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trip talk

Porter describes ‘constructive exchange’ between Democratic delegation and Netanyahu

Rep. Katie Porter was part of a group of 15 Democratic House members welcomed by Netanyahu in February when they visited Israel on a trip sponsored by J Street

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Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) speaks to supporters, volunteers, and staff at an election night watch party at the Hilton Orange County Hotel on November 8, 2022 in Costa Mesa, Calif.

In keeping with a background in academia, Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), a former law professor known for her rigorous interrogations at congressional hearings, made sure to study up before her first trip to Israel last month.

To improve her understanding of the region, Porter, a Democrat from Orange County, drew in particular on her connections within the Jewish community, she said, reading Noa Tishby’s book about Israel that a friend had recommended, consulting with a rabbi whose synagogue is located in her hometown of Irvine and reaching out to local AIPAC officials for a briefing on Middle East policy, among other things. 

“I recognize that I am relatively new to this issue,” she said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “I tried to take a multifaceted approach and make sure that I was getting the most I could out of this particular trip,” she explained, “which I hope will be the first of many.”

The pre-visit preparations paid off, she recalled, when the delegation, which was sponsored by J Street, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. “It was actually funny in that there was a moment in that conversation with the prime minister where he was talking about Likud and LGBTQ members of Likud and he was saying, ‘I bet nobody knew that,’” Porter explained, referring to Netanyahu’s political party. “I raised my hand and I was like, ‘I knew! I knew!’ because I had gotten that additional briefing before I went.”

The 49-year-old consumer protection advocate, who flipped a swing district in her first bid for elective office five years ago, believes that such engagement underscores a broader message she is hoping to impart as one of three Democrats now vying for an open seat in California’s closely watched Senate race.

Porter, who launched her campaign in early January, was the first to announce that she would run for the seat long held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who plans to retire at the end of her fifth term in 2024. Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) have also since joined the primary, which is expected to be among the most competitive matchups of the upcoming election cycle. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to the general election.

“I am respectful about how I engage and I’m careful about how I build opinions,” Porter explained. “What you see with my relationship with the Jewish American diaspora and with the pro-Israel community is very consistent with how I’ve been able to flip my district and how I would think about representing California in the Senate.”

That sentiment was perhaps best exemplified by the meeting with Netanyahu, whose right-wing governing coalition is promoting a controversial judicial overhaul that has sparked mass protests across Israel. In the U.S., a growing number of Democratic leaders and advocacy groups, including J Street, have expressed opposition to the coalition’s efforts.

Porter said that she herself had requested an audience with Netanyahu when, in late January, she first met with Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., for a conversation “focused on ways to enhance Israel’s outreach to the progressive community in the U.S.” and “new avenues for cooperation,” as he wrote on social media.

“That’s where I made the specific ask that I wanted to meet with the prime minister,” Porter told JI. Her thinking, she said, was that the delegation “would benefit from” conferring with Netanyahu, even as he has previously criticized J Street as a “radical leftist U.S. organization” and refused to meet with the group when its delegations have traveled to Israel.

Porter described a largely constructive exchange when the group of 15 Democratic House members was welcomed by Netanyahu late last month.

Not only was the prime minister “extremely generous both with his time and with his thoughts,” but the group was “really able to have an interactive dialogue with him,” she said. “I was extremely impressed with his willingness to kind of grapple with us at some of the toughest issues that Israel’s facing, everything from judicial reform — an issue that we’re having questions and discussions about right now within the Democratic Party here in the United States — to issues about the West Bank and about settlements.”

During their conversation, Porter said the group raised specific concerns about what she described as policies “that may impede” the prospect of “a lasting and enduring peace” between the Israelis and Palestinians — while acknowledging, in the conversation with JI, that “security threats” from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas as well as “terrorism in the West Bank” are among the challenges “making things difficult.”

“But we emphasized, and I think Netanyahu emphasized back, that there’s a long-term project here, which is to have a vibrant, secure Jewish democratic state of Israel — and that in order to do that, there needs to be opportunities for the Palestinian people to have their own elected government and governance and land,” Porter continued. “How we get there is unclear right now. But we shouldn’t let the impediments to that progress prompt us to give up on the goal, given its incredible importance to Israel and to the region and to the United States.”

Porter’s assessment of the situation in Israel was relatively sanguine, not least in contrast with recent remarks from her top primary rival, Schiff. In an interview with JI last month, the Los Angeles-area congressman said he was “deeply concerned about” the judicial overhaul and “the composition of” Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which includes extreme-right members whom the prime minister had previously spurned.

For her part, Lee, who has held an Oakland-based House seat for 25 years, wrote on Twitter last month that “an impartial, independent judiciary is a vital cornerstone of democracy,” adding: “I strongly condemn Netanyahu’s efforts to politicize Israel’s Supreme Court and dramatically expand settlement activity, and stand in solidarity with Israelis and Palestinians working for peaceful coexistence.”

Lee, who is recognized as an anti-war icon, has long been sharply critical of the American foreign policy establishment, including its approach to Israel. In recent years, she has supported legislation that would place restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel, among other things.

Porter, meanwhile, has largely pursued a mainstream Democratic lane on Middle East policy issues during her time in Congress, even as she acknowledges that the region has not been among her primary areas of focus. “It’s not my background,” she said.

As a member of Congress, Porter, a protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), her former professor at Harvard Law School, has built a national reputation for aggressively cross-examining corporate executives on Capitol Hill, where she is frequently seen brandishing her signature whiteboard to guide her questioning.

“I think that willingness to stand up for special interests and fight corruption is something that is going to pull in voters from across the ideological spectrum, but also help rebuild the confidence of people in Congress,” she told JI. “There’s a real opportunity and a real need to do that.”

Like most Democrats, Porter supports continued U.S. aid to Israel and additional funding for its Iron Dome missile-defense system, among other things — positions she expressed in a candidate questionnaire solicited by the lobbying group Democrats for Israel Los Angeles in 2018, the year she first ran for Congress.

“For decades, the strong relationship between Israel and the U.S. has been the foundation for U.S. policy in the region,” Porter wrote in the questionnaire, which was shared with JI. “That relationship continues to be one of the most important for peace and stability in the world, and, as a member of Congress, I will work extremely hard to maintain and strengthen that special relationship.”

A spokesperson for Porter’s campaign said she had not yet written an Israel position paper as a Senate candidate.

Further elaborating on her meeting with Netanyahu not long ago, Porter did not divulge much about his comments but said she was “very taken with” the “level of engagement” he had brought to the discussion. 

“I think that really reflects the incredible and consistent U.S.-Israel relationship and just how deep of a connection those two countries have,” she told JI. “I think that’s a connection that is going to remain strong, even as both countries are going through struggles with their own democracies.”

To observe that struggle first-hand in Israel, she suggested, was to experience a unique binary. That she had been able to “appreciate the pluralist democracy that Israel has built,” while visiting “at a moment when there were large demonstrations,” she said, was evidence “that democracy is an ongoing project.”

“There are tensions and there are struggles,” she said. “But seeing that in Israel, being a representative, meeting with other representatives, being asked about what is the state of Israeli democracy — as we are often asked about what is the state of democracy in the United States — it made me feel very connected to Israel.”

More broadly, “the innovation, the creativity, the resilience of the Israeli people and the nation state that they have created,” Porter said, “was incredibly powerful and inspiring.”

The delegation, which was led by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, also included Reps. Alma Adams of North Carolina, Troy Carter of Louisiana, Sharice Davids of Kansas,,, Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico, Kim Schrier of Washington, , Lori Trahan of Massachusetts and Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, Colin Allred and Veronica Escobar of Texas, and Jimmy Gomez, Mike Levin,  Eric Swalwell and Mike Thompson of California

In a statement to JI, Logan Bayroff, J Street’s vice president of communications, said the organization was “very proud to host Rep. Porter and 14 of her House colleagues” on its “largest ever delegation to Israel and the West Bank,” adding: “At a time of escalating violence, deepening occupation and serious threat to Israel’s democratic future, it was important for these members to be able to take a nuanced, in-depth firsthand look at the realities on the ground — and how U.S. policy could do more to make a positive impact.”

Without endorsing any particular policy prescriptions, Porter said she believes that “you can’t have diplomacy without having conversations,” noting that the U.S. should encourage both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to pursue dialogue. Still, “what those conversations are, and the outcome of them, is something, ultimately, for the parties to work on,” she clarified. “But I think it is an appropriate U.S. role to try to bring parties to the table.”

“I think the U.S., very consistently in Republican and Democratic administrations, has affirmed the need for Israel’s neighbors to engage with Israel,” Porter said. “We should continue to do that.”

In addition to J Street, Porter has previously notched endorsements from the political arms of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and Democratic Majority for Israel, both of which embrace a more centrist approach to Middle East policy.  “My job is to listen to people and listen to organizations, and it doesn’t mean I have to agree with every single thing of every single group,” she said. “But I am always going to want to learn and listen.”

Those groups have yet to indicate if they will weigh in on the Senate race. Schiff has won support from J Street, DMFI and JDCA and AIPAC, which declined to comment on its engagement with Porter. J Street has also endorsed Lee.

The three lawmakers, who all identify as progressive, are largely aligned on key domestic issues, even as their priorities have differed while serving in Congress. Early polling suggests that Porter and Schiff, both prolific fundraisers, are leading at this early stage, but the race remains in flux.

“California is a really diverse state,” Porter told JI. “We have rural Californians, we have tribal communities, we have low-income communities of color, we have wealthy suburban communities, the tech industry. It’s a big, diverse state, and you want someone who has that kind of broad, welcoming mind to begin to engage with all those groups.”

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