heard on the trail

Barbara Lee strikes conciliatory note on Mideast policy at Senate candidate forum

At an event hosted by Democrats for Israel California, Lee proposes a new special envoy to focus on promoting a two-state solution

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) conducts a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, January 26, 2023.

During her tenure in Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) has, on some occasions, found herself at odds with pro-Israel groups over key Middle East policy issues.

But speaking to pro-Israel Democrats at a virtual candidate forum on Wednesday evening, Lee, a veteran progressive lawmaker now running for an open Senate seat in California, struck a largely conciliatory note as she emphasized her “commitment to a two-state solution and to Israel’s security and a Palestinian state.”

“This, for me, is not just a job or a political position,” the long-serving Bay Area lawmaker told participants who tuned into a Zoom event hosted by the advocacy group Democrats for Israel California. “This is something that I truly believe in, and that’s global peace and security.”

An anti-war activist who has long been sharply critical of the American foreign policy establishment, Lee, 76, has supported legislation that would place restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel and was among a small group of House members who voted against a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting the Jewish state.

On such issues, Lee’s record stands in contrast with her Democratic primary opponents, Reps. Katie Porter (D-CA) and Adam Schiff (D-CA), who have both followed a more  mainstream approach  concerning Israel. The two candidates have also recently spoken with Democrats for Israel California.

Still, while Lee’s approach has drawn criticism from  AIPAC, for instance, she said on Wednesday that local activists on the left have also found fault with some of her positions, citing her support for funding Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system as one source of tension.

“I get pickets from every side of the spectrum,” Lee averred. “It’s like, ‘Barbara, why do you support the Iron Dome?’ Well, I’ve always voted for the Iron Dome. I’ve visited. I know how it protects Israelis, I know what it does, and so I’ve supported it. But people in my district, for the most part, picket me because of that.” 

Lee said that she has also been targeted by anti-Israel protesters in her Oakland-area district for her opposition to the BDS movement. Even as she pushed back against a non-binding resolution in 2019 that rejected BDS, Lee claimed that her decision had been an effort to uphold “protest protections” and free speech rights rather than a defense of the movement’s goals. “I’m not a supporter of BDS,” she clarified.

The 12-term congresswoman, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee that vets security assistance to Israel, estimated that she has visited the Jewish state eight to 10 times, most recently in February 2022, when she accompanied former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on a national security delegation that met with former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli leaders.

In the conversation with Bennett, she recalled, the prime minister had turned directly to Lee and asked her why she had visited Israel so frequently, which had initially made the group uncomfortable. 

“I said, ‘Because I believe in peace and security,’” Lee recounted to participants. “‘I love the Israeli people. I want to make sure that I’m part of the solution. And I want to continue coming back and intend to.’ And he said, ‘Thank you very much. I’m glad you’re doing that, and we appreciate your love and your concern for peace in the Middle East.”

Like her primary rivals, Lee was more critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his now-stalled effort to overhaul Israel’s judiciary. “When you begin to erode a system of checks and balances and other critical elements of democracy,” she said, “I think it’s up to us in the international community to say this is a threat to democracy, not only in Israel, but everywhere.”

“Israel is a shining light of democracy in the Middle East, and it’s like, ‘Come on, Mr. Prime Minister, this is wrong,” Lee added.

Near the end of the forum, Lee returned to the subject of eventually reaching a resolution between Israelis and Palestinians, floating a suggestion that she does not seem to have mentioned publicly before: a new special envoy to focus on  promoting a two-state solution.

The congresswoman has proposed the idea to President Joe Biden as well as Tony Blinken, the Secretary of State, she informed viewers. “We need a person in the White House who does nothing but two-state solution work,” Lee insisted. “We need somebody who really believes that it can be done, and that’s all that’s in their portfolio.”

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