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Fetterman traveled to Israel and met with Netanyahu despite blowback on the left

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who continues to break with progressives within his party by backing Israel in the war with Hamas, visited the country this week and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Maya Levin for NPR
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who continues to break with progressives within his party by backing Israel in the war with Hamas, visited the country this week and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

JERUSALEM — Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., has cultivated an image in Congress as an unapologetically brash, progressive Democrat.

On his first visit to Israel, he was unapologetic about breaking with progressives on one main issue: his support of Israel’s war with Hamas and his embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In an interview with NPR in Jerusalem on Thursday, before the CNN presidential debate, Fetterman said progressives who refuse to vote for President Biden over his handling of the war in Gaza could cost Democrats the election.

“De facto, you’re supporting Trump,” he said. “If you're willing to play with that kind of fire, you really should be willing to own that, if that's the way it goes.”

Fetterman’s trip to Israel was sponsored by the Senate’s banking committee, and he discussed Hamas’ illicit financing with Israeli officials. But the thrust of his visit was to acquaint himself with a country he had never visited before but ardently supported since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that prompted Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza.

The senator wore his signature sweatshirt in an hourlong meeting Wednesday with Netanyahu, who praised Fetterman for his “courageous and heart-warming” response to pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered outside his home earlier this year: he face them off holding up an Israeli flag.

“I want to thank you for your — your courageous statements that show moral clarity and moral courage. And you just say it the way it is,” Netanyahu said.

Support for Israel puts Fetterman in conflict with some progressives

Fetterman’s support for Israel has confounded many progressive Democrats who are angry at the high civilian death toll in Gaza from Israel’s bombing campaign and the extensive destruction that has come with it.

The senator did not articulate any specific person or moment in shaping his pro-Israel views. He told NPR he has studied history, and that a visit to Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem clarified his view that Israel’s conduct in Gaza is not a genocide, as pro-Palestinian demonstrators have argued.

“I'm not gonna pander to them,” Fetterman said about progressive pro-Palestinian voters who have protested outside his offices and home.

He mentioned a Palestinian mother and her children he observed in Jerusalem’s Old City, and his empathy for Gaza’s civilians in the war.

“I don't assign to them higher value on my children's life than I would for any Palestinian children in the middle of this, or Israeli children as well,” Fetterman said. “I think the difference is...your anger and your frustration should be directed at Hamas for how they've designed this.”

Netanyahu to address Congress next month

Netanyahu, who leads an ultra right-wing coalition government, is a lightning rod among Democrats. He has sparred with the Biden administration over its supply of ammunition to Israel during the war, and many Democratic Congress members, mostly in the House, are considering boycotting Netanyahu’s upcoming address to a joint session of Congress July 24.

Fetterman told NPR that would be “bad performance art.” He was confident most Senate Democrats would attend Netanyahu’s address.

“I think the more people that don't show up, the more that kind of division would only allow Hamas to feel more positive about the situation,” Fetterman said.

The same day he met Netanyahu, six prominent Israeli figures, including a former prime minister and former spy chief of Netanyahu, urged Congress to rescind its invitation to Netanyahu, arguing it would unfairly serve Netanyahu’s domestic political need to prop up his lagging support in the Israeli public over the war.

Fetterman defended the invitation.

“Congress can't be played as suckers. I think mostly they're savvy professionals that understand that they're going to be optics and [there is] going to be an agenda,” Fetterman told NPR. “Let's not ever forget that this is the democratically elected leader of this nation. And that's our special ally. And we — he deserves the opportunity to speak to the body, the legislative body that voted for billions of dollars in their support.”

On his visit, Fetterman met with Israeli officials as well as centrist politicians from the Israeli opposition.

Among his highlights of the trip: drinking coffee in Jerusalem’s Old City from a centuries-old family purveyor — “it’s much different than a Starbucks in some strip mall” — and staying at the King David Hotel.

The fabled hotel displays the signatures of famous guests along a hallway, like a walk of fame. The list includes U.S. presidents and other world leaders.

The guests who impressed him the most: the heavy metal band Metallica.

“Any hotel that has Metallica signing that they stay here — like, that's, it's pretty great,” he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.