpectedly, put him somewhat to the left of Fetterman and another progressive rival, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, in the open-seat race to succeed outgoing Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). As the primary enters its final stretch, Lamb is calling for a more nuanced if actively critical approach to American engagement with Israel, particularly amid increased settlement expansion that, he warns, has dimmed hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) talks with constituents at Riardos Bar and Grill on August 6, 2021 in New Castle, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

“That’s where I think we have to strike this delicate balance,” Lamb, 37, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, “of maintaining our commitment to it, maintaining our support for Israel, especially right now, as they’re being attacked yet again, but not being afraid to say when the settlement activity goes over the line and therefore jeopardizes what it is we’re trying to pursue in the two-state solution.”

His argument is broadly consistent with that of the Biden administration, which objected to the Israeli government’s announcement last week that it will approve the construction of nearly 4,000 new housing units in the West Bank. “Israel’s program of expanding settlements deeply damages the prospect for the two-state solution,” Jalina Porter, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters on Friday. 

Still, the urgency with which Lamb has recently drawn attention to the issue has stood out, not least because of his reputation as a pro-Israel stalwart who is among the most high-profile moderates in the House.

During a Senate candidate forum hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America last month, for instance, each of the three participants — including Lamb, Fetterman and Kenyatta — voiced unanimous support for continued and unconditional security assistance to Israel as well as funding for its Iron Dome missile-defense system.

Fetterman, who angered some on the activist left when he came out as staunchly pro-Israel in a recent interview with JI, reiterated his views at the end of the forum, noting that, “at every juncture,” he would “come down on the side of Israel.”

Lamb, on the other hand, devoted a portion of his remarks — on a question regarding the two-state solution — to criticizing Israeli settlements. “Unfortunately, if the settlement activity just sort of continues with no limit to it, it becomes less and less plausible that you could have a possible two-state solution, just as a question of geography,” he argued. “That’s the biggest thing we have to pay attention to and try to use our political influence to balance.”

“My personal perspective is to say that it’s time for us to double down on the importance of the two-state solution,” he emphasized, “because there are people in Washington, actually on both sides, who are openly questioning the viability of it, in part because of all the settlement activity that is taking place.”

In conversation with JI late last week, Lamb, a Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor, offered further insight into the motivations for his concern, cautioning that both Democrats and Republicans have shied away from endorsing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, which, until recently, had been a longstanding bipartisan pillar of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“My personal perspective is to say that it’s time for us to double down on the importance of the two-state solution,” he emphasized, “because there are people in Washington, actually on both sides, who are openly questioning the viability of it, in part because of all the settlement activity that is taking place.”

Such comments are echoed on the issues page of Lamb’s campaign site, where he is alone among his Democratic opponents in including a section devoted exclusively to policy toward Israel. “Israel has the absolute right to defend itself and protect the Israeli people,” he writes, before adding: “That does not mean that the Israeli government should be immune from criticism.”

But in interviews with JI last week, some of Lamb’s longtime Jewish backers expressed surprise over the direction of his critique, even as, despite some quibbles, they affirmed their continued support for the congressman’s Senate campaign.

“Let me just say, it’s more to the left than my stance,” said Lou Weiss, a pro-Israel advocate in Pittsburgh. “We don’t need to put pressure on Israel. They put pressure on themselves.”

Jeffrey Letwin, a Jewish community activist in Pittsburgh, said he had watched some of the JDCA forum last month but missed Lamb’s more critical remarks. “Conor has always shown himself to be the type of candidate and the type of legislator who’s been willing to reach across the aisle,” he told JI. “Maybe that was just a reflection of his willingness to listen to all sides.”

“But I honestly believe, when it comes to someone we can count on, he’s our guy,” Letwin said.

Weiss, who described Lamb as a “great ally” and a “proven supporter,” agreed. “Conor’s head and his heart are in the right direction and everyone wants peace,” he reasoned. “What are the terms of that peace and how it’s arrived at, that’s where people have different strategies. When push comes to shove, we can absolutely count on him.”

During his first congressional bid, in 2018, Lamb drew some scrutiny from the Jewish community when a conservative website unearthed a letter from his college days in which he had accused Israel of “terrorism” and deliberately targeting civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Lamb said at the time that he had “no memory” of submitting the letter to the University of Pennsylvania’s student paper in 2002, while also stressing that he would “always support Israel.”

He prevailed over his Republican opponent with endorsements from a number of Jewish groups, including the political arms of J Street and the JDCA.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Rep. Conor Lamb, (D-PA) shake hands at a forum for Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., Sunday, April 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This cycle, pro-Israel organizations have largely stayed out of the Senate race. J Street and the JDCA are not making official endorsements, while Democratic Majority for Israel’s political action committee isn’t weighing in because it has concluded that Lamb and Fetterman are both suitable choices.

Lamb, who took office shortly after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, has built close relationships with Jewish voters across the state during his time in Congress, where he has pushed back against boycott campaigns targeting Israel as well as “other antisemitic movements in our culture,” he told JI.

“Unlike his primary opponents, Congressman Lamb was at the intersection of Shady and Wilkins the morning of the Tree of Life massacre,” said Ari Mittleman, a Jewish activist and an expert on Pennsylvania politics who is neutral in the primary. “I imagine those emotions and memories never leave you.”

Over the past four years, Lamb said he has frequently consulted with Jewish voters on U.S.-Israel issues and other Middle East foreign policy concerns. “I think I’ve just learned more — more detail, more history, more perspective,” he told JI. “I don’t think my basic position on the importance of this relationship has changed, but I think I’ve gained a lot of knowledge thanks to many people in the community who are willing to kind of sit me down and talk me through everything they understand about it. It’s been really one of the things that I’ve enjoyed learning about the most.”

“Time will tell, but I think a fresh start is always healthy,” he added. “Now that there seems to be this larger alliance taking shape in the Middle East between Israel and some of these Arab countries, that might actually increase the likelihood that we make some progress on peace, and that’s a factor that we didn’t have before.”

He said he has gained a deeper appreciation for, among other things, “the specific way that our military aid operates on the ground in Israel,” including how the Iron Dome system “has been a force for nonviolence,” as well as what he characterized as an “evolving challenge” with Iran. “It’s become a lot more urgent now,” he said, referring to the Biden administration’s renewed efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal.

“I started as a skeptic because of the changes that have taken place in Iran since the last deal was in place,” Lamb told JI, noting that he opposed leaving the deal in 2018. “But Iran itself seems to have radicalized and gained a lot of nuclear material since then, and so it’s always been hard for me to understand how you were going to unring that bell.” Lamb remains “open-minded” on a possible agreement as he awaits further information. “I’m not reflexively in support of it,” he said. “I’m also not starting off against it. I really need to think the devil is in the details on this one.”

Lamb was relatively optimistic in his assessment of Israel’s coalition government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “I’ll say just that while Bennett obviously is pretty conservative himself, he’s maintaining a coalition with an Arab party in it as well,” Lamb said, “so I would think that could only help on the road to something approaching the negotiations for a two-state solution.”

“Time will tell, but I think a fresh start is always healthy,” he added. “Now that there seems to be this larger alliance taking shape in the Middle East between Israel and some of these Arab countries, that might actually increase the likelihood that we make some progress on peace, and that’s a factor that we didn’t have before.”

The Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries, “can only help get the two sides to the table and achieve something like an understanding with each other,” Lamb suggested. Still, he said a number of “important steps” must “take place before that can happen,” not least on the Palestinian side. “It certainly appears like Hamas is still calling a lot of the shots over there,” Lamb told JI. “There’s a lot that needs to happen.”

Lamb argues that his involvement with such issues gives him an “advantage” over his opponents, who, as state-level officials, are newer to the foreign policy realm.

“I would say my record is a lot deeper and more specific both because of the type of job that I’ve had — you know, I’ve had to take thousands of votes in the last four years — but it’s also just who I am,” Lamb said. “When someone asks me a question, I’m going to answer it, and I’m going to answer it to the point. That’s not always true with someone like John.”

In recent weeks, Lamb has become more confrontational as he has attacked Fetterman on issues that critics believe will be problematic in the general election. Most notably, he has repeatedly accused the lieutenant governor of avoiding scrutiny over a 2013 incident in which Fetterman confronted an unarmed Black jogger with a shotgun while serving as mayor of Braddock, a post-industrial steel town just outside Pittsburgh. Fetterman has long defended his actions.

“I don’t really believe in being cagey or ambiguous about where you stand,” Lamb argued, “especially with something as important as our relationship with Israel.”

Fetterman, meanwhile, has claimed his support for Israel is rock solid, despite being untested at the federal level. “Whenever I’m in a situation to be called on to take up the cause of strengthening and enhancing the security of Israel or deepening our relationship between the United States and Israel,” he told JI last month, “I’m going to lean in.”

“I’ve come by my beliefs honestly,” Lamb countered. “I’ve earned them in some pretty tough territory politically, and I just I feel like I’ve developed an understanding of how swing voters think and what they care about. They’re not very liberal, but they’re willing to support someone like me who has served the country and served in law enforcement because that gives you some credibility, and then you build on that credibility by showing up and reaching out to them in person — and those are all things that I just haven’t seen John do.”

Despite such criticism, Lamb has continued to play catch-up with the lieutenant governor, who has sought inroads with working-class voters in rural Pennsylvania who gravitated to Trump.

Lamb says he has no particular model in mind as he pushes for an approach to America’s relationship with Israel that carries some apparent similarities with legislators such as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who has long advocated for a “progressive foreign policy” in the Middle East. In 2020, Murphy, along with Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Tim Kaine (D-VA), circulated a letter — later revised — cautioning that annexation of the West Bank would mean “Israel no longer values the bipartisan support that Congress has provided it for decades.”

“On this stuff, honestly, I really have tried to focus a little bit more on paying attention to people in the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania Jewish communities and what they think, so I probably would have to figure out once I got there who sort of saw things the same way that I do,” Lamb told JI. “But in general, I’m supportive of the way the Biden administration is conducting itself.”

He acknowledged that pursuing what he calls a “delicate balance” that holds Israel accountable for settlement expansion while also affirming support for the Jewish state would be a difficult line to navigate if he is elected to the Senate. “But that’s why it’s the Middle East, right?” Lamb said. “It’s one of the hardest places in the world to do business.”

(L-R) House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee chairman Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) look on as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during a news conference to discuss legislation that would strengthen Social Security benefits, on Capitol Hill October 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Brett Goldman, a Democratic activist in Philadelphia, said he had been “expecting” that Lamb would carve out a somewhat more distinctive path on such issues. “We can be pro-Israel and still have a nuanced, critical view,” he argued, adding that Lamb has always been clear in expressing positions that are “generally in line with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”

For many in the Jewish community, Goldman told JI, “that steady hand is very important, and we need a steady voice and a steady vote that’s going to back our interests.”

Even as Lamb has failed to break through in the polls, he has earned some significant endorsements from Philadelphia’s Democratic establishment as well as the city’s leading daily newspaper, the Inquirer, which praised, among other things, “his thoughtfulness on tough policy questions” in an editorial published on Sunday. 

A super PAC led by James Carville, the veteran Democratic strategist, among others, has also aggressively promoted Lamb’s campaign.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has so far stayed out of the primary.

“Barring a surprise outcome on May 17, the party has clearly gone against the conventional wisdom of rallying around the ‘electable’ candidate as the primary criterion in a tight general election race, as this one will be,” said Lewis Irwin, a professor of political science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. “I am not sure if it’s Fetterman’s name recognition that is driving this choice, or his perceived ideological tilt, but it’s the opposite of what happened with Joe Biden.”

Lamb said it was difficult to judge whom he would prefer to go up against in the general election. “It’s not that I don’t want to answer that, I just don’t have an answer, to tell you the truth,” he told JI. “It’s at a level of craziness on their side that it’s very hard for me to draw a distinction, so we’ll let it run its course.”

Biden prevailed over Trump by a narrow margin of just over 1% in the 2020 presidential election — an outcome that Lamb has suggested he is capable of reproducing in a general election matchup that is expected to be among the most competitive races of the cycle. 

In the crowded Republican primary, Dr. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick are currently locked in fierce competition for the nomination. Oz notched a coveted Trump endorsement last month and appeared alongside the former president at a rally outside Pittsburgh over the weekend.

Lamb said it was difficult to judge whom he would prefer to go up against in the general election. “It’s not that I don’t want to answer that, I just don’t have an answer, to tell you the truth,” he told JI. “It’s at a level of craziness on their side that it’s very hard for me to draw a distinction, so we’ll let it run its course.”

In the final week of the primary, it remains to be seen if such questions will ultimately stay hypothetical.

Asked how he himself is feeling about the race, Lamb gave a blunt reply: “Not too great.”

“I mean, I’ve run this campaign the same way I’ve run all four of mine — this is my fourth campaign in four years — which is to go everywhere you possibly can, answer every question of any person anytime and really just show people that you’re willing to be accountable,” he said, adding: “People are still coming out because there are so many undecided voters left.”

This week, he says he is traveling east from Pittsburgh and then turning back to his district in western Pennsylvania as he traverses the length of the state just “two more times” before the election. 

“People have a lot of skepticism toward all politicians at this time, and I think when they can get up close and personal with you and see that you’re willing to be transparent with them, it goes a really long way,” Lamb said. “I’m going to keep doing that.”

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