Dem divides

Manchin, Fetterman push back against Democrats’ pressure on Israel

Democrats are facing heat from some in their party over concerns about their public pressure campaign against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol March 3, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Some Senate Democrats are raising concerns that efforts by members in their party to publicly apply pressure to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to alter his war plan are impacting Israel’s negotiating position as it works to secure the release of remaining hostages.

Elements of the Democratic Party have been vocally critical of Israel’s handling of its war in Gaza over the high death toll and humanitarian situation, with a growing number of far-left legislators calling to cut off future offensive and defensive weapons sales to the country in an effort to put a stop to the conflict. 

“It doesn’t help, it doesn’t help,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) told JI when asked on Wednesday if demands that Israel take a more surgical approach to the war are hurting Israel’s negotiating position. 

“The bottom line is, if anyone expects us to have any type of movement towards peace over there, release the hostages, then sit down in good faith. You can’t hold these hostages and expect Israel to back off completely and let you reload and keep doing the damaging, horrific attacks you’ve been doing,” Manchin continued. 

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), who has been unapologetic about his support for Israel since Oct. 7, said in response to the same question that he doesn’t “think capitulating is ever helpful with that. And I think Hamas is convinced that they’ve already won that PR war. I don’t think they’re going to have any kind of a deal unless it’s absolutely everything that they’re demanding as part of that as well.”

A number of Republicans echoed the concerns of their Democratic colleagues, which come as negotiators continue talks on a hostage deal in Cairo. 

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said that efforts to pressure the Israeli government are “really concerning” to him, arguing that it “increases Hamas’ ability to be able to say, ‘The whole world is against you, Israel, just stop,’ while they’ve got thousands of terrorists in Rafah and they still are holding hostages.”

“When America speaks inconsistently about what’s going on, I think it makes it harder to be able to get the full release of every hostage,” Lankford told JI.

“At the end of the day, this war ends when hostages are released,” Lankford, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, added, noting that Hamas has provided “no proof of life at all” regarding the hostages. One of the setbacks in recent negotiations has been the terror group’s inability to account for the hostages. 

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) echoed his colleagues’ concerns, saying on Wednesday, “I don’t want to be insensitive to other members’ political situations back home, but I do think this is a moment where limiting Israeli leadership’s leverage is not a great geopolitical move on our part. I do worry that the louder the chorus gets, the harder it becomes for Israel to negotiate, particularly the release of hostages.”

A number of Democrats, including those that have defended Israel’s war plan, told JI this week that the criticism from their party colleagues did not hurt Israel’s posture militarily or at the negotiating table. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a leading pro-Israel voice in the party who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered a firm “No” when asked if Israel was weakened in the conflict by the Democratic opposition.

“Our focus is on the hostages. It’s on getting humanitarian assistance into the people of Gaza. But we recognize that Hamas has been the spark for all this,” Cardin said. “Hamas, right now, if they would agree on the hostage exchange, it’d give us a much easier time to get humanitarian assistance in, get the hostages home.”

“We also recognize that there’s no future for the Palestinians or the Israelis with Hamas. So the military issues, I think, are still very supportive of Israel. [As to] how they prosecute the war and how they deal with humanitarian assistance, I think Joe Biden has been very effective in dealing with Israel,” Cardin continued.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who faces a tough reelection fight in November, agreed that the pressure campaign did not impact Israel’s posture. 

“I think if Bibi did a better job of targeting the attacks on Gaza, I think it would actually help him with hostage negotiations,” Tester said. “I’ve never been in favor of putting restrictions because I’m not prosecuting the war. He is. He lives there. I don’t. I just think he needs to do a better job of prosecuting the war.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) had a similar view, saying that Democrats have mostly directed their ire at Netanyahu. “I don’t think so. It’s not really criticisms of Israel, everybody strongly supports Israel. It’s a criticism of Netanyahu, the way he’s executing the war and concerns about his strategy. It’s not about Israel,” she said.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), told JI that he was “not concerned” about any outside criticism playing a role in the overall war. 

“When you have a mishap like that and innocent people die who were trying to help in this humanitarian crisis, you’ve got to make some change,” he said of an incident last week in which seven humanitarian workers were killed in an Israeli strike. “I think going forward, I strongly agree that they’ve got to remove this threat from Hamas. It is existential to Israel as a country, but there’s multiple ways that you could conduct any operation, and they need to learn from their past mistakes and make some changes to avoid the high toll this has taken on innocent people.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a frequent Israel critic, said that “the idea that somehow you’re going to pressure Hamas by creating a worse humanitarian situation for two million Palestinians in Gaza has always been a flawed assumption, right? So, and that’s why I think the president has made clear that as we pressure Hamas, we can also provide humanitarian relief over to people who have nothing to do with Hamas.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who has called for halting the transfer of weapons to Israel, insisted that the U.S. on the whole remains supportive of Israel, pointing to the strong Senate vote for the supplemental.

He said that Israel had brushed off private pressure from the U.S. on humanitarian aid, which he said had begun as soon as three days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, and that “it took, frankly, taking this public to make that happen.”

Kaine suggested that part of the reason for Hamas’ resistance to hostage talks may be that many of the hostages are no longer alive, and the remaining ones will offer horror stories about their time in captivity that “will drive even more justifiable outrage.”

“I really hope I’m wrong about this, but that’s what my gut has been telling me about why does it seem like there’s a deal that’s close and then all of the sudden it moves a little farther,” Kaine said. “I’m worried about that.”

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