WASHINGTON – Among House members, Rep. Kathy Manning has a unique vantage point on the U.S.-Israel relationship as it pertains to American Jews. The first-term Democrat from North Carolina will also be helping forge a new Iran deal that she says has to be “longer, stronger and broader.”
The first woman to head the Jewish Federations of North America and a founding chairwoman of Prizmah, an umbrella body for Jewish day schools, Manning is now vice chief of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism.
She will play a major role in crafting U.S. policy on the Middle East; her first key assignment will be the reengagement with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal. She says she supports the Biden administration’s current plan, noting that Washington is communicating with Israel on the issue.
“The first thing [the administration is] doing – that they need to be doing – is talking with all the parties in advance. My understanding is that the administration will have conversations with our allies before making any movement forward,” she told Haaretz.
Manning wasn’t in office when the nuclear agreement was signed in 2015, though she says she had endless discussions on the accord before it was sealed. Concerns included “the fact that Iran continued to engage in its malign behavior – fostering terrorism, funding Hezbollah and Hamas and terrorists around the globe.”
Manning notes that the 2015 deal was designed to take the nuclear problem off the table, “and while it did that for a period of time, things have changed pretty dramatically since then.” She believes that President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “have all made it clear that we need agreements with Iran that are longer, stronger and broader. That is the position that I would support, that if there’s reentry into a deal with Iran, it needs to be for a longer period of time, it needs to be a stronger deal, it needs to be broader.”
As she puts it, “We have got to address Iran’s behavior, not just its nuclear behavior. We know that Iran, not only have they improved their ballistic missile capabilities, but they are helping Hezbollah upgrade the missiles it’s already got in place pointed right at the northern part of Israel. That’s something that we can’t tolerate. I think that the statements that the administration has made about the Iran deal have been appropriate; the fact that they’re saying Iran needs to come back into compliance before they have discussions is important as well.”
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Manning, an unabashed pro-Israel Democrat, has been endorsed by organizations such as the Jewish Democratic Council of America and the Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel group led by veteran pollster Mark Mellman that seeks to increase and ensure support for Israel in the Democratic Party. She says the notion of anti-Israel positioning in the party has been overblown.
“Now, I’m new here, it doesn’t mean it won’t come out down the road, but I’ve had good conversations with many of the freshman members,” Manning says. “While I think that there certainly will be anti-Israel comments from Democrats, I do think that there is much stronger support for the U.S.-Israel relationship in the Democratic Party than we often read about in the press. And I won’t be hesitant to speak up for Israel. I’ve certainly been there enough. I’ve seen it, warts and all. I have a deep understanding of the country and what it does to try to be the kind of democracy that we will always want to have a relationship with.”
For his part, Mellman says that though Manning has been in Congress for only two months, “she has already emerged as a key leader and a vitally important pro-Israel voice. She’s whip-smart, knows the issues, and is an expert at building coalitions,” adding that her subcommittee appointment “is evidence of the central role she is already playing.”
Manning, who during the Capitol insurrection was in her fourth day in office, is particularly leery of antisemitism on the right. “There’s plenty of antisemitism to go around, but on the right is where we see the real life-threatening antisemitism – that’s where we see the attacks coming from and the violence,” she says. “I don’t think any of us five years ago would have thought that we would see synagogue shootings in the United States; I think we have always fooled ourselves into thinking that we were different in this country, although there may have always been antisemitism, at least in my lifetime, slightly under the surface.”
She adds: “I don’t think any of us expected to be living in an environment where we have to have security guards outside our synagogues.” She once saw an armed guard outside a synagogue in Florence, Italy; “I thought ‘what a strange way to have to live.’ I never imagined this for our own communities.”
Manning is particularly concerned about the far-right proliferation on the internet, which she argues empowers coordination among white supremacists. Her subcommittee plans to address the global nature of white supremacy, and she has been in contact with colleagues on the Homeland Security Committee to discuss ways to address the threat via legislation “while not running afoul of the First Amendment. We can’t have something like they have in Germany, for example.”
Confusing Israeli politics
Manning believes the relationship between Israel and the American-Jewish community is in good shape despite its ever-present challenges.
“I think there is still a very strong feeling of the importance of Israel to the American Jewish community, particularly those who are involved in communal organizations,” she says, adding that “one of the challenges that you hear being discussed in so many of the communal organizations is ‘how do we perpetuate this feeling of a strong relationship? How do we both express how we feel about Israel’s future but do it in a way that is not heavy-handed with the understanding that we don’t live there?’”
Manning considers the spate of Israeli normalization pacts with Arab states during the Trump administration a potential indicator of positive change in ties between Israel and the American-Jewish community. “The way things are changing with the Abraham Accords, if we can see more normalization, that may help enhance the relationship. Things are changing so dramatically, it’s hard to see what things are going to look like a year from now, but I think we will continue to see very strong support for Israel from the American-Jewish community,” she says.
Manning is monitoring Israel’s election campaign this winter but admits she can barely keep up with the political developments of recent years. “When I think back to when I was chairing the board of Jewish Federations in North America and was spending an intensive amount of time in Israel – there were probably nine years when I was in leadership positions when I was in Israel at least four times a year, if not more – where I met with all kinds of government leaders. And my knowledge of the parties as they existed back then has just changed so dramatically,” she says.
“Certainly, I have no idea what’s going to happen; the latest prediction I heard was that there will not be a clear winner and there’ll be a fifth election, which is just hard to believe. I hope that whoever wins will understand the importance of having an Israel that is both a Jewish and a democratic state. That is certainly the country that I want Israel to continue to be; I think it’s the country that will have the strongest relationship with the United States.”
Manning calls Israel “our only strong democratic ally in that part of the world,” adding that “we hope it continues to be. I am a supporter of a two-state solution, and part of the reason I’m a supporter is because I think that’s the way for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state. And I would hate to see anything that would put that two-state solution further out of reach.”
Manning says debates on Israel’s facilitation of vaccines for the Palestinians have been wrought with misinformation. “Stirring up animosity against Israel without considering the facts is always something that we have to be on guard for,” she says, adding that “Israel deserves praise for its remarkably successful and efficient vaccination campaign.”
“It’s important for everybody to recognize that Israel has vaccinated all of its citizens, Jewish and Arab alike. I think a lot of people in the U.S. don’t understand that there are Arab-Israeli citizens and Arab members of the Knesset, and Israel has vaccinated all of its citizens. You could look at our own country and see how our vaccination process is going.
“I know, at least in my area, there has been a disproportionate vaccination of white citizens and African-Americans who have been vaccinated at a much lower rate. I think we can look at our own society and see that we have challenges, and we certainly haven’t vaccinated anywhere close to the percentage of our population that the Israelis have.
“I think that there are lessons to be learned from Israel’s example from the way its health care system works. Not only has it been organized, but I think Israelis are more accustomed to lining up and paying attention in situations of national emergency. We in the U.S. aren’t quite as good about that.”
Manning notes that “everybody needs to be vaccinated, whether you’re within the borders of your own country or your neighboring area, because this vaccine doesn’t care about borders. Israelis are eventually going to want to make sure that everybody in the West Bank is vaccinated because that’s the only way we’re going to have protection against resurgence of this virus. I do think we have to remember that under the Oslo Accords that Israel signed with the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for vaccinating its own citizens.”
Concerning the criticisms from several of her Democratic colleagues, Manning says “my understanding is that the Palestinian Authority has only asked Israel for emergency doses of vaccine one time and then Israel provided those doses. I understand that the Palestinian Authority health officials have said they do not want vaccine from Israel, they’ve contacted directly with several vaccine makers.
“Those manufacturers, I understand, are behind schedule with their deliveries. That’s not the fault of Israel. I also understand that the Palestinian Authority has regularly refused to accept COVID-related supplies, even transporting through Israel. I understand the United Arab Emirates flew a plane full of COVID supplies, which the Palestinians refused to accept because the plane landed in Israel. I think it’s important when people lash out and condemn Israel for vaccination issues, they need to understand the facts.”
Manning says she believes the Biden administration will pursue a reset regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “President Biden has chosen very seasoned professionals to head up the State Department, which is very welcome. And in Blinken and President Biden, we have leaders who have a deep understanding of the region. President Biden understands Israel. Even though he didn’t call Bibi immediately after the inauguration, he actually called him after he got elected. But they eventually got that call,” she says.
“I think we can be confident that we have in Joe Biden a president who understands the region and understands in his kishkes” – his guts – “the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. That is critically important for people to keep in mind, and with Blinken and Sullivan, we have people who really understand that region.”
Manning expects the administration to be big on behind-the scenes hard work. “I don’t think we’re going to see grand gestures,” she says. “Diplomacy is often something that is done behind the scenes quietly. To be successful, you often have to lay the groundwork carefully before you get those handshakes on the White House lawn. I think there’s going to be a lot of behind-the-scenes work to try to figure out how you get the Israelis and the Palestinians talking again and moving forward on coming back to the table.”
She doesn’t expect her subcommittee to play a key role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian relations “unless there are issues that we should be addressing. In terms of the Middle East, you will probably see more focus on the Iran deal, on fostering normalization, and making sure that the Abraham Accords can flourish. Perhaps there’ll be other countries that will engage in normalization with Israel, and I think that that is so important for the region. I suspect that’s where we’ll see more focus of the committee.”