Rep. Andy Kim keeps his distance from some progressive backers 

In the New Jersey Senate race, Kim is the favorite of left-wing groups critical of Israel

In the first New Jersey Senate debate on Sunday night, the two leading Democratic candidates, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) and First Lady Tammy Murphy, each spoke briefly on the Israel-Hamas war, reiterating their commitment to immediately freeing the hostages and voicing concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. 

But whereas Murphy refrained from addressing calls for a cease-fire, Kim said he was open to what he described as a “chance for a bilateral cease-fire” conditioned on releasing the captives held in Gaza, marking one of the few instances in which he has publicly taken a position on an increasingly polarizing issue.

Days before the debate, meanwhile, a spokesperson for Murphy’s campaign, Alex Altman, confirmed to Jewish Insider that the first lady “believes that we cannot have a conversation about a cease-fire until the hostages are home — including Edan Alexander of Tenafly, N.J., whose parents she has met with recently.”

Even as the two primary rivals are largely aligned on Israel, their differing answers to a key question underscored the first Middle East policy contrast in a close race driven so far by competing claims to party loyalty and qualifications for office.

It remains to be seen, however, if the conflict will become an issue in the June primary to oust indicted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), especially as each candidate has continued to support Israel in its war with Hamas.

In an interview with JI late last week, Kim emphasized that he is willing to entertain the possibility of a bilateral cease-fire if it is part of a negotiated diplomatic agreement where the remaining hostages are safely returned, which he called a “critical component” of any potential resolution.

Even as he stressed that Hamas “cannot be trusted,” Kim expressed hope that an eventual cessation of hostilities could be realized with the help of regional allies while ensuring that Israel “has the resources it needs to be able to defend itself.” No deal is “going to be perfect,” he added. “But if we can try to move in terms of that kind of direction, I really do think that the magnitude of this crisis right now does demand at least an effort to try to see if something more durable can come out of this.”

“It can’t be something that’s just unilateral on either side,” he clarified. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be an actual cease-fire.”

In drawing such distinctions, Kim, 41, was tacitly distancing himself from some of his progressive backers calling for a unilateral cease-fire, most notably including the left-wing advocacy group Indivisible, which endorsed his campaign earlier this month.

The endorsement from Indivisible, which has called on its members to exert pressure on lawmakers to back an immediate cease-fire, has raised concerns among some pro-Israel supporters of Murphy who have privately voiced reservations that Kim’s ties to the group could influence his views on Israel, according to a Jewish leader in New Jersey who spoke with JI last week.

But Kim indicated that he would take a more nuanced approach to the conflict than some members of his activist base, relying largely on his background as a former diplomat and national security adviser in the Obama administration to shape his thinking. “I very much approach this from my experience in diplomacy,” he said, citing his participation in past negotiations “to come up with terms for different cease-fires in different situations in conflict across the Middle East.”

Flipping the script, Kim, a three-term lawmaker, said his opponent has already demonstrated she is unprepared for serious foreign policy discussions, pointing to recent comments in which Murphy has suggested that Hamas’ attacks were “instigated as a proxy war” by Iran, Russia, China and North Korea “in order to distract the West” from the war in Ukraine.

First Lady of New Jersey Tammy Murphy and Governor Phil Murphy speak onstage at the 15th Annual Induction Ceremony for the New Jersey Hall of Fame at NJPAC October 29, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey.

“I have no idea where this is coming from, and I’m very alarmed by this theory of hers that she seems very, very hung up on,” Kim said, criticizing what he called Murphy’s “lack of experience” in engaging with foreign conflicts. “It doesn’t track with any of the assessments from the intelligence community.”

For Kim, the remarks underscored what he called a “fundamental” difference in perspective, cautioning that her theory could have consequences if she is elected. “To be a candidate for the United States Senate and to say that publicly,” he argued, “hurts our ability to be able to look at what we need to do to deliver for Israel, for Israel’s defense, and focus on specifically what’s going on when it comes to the Middle East region.”

Murphy’s campaign said the first lady was not available for an interview last week and did not address a request for clarification regarding her theory on the Hamas attacks.

In a statement to JI, Altman, her spokesperson, said that Murphy “is the daughter of a proudly Jewish father and has visited Israel nine times,” adding, “Tammy is an unequivocal supporter of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship and believes they have every right to defend themselves following the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas.”

“Tammy has been a vocal supporter of a two-state solution that creates security and lasting peace,” Altman said last week.

In her first campaign for elective office, the first lady, who is married to Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, has yet to detail her Middle East policy positions in depth, even as she has strongly condemned Hamas and often invoked her personal connection to Judaism and Israel. She is now at work on an Israel position paper that her campaign plans to distribute when it is ready, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Murphy, 58, has built warm relations with Jewish and pro-Israel activists during her time in the governor’s mansion, and is “well-known in the Jewish community,” said the Jewish leader from New Jersey, who is close to the first lady.

“I’m not so sure that Congressman Kim can cite that level of connectivity,” the Jewish leader, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, told JI last week. “It’s not something that is necessarily tangible or quantifiable from a policy standpoint.”

But while Murphy has won endorsements from several pro-Israel House Democrats in the state, Kim’s backers in Congress say he is better equipped for a job that requires a sophisticated knowledge of international affairs.

“I always am encouraged to see people with a depth of understanding of such matters running for House or Senate,” Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA), a Jewish Democrat backing Kim who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a recent text message to JI. “Andy fits that bill exactly. And, as far as Israel is concerned, Andy leads on the Iron Dome funding every year. So I think he’s a hugely important player in matters involving Israel.”

Still, most leading pro-Israel groups have stood behind Menendez, the embattled senior senator who is facing federal bribery charges that have all but ensured he will not serve another term. While he has yet to announce if he will seek reelection, an AIPAC spokesperson confirmed its endorsement of Menendez, long viewed as a pro-Israel champion, remains in effect, even as recent filings show the group hasn’t bundled any campaign contributions.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) holds a press conference as he rejects accusations of corruption and calls from fellow Democrats to step down from Congress after he was indicted for a second time last week in New Jersey on September 25, 2023.

The spokesperson declined to comment on AIPAC’s broader engagement in the primary, but a source familiar with its outreach said that Murphy “has had productive conversations” with the pro-Israel group. 

NORPAC, an influential pro-Israel advocacy group in New Jersey, is also still backing Menendez, while Democratic Majority for Israel has indicated that it will continue to support him, saying “he is entitled to a full and fair legal process.”

Phil Goldschmiedt, a pro-Israel leader in North Jersey who recently launched a new group called the Bergen AIPAC Network, said that he is for now committed to standing by Menendez, who was “brave enough to go against his party’s line and President Obama and voted against the” Iran nuclear deal.

“We also believe that he is not above the law but also certainly not below the law either and should be given his day in court as we are all entitled to,” Goldschmiedt told JI last week. “He will need to make his decision by the end of March what his chances are for reelection and whether or not he will run.”

Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, suggested that her group would likely wait to make an endorsement in the primary until it has hosted a candidate forum.    

For his part, Kim has the backing of J Street, the progressive Israel advocacy group that has backed him since his first election in 2018. Tali DeGroot, J Street’s national political director, said the group has also “been in touch with” Murphy’s campaign and looks forward “to learning more about her positions vis a vis the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Speaking with JI, Kim clarified that he has not engaged in “political conversations” with any such groups to seek endorsements, including from J Street and AIPAC, since he launched his campaign shortly before the Oct. 7 attacks last fall.

“I want people to look at what I’m doing not from any purpose of what might be good for a campaign,” he claimed. “I want them to know I’m a serious professional when it comes to national security. This is not something that I do on the side.”

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