'Netanyahu Often Got It Badly Wrong': Senior Democrat Says Party Not Divided Over Israel

With his focus on foreign policy, pragmatic progressive Chris Murphy is very much an outlier in the current Senate. He explains why the Israel-Palestine conflict still matters, and the damage done by former PM Benjamin Netanyahu

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Sen. Chris Murphy, right, speaking to the media during a Middle East tour earlier this month. On the left is Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Sen. Chris Murphy, right, speaking to the media during a Middle East tour earlier this month. On the left is Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

Perhaps more than any other current Democratic senator, Sen. Chris Murphy has made Israel a central tenet of his policy. Yet while he is a “rock-solid believer in the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” the Connecticut lawmaker has not hesitated to be publicly and candidly critical of Israeli behavior, particularly concerning the Palestinians.

“Israel is a partner and ally without comparison. The United States has been at its best when we have been both a strong friend of Israel and a table-setter for talks between Israel and the Palestinians,” Murphy says in an interview, adding that it bothers him greatly that the Trump administration abandoned this role.

He argues that positioning the U.S. as an honest, potential broker puts it in a position to both “buttress Israel’s security while ensuring the Palestinian people aren’t going hungry.”

Murphy, 48, serves as chairman of the Senate subcommittee dealing with the Middle East, granting his voice particular amplification and significance when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He recently led the first congressional delegation to Israel since Naftali Bennett assumed the premiership, publicly pushing for the reopening of the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem previously shuttered by then-President Donald Trump.

He made a point to publicly praise the new governing coalition upon his return, while also acknowledging that Bennett’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not in line with what the Democratic Party hopes to see. However, Murphy does not consider Bennett’s views on Palestinians a deal breaker.

Murphy, second right, along with Democratic Senators and Israel's President Herzog, in Jerusalem.Credit: From President Herzog's Twitter Account

“We have to have the right-sized expectations for this government, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t position ourselves as a potential broker. Today there’s not a partner on either side that is willing to get a big bargain done,” he says.

“One of the reasons it’s really important for the United States to reopen our consulate in Jerusalem to the Palestinians is that – notwithstanding the current government’s reluctance to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians – it puts the United States in a place where we can continue to talk to both sides, and keep lines of communication open,” Murphy continues.

According to the senator, the U.S. should continue to press for “small but meaningful steps” from the Israeli government. “I’ve frankly been impressed with some of their early steps – whether it be this direct dialogue with the PA,” after Defense Minister Benny Gantz met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last month, “or the opening of certain pathways of aid to Gaza. All of those are important, and we should press the Israeli government to do more."

Concerning the Biden administration’s posture on Israeli-Palestinian matters, Murphy says he shares those views broadly, though admits there are times he thinks President Joe Biden could move quicker to reverse Trump-era policy – particularly concerning the reopening of the consulate.

“Frankly, had the administration opened the consulate at the beginning of the year, as the president made clear was his priority, we could have potentially avoided a lot of the controversy that exists right now inside Israel,” he says, while adding that the White House has the right goals and right expectations of both sides for the time being.

Moving forward in the region, Murphy highlights holding Palestinian elections and formulating a Gaza reconstruction strategy as two immediate goals.“I know many see elections as fraught with peril because of the standing of Hamas in the West Bank right now, but there’s no way forward without there being democracy in the West Bank. Israel needs to make clear that elections can happen in East Jerusalem, but the Palestinians need to make a commitment before these elections,” he says.

Upon returning from his visit to the Middle East earlier this month, Murphy acknowledged that the PA is not in a position to lead on Gaza reconstruction, and that several foreign countries need to come together despite potential donor fatigue. “It’s maddening that we haven’t yet come up with a plan to try to help address the humanitarian nightmare that continues to exist and was exacerbated by the conflict inside Gaza,” he says, referring to the 11-day flare-up between Israel and Hamas in May.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy earlier this year.Credit: POOL/REUTERS

Front and center

Murphy has served in the Senate since 2013, but was first elected to the House in 2006 buoyed by his opposition to the Iraq war. Israel has played a major role in his 15 years in Washington largely due to his home constituency. “People in Connecticut care about Israel. First and foremost, you work on what people in your state care about,” he says.

This is not to say Israel is a niche issue for the senator. Rather, he has been front and center in the greater debate about America’s foreign policy and national security goals.

“I have deep disagreements with the way we’ve deployed our military around the world in the past few decades, but I still believe we can and should be a force for good,” he says. “By being a force for good in the world, we better protect America from attack than simply by sending brigades into dangerous places.”

Murphy, who is best described as a pragmatic progressive, notes that he has positioned himself as an active voice on foreign policy because he believes America is best protected when it is present on the world stage. “We have badly botched our execution of national security goals during the last 20 years by relying way too heavily on the military and not enough on diplomacy,” he says.

He acknowledges that he is something of an outlier in the current Senate in terms of his focus on foreign policy. “This is a moment where senators generally are not as engaged in foreign policy as they were 30 years ago. I’m trying to show how the United States can at the same time learn the lessons of failed war policy and meet the challenges of the next 30 years,” he says.

Murphy’s worldview in general, and on Israel in particular, make former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a prime target of his criticism.

“On Israel, I try to make clear where I am: I’m a believer in the security of Israel, but I think the Netanyahu government often got it badly wrong. I can never speak for the people of Israel, but I worry that a lot of the decisions the Netanyahu government made are bad for Israel’s security in the long run,” he says.

He adds that Netanyahu’s policies have forced the Democratic Party to increase its criticism of Israel, rejecting the narrative of a so-called Democratic divide on Israel.

“It’s absurd that the story in Washington isn’t the movement of the Republican Party on Israel, versus the Democratic Party. It’s the Republican Party that is moving away from its historic support for two states; the Democratic Party has remained solid in our support for a Palestinian state,” he says. “To the extent there is increased criticism of Israel, it’s because our position has remained the same; the position of the Israeli government has changed.”

Murphy says in order to combat this narrative, journalists and pundits have an obligation to accurately explain how Democratic positions on Israel have not changed, while lawmakers have to be clear why they occasionally engage in criticism of Israeli policy.

“There’s no choice to be made between supporting Israel and being willing to occasionally be a critic of their policy. That’s the sort of space I’ve tried to carve out, and that’s where I’ll continue to live.”

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