John Fetterman says he’ll ‘lean in’ on U.S.-Israel relationship as senator
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2022 ElectionPA Democratic primary 2022

John Fetterman says he’ll ‘lean in’ on U.S.-Israel relationship as senator

The Democratic lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania emphasized that he is forging his own path in in one of the most high-profile races of the midterms

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (Harold Hoch/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (Harold Hoch/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

This piece was first published by JewishInsider.com.

John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and the Democratic frontrunner in next month’s high-profile Senate primary, said he was “eager to affirm” his “unwavering” commitment to bolstering ties between the United States and Israel in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday, emphasizing that he will “lean in” on such efforts if he is elected to the upper chamber this November.

“Whenever I’m in a situation to be called on to take up the cause of strengthening and enhancing the security of Israel or deepening our relationship between the United States and Israel, I’m going to lean in,” Fetterman declared in his first conversation with a Jewish publication since he launched his campaign more than a year ago. “The relationship is a special one that needs to be safeguarded, protected, supported and nurtured through legislation and all available diplomatic efforts in the region.”

Fetterman, 52, has established himself as an outspoken progressive voice on such domestic issues as universal healthcare, income inequality, criminal justice reform and the legalization of recreational marijuana.

But until now, the first-term lieutenant governor had not publicly clarified his views on a range of Middle East foreign policy matters, including Israel, which has become a source of intense intra-party conflict in recent election cycles as well as a litmus test of sorts for far-left activists who have grown increasingly critical of American support for the Jewish state.

With just over a month remaining until the May 17 primary, Fetterman’s long silence on such matters has fueled curiosity among Jewish leaders in the commonwealth who have wondered where, if at all, he might place himself in that debate.

“He’s never come out and said that he’s not a supporter of Israel, but the perception is that he aligns with the Squad more than anything else,” said Democratic activist Brett Goldman, referring to the group of progressive lawmakers who are among the most outspoken Israel critics in the House. “That may not be true, but that’s what the perception is.”

Speaking with JI, however, Fetterman said he has “not encountered” such concerns during his campaign, noting that he has been “very clear about” his views on Israel in conversations with a number of advocacy groups in recent months.

“I would also respectfully say that I’m not really a progressive in that sense,” he added. “Our campaign is based on core Democratic values and principles, and always has been, and there is no daylight between myself and these kinds of unwavering commitments to Israel’s security.”

Still, Fetterman said he was “eager to affirm” his positions on the record, lest there be any uncertainty among supporters of Israel who have similar questions. “I want to go out of my way to make sure that it’s absolutely clear,” he told JI, “that the views that I hold in no way go along the lines of some of the more fringe or extreme wings of our party.”

During the interview, Fetterman took special pains, it seemed, to do just that, at one point anticipating a question about U.S. funding for Israel before it had been posed to him. “Let me just say this, even if I’m asked or not, I was dismayed by the Iron Dome vote,” Fetterman said, alluding to a small cohort of far-left House members who, last September, opposed legislation that would provide $1 billion to replenish Israel’s missile-defense system following the conflict last May with Hamas in Gaza. “I would never vote in that regard.”

“Israel has the supreme right to defend itself, especially when there are thousands of rockets being indiscriminately fired at innocent civilians,” he argued. “I believe that the vote was misguided, and that is something that I would never be a part of.”

Fetterman said he is “equally passionate” in his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. “It’s just wrong,” he said. “Israel is our closest ally and friend in the region, and I do not believe that is anything productive that enhances not only Israel’s security but the region’s security through that process.”

The lieutenant governor backed legislation at the state level, signed into law six years ago by Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, barring the commonwealth from pursuing contracts with companies that participate in boycotts of Israel.

More broadly, Fetterman said he is in favor of continued U.S. security assistance for Israel — “without any additional conditions,” he stressed — that is guaranteed in a 10-year memorandum of understanding between the two countries. “We have to be committed to strengthening Israel’s security and reject any attempts to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist. That’s non-negotiable,” Fetterman insisted. “We have a special relationship, we always have, and we have a shared set of democratic values that are really essential to securing a lasting peace in the region. I’m strongly, strongly supportive of that.”

Fetterman, who endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also voiced support for efforts to expand on the Abraham Accords, a series of historic agreements, brokered by the Trump administration, establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations.

On the other hand, Fetterman criticized former President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal as a “mistake.” The lieutenant governor said he is aligned with the Biden administration as it seeks to negotiate a new agreement with Iran. “If I’m ever in a position to vote in that area,” Fetterman told JI, “a non-nuclear Iran is a priority for the region and, of course, for Israel’s security.”

While Fetterman said he has “always followed” developments in the Middle East, which he described as “one of the most crucial regions out there,” he confirmed that he has also sought counsel from a variety of advocacy groups, including J Street, AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, to ensure he is “properly educated” on such matters.

Mark Mellman, DMFI’s president, told JI that he reached out to Fetterman’s campaign some months ago to request an Israel position paper. He was told that Fetterman was still fleshing out his views, owing to a lack of experience in the foreign policy realm as a state official. Before he became lieutenant governor, Fetterman had been focused on even more local concerns as the longtime mayor of Braddock, a post-industrial steel town just outside Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania.

Fetterman ran a longshot campaign for Senate in 2016 but does not appear to have publicly addressed such issues as a candidate. Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent noted at the time that it had “received no response” from Fetterman after reaching out with “questions of interest to the Jewish community.” His Democratic primary opponents, for their part, both submitted statements to the newspaper in which they detailed their support for Israel.

This time around, Fetterman seems to have taken a more proactive approach. After speaking with DMFI, his campaign agreed to an initial briefing and “came with an interest in learning about the issues,” Mellman recalled. “Then they sent us a position paper, which we thought was very strong,” he added, noting that DMFI made some comments via email that Fetterman was receptive to addressing in a second draft. “He took clear positions across the board on the issues that matter,” Mellman said, citing a number of the same views that Fetterman expressed in conversation with JI.

“People identify him with the left, with the far left, even,” Mellman said of Fetterman, whose populist image has been compared to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). “I don’t think he necessarily identifies himself with the far left, but the reality is, whatever his positions may be on other issues,” Mellman told JI, when it comes to the Middle East, “he is very much a down-the-line, pro-Israel Democrat.”

DMFI’s political arm, which has butted heads with the progressive left in several elections over the past few cycles, is not planning to make an endorsement in the Pennsylvania Senate primary. “We’re fortunate to have at least two candidates in that race that are very strong supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Mellman said, including Fetterman as well as Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) in his assessment.

Lamb, a moderate lawmaker who includes a section on Israel on his campaign site, has built strong connections with Jewish voters since his election in 2018. But the congressman, who launched his Senate campaign last August, has struggled to keep pace with Fetterman’s robust fundraising and strong polling, even as he has recently gone on the offensive with a series of attacks targeting his opponent.

J Street, for its part, is not making an official endorsement either, according to the group’s national political director, Laura Birnbaum. Instead, J Street has “primary approved” three Democratic candidates in the race, including Fetterman, Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta — all of whom are jockeying to succeed outgoing Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) in what is expected to be among the most competitive general election matchups of the midterms.

AIPAC declined to comment when reached by JI.

“I’m not here to contrast any views,” Fetterman said, noting that he had not “studied” his opponent’s positions on Israel. “It wouldn’t have any impact no matter what their views are because this is what I believe,” he told JI. “This is what I’ve always believed and will absolutely commit to if I’m the next senator here in Pennsylvania.”

***

Clocking in at 6-feet-8, with a bald head, tattooed arms and a typical uniform of cargo shorts and a Dickies work shirt, Fetterman is hard to miss at any campaign stop. But despite his imposing presence, he has drawn scrutiny for a lack of substantive public engagement since he entered the Senate race in February of 2021.

The lieutenant governor, for instance, skipped a Democratic Senate debate last month, opening himself up to a series of increasingly hostile criticism from his opponents. Fetterman, who has said he will commit to “no fewer than three network televised debates,” has also been a no-show at a number of recent candidate forums, including a January meeting with Black clergy members in Philadelphia. His absence has stirred speculation that he is avoiding potential confrontations over an incident, as mayor of Braddock, when he held an unarmed Black jogger at gunpoint while responding to what he believed to be the sound of gunfire in the neighborhood.

Fetterman, who says he was unaware of the man’s race when he first approached him, has long defended his actions. “When I ran for mayor, I made a commitment to do whatever I could to confront this gun violence,” he said in a video released at the beginning of his campaign, “and that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

Though has taken some time to address his views on the Middle East, Fetterman has indicated that he is finally ready to engage more deeply on such matters. On Thursday, for example, he is expected to appear alongside Lamb and Kenyatta at a virtual candidate forum hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America in partnership with Democratic Jewish Outreach of Pennsylvania.

But when it has come to local engagement as an elected official, some Jewish leaders in Pennsylvania argue that Fetterman’s elusiveness as a candidate is consistent with their own experiences — or lack thereof — with the lieutenant governor.

“My experience during a virtual lobby day was that he didn’t show up,” Goldman told JI. “Most of the attempts to formally engage have either been put off for some reason or really surface level.”

“If he’s going to be the U.S. senator,” said Goldman, who supports Lamb’s campaign but is open to backing Fetterman in the general election, “he’s got to have a stronger relationship with the Jewish community than he does now.”

Ari Mittleman, a Jewish activist who co-moderated the recent debate at which Fetterman was absent, echoed that view. “Now, more than ever before in my lifetime, candidates for public office need to be vocal and visible allies of our community,” he said, expressing hope that Fetterman will come through as a senator. But, he told JI, “Jewish community leaders have not seen instances yet.”

Others, however, cast their encounters with Fetterman in a more positive light. “I like him personally a lot,” said Robin Schatz, the director of government affairs at the nonpartisan Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, noting that she has met with Fetterman on several occasions throughout his tenure as an elected official.

The first time, Schatz recalled, was a casual run-in at a Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York, when she found Fetterman, who was at that time the mayor of Braddock, somewhat awkwardly seated in the opulent lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. “He was wearing a T-shirt that had the front of a tuxedo, which I thought was hilarious,” she said. “I sat in the lobby and talked to him for a while.”

“He’s very much his own man,” Schatz said, expressing admiration for, among other things, Fetterman’s longstanding dedication to immigration reform, a cause the lieutenant governor takes personally as the husband of a former undocumented immigrant from Brazil. “He looks like this biker or bouncer, and people are sometimes surprised by how erudite he is,” she said of the lieutenant governor, who received a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government before his career in public service. “He’s very, very smart, and I think he cares passionately about community.”

Schatz had been planning to invite Fetterman on a legislative mission to Israel last year, she said, but decided against it after he declared his Senate candidacy. “I look forward to having a conversation with him if he wins,” she told JI.

Jared Solomon, a Jewish state representative in Philadelphia, said he was “heartened and encouraged” when Fetterman, nearing the end of his campaign for lieutenant governor, “dropped everything and went to grieve with families” in the immediate aftermath of the shooting at the Tree of Life building in Pittsburgh four years ago. “Presence is really important.”

After the election, Fetterman joined a group of state lawmakers from both parties, including Solomon, on a visit to the synagogue, where a lone gunman killed 11 people and wounded six in the worst antisemitic attack in American history. “I know John made remarks that expressed his willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh,” Solomon recalled, “and do whatever he could to be of assistance.”

In conversation with JI, Fetterman said the Tree of Life attack had “struck particularly close to home,” given its close proximity to Braddock, where he has lived since the early aughts. “I remember I got the call from a friend of mine who lives across the street and said there’s a shooting.”

“To actually have seen the bullet holes in the plaster and to have known victims of the shooting,” Fetterman recalled, was a stark reminder “that we can never go down this road and we can never allow ourselves even the slightest deviation.”

“After something as horrific as that,” he said, “it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that we are very vocal and we are bipartisan in affirming that as well.”

Fetterman said he has developed a “strong relationship” with Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer in Pennsylvania and a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor at the time of the shooting, in his efforts to “reach across the aisle.” Bartos, who is Jewish, was “the first person” Fetterman “thought of” when he learned of the attack in October 2018, as he told his opponent when he called to inform him of the shooting. Their friendship has been described as a “rare political bromance,” but neither Fetterman nor Bartos — who is now running for Senate — was willing to elaborate on the relationship.

Bartos, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment from JI, is among more than a half-dozen GOP candidates now competing in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary, including such leading contenders as the hedge fund executive David McCormick and the TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, who notched a coveted endorsement from Trump on Saturday.

“This is all about winning elections in order to stop the Radical Left maniacs from destroying our Country,” the former president said in a statement.

***

As the primary enters its final stretch, Fetterman has faced an onslaught of denunciations from Lamb and Kenyatta, who have warned that the lieutenant governor is vulnerable to Republican attacks in the general election, not least because of the incident with the jogger nearly 10 years ago. Lamb has also called Fetterman a “flip-flopper” because he now opposes a moratorium on fracking in Pennsylvania, which has put the lieutenant governor at odds with progressives who support the Green New Deal.

Some of the criticism has backfired, though, including one recent TV ad from a pro-Lamb super PAC that was quickly removed from Philadelphia’s media market after Fetterman’s campaign claimed it had inaccurately cast him as a “self-described Democratic socialist.”

While Fetterman unsuccessfully sought an endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America’s Pittsburgh chapter when he ran for lieutenant governor, he said in his candidate questionnaire that he did not “consider” himself “a socialist.” Fetterman sought backing from the DSA the same year the organization had formally endorsed the BDS movement at its national convention in 2017. The Pittsburgh chapter, however, only passed a resolution affirming its support for boycotting Israel last month.

Fetterman, who has sought inroads with working-class voters in rural Pennsylvania who gravitated to Trump, argues that his “views are consistent and will remain as such.”

“We’re running the race that we’ve always run,” said the lieutenant governor, who has pulled in a formidable $15 million in donations since he launched his campaign, including more than $3 million in the first quarter of 2022. “We’re humbled by the support that we’ve received, we’re grounded in the belief that we’re going to run a clean, issue-oriented campaign, and we are always, always going to uplift the mission.”

“That mission is to flip the seat blue, and our campaign and our values are going to be reflected in how important that is,” he added. “We are going to be transparent to a fault, and what we say is what we actually believe.”

Tonya Markiewicz, who worked for Fetterman’s nonprofit, Braddock Redux, for three years beginning in 2009, said “what you see is what you get” when it comes to the lieutenant governor. “He’s always going to be John, and I think that helps people trust him, that he doesn’t have anything to hide,” she said in an interview with JI. “He’s living the life he wants to lead. He’s not trying to be someone else.”

When Fetterman officiated at her wedding, for example, “he did not dress up” for the occasion, Markiewicz recalled somewhat affectionately, “and that was OK.”

Markiewicz, who lives in Pittsburgh, said Fetterman had worn shorts and a button-down during the ceremony.

Fetterman, who once claimed he did not own “a suit or a tie,” suggested that he would prefer to continue wearing shorts in the Senate. “If the dress code permitted them, probably, but I get the sense that I wouldn’t be able to,” he told JI. “Whether I get there, we’ll work it out. I believe in being casual but also being serious when you have to be, too, of course.”

Kristen Coopie, the director of pre-law at Duquesne University and an expert on local elections in Pennsylvania, described Fetterman as “an incredibly interesting” candidate “who prides himself on not looking or acting like a typical politician.”

If the polling is accurate, Fetterman, who has maintained a consistent lead over his opponents throughout the race, “will be the likely candidate on the Democratic ballot this fall,” Coopie told JI. “We still haven’t seen an endorsement of any candidate by the Democratic Party, so the coming weeks will be interesting in this already contentious and highly important race.”

In a statement to JI, Patrick Burgwinkle, a senior communications strategist for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, suggested the organization is keeping its options open as it maintains “open lines of communications with all of the candidates” in the race. “We haven’t issued endorsements in any challenger races — yet — but we are not taking anything off the table.”

Joseph Corrigan, a Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania, believes that Fetterman’s messaging and outreach have strongly positioned him for the primary as well as the general election. “He speaks to people who feel like politicians have condescended to them, have lied to them,” said Corrigan. “The common factor,” he explained, is Braddock, “a forgotten town” that became a national symbol of small-scale Rust Belt revival over the course of Fetterman’s mayorship.

Fetterman had previously been employed in the insurance industry when he arrived in Braddock in 2001 to work for a youth program. He ran for mayor four years later, winning by one vote, and went on to promote such initiatives as green architecture, urban farms and a variety of artistic endeavors that would attract new investments to the beleaguered town. As lieutenant governor, Fetterman has maintained his residence in Braddock, where he lives with his wife, Gisele, and three children in a former Chevrolet car dealership.

The Senate hopeful said he is now seeking federal office because he believes that “control of” the chamber “could very well rest on” the swing state of Pennsylvania, which President Joe Biden only carried by a small margin in 2020, as Democrats prepare to defend their tenuous majority in the upper chamber.

“There’s a real sense of urgency that our party meet the moment and get some important things accomplished for this country, and I’m troubled by the direction that it took over the last four years, given the willingness to lie about the electoral integrity, the willingness to really spread misinformation as a strategy,” Fetterman explained. “I just think it’s so critical that we respond with a united front.”

He expressed confidence that he would prevail, touting, among other things, a “comprehensive digital outreach program,” a statewide TV advertising campaign and an influx of small-dollar donations from supporters across the commonwealth. “We are hitting all the counties, doing events nonstop, forums, debates,” he said. “We are just stomping on the gas and finishing the way we started.”

His campaign, he reiterated, “is firmly rooted in good, solid, Democratic values and principles and policies,” adding: “We are very clear about how we feel about Israel and how critical it is, and we are always open and eager to have that conversation.”

Fetterman, who has never been to Israel, vowed to visit as soon as possible should he advance past the primary election.

“I am committing, if I’m the nominee in this race, to visit as rapidly as possible and make sure I see firsthand the dynamic on the ground and meet with as many stakeholders as possible,” he said. “That’s my commitment, as the nominee, to do that, because it is so critical to make sure that, if I’m going to represent the Senate in Pennsylvania, we have that kind of on-the-ground understanding of what’s going on.”

While Fetterman voiced admiration for a range of potential future colleagues, including Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), he said there was no particular lawmaker on whom he would model himself in the Senate.

The lieutenant governor emphasized that he is forging his own unique path as he seeks to hold true to his personal convictions.

“It’s about putting down a marker,” he told JI. “If you trust me with your vote in May and November, you’ll always have my vote in Washington, D.C., on these critical issues, and that especially holds true for Israel.” PJC

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