trip talk

After visiting Israel, Welch says Netanyahu ‘oblivious’ to threat in West Bank

Sen. Peter Welch expressed concerns that the Israeli PM underestimates the threat that the situation in the Palestinian territories poses to maintaining the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel

(Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

US Senator Peter Welch (L) (D-VT) talks on the phone as he makes his way to the Senate SCIF on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on February 9, 2023.

Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT), who recently returned from a high-level delegation to Israel and the West Bank, said he is “extremely worried” about mounting political tensions and escalating violence in the region, raising concerns that such developments could imperil the prospect of a two-state solution.

“I’m not optimistic right now,” he explained in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “My goal is to be supportive of the peacemakers on both sides, and, I think, if there’s going to be a Jewish democratic state, a two-state solution is the best way to ensure that.”

The first-term senator arrived in Jerusalem late last week at a particularly volatile moment for the Jewish state. In recent days, mass protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is now advancing a controversial overhaul of the judicial system, have coincided with a wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis and settler-led attacks targeting Palestinians in the West Bank.

“You’ve got almost 700,000 settlers in the West Bank, and the more settlers you have, then the less likelihood that you can have a viable, independent Palestinian state,” Welch argued, echoing sentiments he expressed on social media before the trip. “You have the Israeli government, basically the day we arrived, approving more settlements and legalizing what had been previously totally illegal outpost settlements. That’s just a cocktail for conflict.”

Welch, 75, visited Israel with a group of veteran Democratic lawmakers helmed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), making only his second trip abroad as a long-serving member of the upper chamber. “It was very important for him, on behalf of all of us, to convey to the Israeli leadership that the U.S.-Israel relationship is of paramount importance to us,” Welch said of Schumer, a leading pro-Israel voice in the Senate. “He expressed that at every stop.”

Schumer has refrained from commenting publicly on Israel’s rightward turn, even as a growing number of Democratic leaders have expressed reservations.

Speaking at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem on Friday, Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in Washington, vowed that “as long as Hashem breathes air into my lungs, the United States Senate will stand behind Israel with our fullest support.”

Welch, a former longtime congressman who won election to the Senate in November, would not discuss if his private conversations with Schumer and other members of the delegation had touched on more sensitive subjects being debated in Israel’s Knesset. 

“We’re all huge supporters of the Democratic nature of the Jewish state, and we’re having our own battles here about judicial reforms,” Welch said, adding: “I know that we all hope it works out. The independent judiciary is a very important element of a democratic form of government.”

The delegation, which made additional stops in Germany, India and Pakistan, also included Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jack Reed (D-RI), Mark Warner (D-VA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

In the Middle East last week, the lawmakers held meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu, among others government officials.

Their discussions with Netanyahu, in particular, were focused primarily on bolstering ties between the U.S. and Israel, expanding the Abraham Accords, assisting Ukraine and countering Iran, a key priority for the Israeli leader, according to Welch. “We listened carefully to Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he told JI. “He reiterated his focus on Iran as a real threat and a potential nuclear threat. It’s of grave concern to him.”

“Netanyahu was against the Iran nuclear deal, and Sen. Schumer voted against it,” Welch, who voted in favor of the agreement in 2015, noted. “I was very much for it. I found it somewhat ironic because I think that if we were still in that nuclear deal, Iran would be a long way from the development of a nuclear weapon. They’re very much closer now.”

The prime minister, he recalled, “quite rightly expressed his concern about that, and his absolute conviction that Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon,” a sentiment Welch said he also shares.

Still, another area of conversation was, in Welch’s telling, less productive. “My view is that Netanyahu is, rightly, concerned about the Iran nuclear threat, but oblivious to the threat in the West Bank and failure to have any commitment to the two-state solution,” he argued. “The information we’d been briefed on from several of the people we met,” he recalled, “was that the situation in the West Bank is volatile and is as dangerous as they’ve ever seen it.”

That assessment “was confirmed” shortly after the meeting with Netanyahu, he observed, following a weekend uptick in violence that left three Israelis dead and a Palestinian dead, and dozens of Palestinian homes destroyed. “I’m speaking on my own behalf here,” Welch said, “but I am very concerned that the prime minister, I think, underestimates how dangerous that is to the success of maintaining that Jewish and democratic identity that is so important to Israel.”

Welch raised those concerns directly with Netanyahu last week, he said. “I don’t think he gets it,” he speculated. “My view is that he has no commitment at all to the two-state solution and is hell-bent on an annexation policy, and that is in conflict with U.S. policy.”

“If you’re going to have any opportunity to get to a two-state solution, every time you have a new settlement and you have more settler violence and Palestinian violence, it undercuts the potential,” Welch added. “You’ve got a demographic situation there, where if you want to maintain the Israeli identity as a Jewish state and as a democratic state, then at what point does that come into conflict?”

He declined to reveal what, if anything, Netanyahu said in response to his arguments.

“There’s no mystery there,” he said. “He’s focused on the Iran threat and disregarding the internal threat — and I’m concerned about that.”

Welch, who had previously met with Netanyahu while serving in the House, has long been sharply critical of the prime minister and his policies. He once claimed, for instance, that “no single individual has done more to harm the vitally important U.S.-Israeli relationship than Netanyahu.”

But he said it would be inaccurate to characterize their relationship as contentious. “I have a difference of opinion,” he noted, reiterating his belief that Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition “has no interest in” pursuing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In a brief statement released after the meeting on Friday, the prime minister’s office wrote that Netanyahu had “stressed the importance of the bipartisan ties between Israel and the U.S.,” while discussing “the struggle against Iran” and “possibilities for expanding” the Abraham Accords.

Like most Democrats in the House and Senate, Welch is supportive of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and a handful of Arab nations a few years ago. “That’s really good in terms of Israel and the Arab states having relationships,” he said. 

But he clarified that such diplomacy, while “constructive,” is largely unrelated to what he characterized as a more urgent project: building a two-state framework. The accords, he said, are “independent of the issue of the West Bank and a Palestinian state.”

Not that he is particularly hopeful, at the moment, about the possibility of negotiations, citing shortcomings on both sides of the conflict. “There’s got to be some new thinking and a new approach on the Palestinian side,” he said, criticizing what he called “very weak leadership” and postponed elections. “But the reality of the power dynamic is Israel’s in charge, and there’s a level of desperation in the West Bank.” 

“The contest is not ideological,” he said. “It’s elemental — about can you stay in your home or not.”

Before entering the Senate in January, Welch, who had served as Vermont’s lone congressman since 2007, was relatively outspoken on Israeli and Palestinian issues. 

The senator has addressed J Street conferences, most recently in December, and was an original cosponsor of the Two-State Solution Act, a bill introduced by former Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) that would have blocked Israel from using American aid to expand settlements in the West Bank. He also supported proposed legislation from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) that would place restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel, among other things.

Welch, who replaced former longtime Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), recognizes that he is now in command of “a bigger platform” in the upper chamber, even if his Middle East policy outlook has remained constant. “My point of view is the same,” he said, “and I’ll continue to be active.”

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