WASHINGTON – One of the key takeaways by a group of Senate Democrats who recently returned from a congressional trip to the Middle East is their confidence in the new Israeli government’s pragmatism, staying power and commitment to restoring bipartisan ties in Washington.
The delegation, consisting of Sens. Chris Murphy, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Van Hollen and Jon Ossoff, visited Israel and the West Bank as part of their greater trip aimed at covering regional security and democracy.
The senators have each been notably outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during their respective tenures, being among the most vocal in the Capitol to urge the Israeli government to improve its treatment of the Palestinians and pushing the Biden administration to take a more active role in dealing with the conflict.
Murphy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee dealing with the Middle East and also traveled to Tunisia and Greece alongside Ossoff, told a press call Friday he was impressed with the new Israeli government, despite the coalition’s odd nature and inherent differences with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett concerning the two-state solution.
“They’ve made significant, promising steps in the last few months, whether opening up a high-level dialogue with the Palestinian Authority or beginning to open up pathways for humanitarian relief into Gaza,” the Connecticut senator said. He acknowledged “very candid conversations” between the delegation and Israeli officials, including Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas.
“We pressed them to do more, but we’ve met with Israeli leadership that seems very pragmatic and very willing to try to work with both parties in Congress to address a pathway toward, at the very least, a meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians,” Murphy noted.
Van Hollen also recognized the differences regarding a two-state solution, but said Lapid stressed a policy of “do no harm” in their conversations, “urging all sides to take no actions that compromise the possibility of moving forward with a two-state solution already endangered by changes on the ground. There’s still a door there in the future, so long as we don’t see further changes that could make that an impossibility.”
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Blumenthal decried past efforts – including directly calling out the previous Netanyahu government and Trump administration – to “drive a partisan wedge” between the U.S. and Israel. “As a member of the American Jewish community, this has been one of the great threats to the bonds between our two nations, based on very valuable security interests,” the senior Connecticut senator said.
He noted that Bennett made very clear his intention to restore and maintain this bipartisan support. Blumenthal in turn assured the prime minister that he would ensure that the next U.S. military budget accounts for replenishing the Iron Dome missile defense system, as well as general military support necessary to counter the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas.
“We have a very strong common interest in stopping Iranian aggression in the region through its military proxies, and we need to develop stronger ways to do it – as the prime minister indicated he was very strongly in favor of doing,” Blumenthal added.
Murphy said Gaza reconstruction was a frequent topic of conversation with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, adding he sensed the need for an international consortium due to the PA’s current weakness and inability to lead the process as it has in the past.
“The Egyptians have been in Gaza, but largely doing clearance of debris and rubble. It has taken too long for the international community to come to the table with a workable plan on Gaza reconstruction,” he said.
Murphy also recognized a sense of “donor fatigue,” noting that lots of foreign actors are worried that billions of dollars of aid will be wasted if another conflict erupts in a year or two. “We need a longer-term plan for the stability and security of Gaza, because the ability to keep going back to international donors to reconstruct after hostilities is going to come to an end soon,” he warned.
The senators met Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh rather than President Mahmoud Abbas, who was returning from his official visit to Cairo, as well as with Palestinian youth leaders. Murphy said he raised the Palestinian prisoner payment system, which prevents the U.S. from delivering aid directly to the PA. “We had an in-depth conversation about reforming that law and perhaps a pathway forward,” he said.
“One of the most frightening facts relayed to me by [Shtayyeh] is that 53 percent of all Palestinian college graduates are unemployed,” Blumenthal said. “There has to be more done to combat joblessness, but also the needs of water, electricity, public health, justice, roads and infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority.”
The senators also raised the issue of Palestinian elections with Shtayyeh, who told the delegation they would be prepared to move forward within six months of getting assurances from Israel that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem could participate.
Van Hollen called this a reasonable request, urging both sides to progress while allowing for more opportunities for younger Palestinians in decision-making moving forward.
Blumenthal described the meetings with the Palestinian youth as a particularly meaningful part of the trip, saying he was encouraged by their talent, energy and positive drive.
The senators, who visited days after Bennett’s first trip to Washington last month, admitted some sticky points of disagreement with Israel remain – particularly concerning the reopening of the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem shuttered by the Trump administration.
Van Hollen said the delegation was encouraged by U.S. President Joe Biden’s commitment to reopening the consulate (both publicly and directly to Bennett during the prime minister’s Washington visit), calling it important as a means of communication to the Palestinian community.
“One of the refreshing changes with this new government is that we are speaking together as friends,” he said. “Friends can have differences, but work to resolve them in a productive fashion and through productive dialogue,” he added, saying this attitude extends to other topics such as the possible pending eviction of 13 Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.