John Fetterman Is Right About Many Things — but He’s Dead Wrong on Palestine

There are many things to like about Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman. But his dismal position on Palestine is a reminder of how foreign policy is so often the weak spot of progressive politicians.

Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and senatorial candidate John Fetterman speaks at a Labor Day visit to United Steelworkers of America Local Union 2227 in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania on September 5, 2022.(Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a lot to like about Senate candidate John Fetterman. He’s certainly night-and-day better than his clownish Republican opponent “Dr Oz.”

Fetterman endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, when no other statewide candidate was willing to do the same. And while he’s more moderate than Bernie or the Congressional “Squad” on some issues, I find his style of left-populist political messaging refreshing. If his recent op-ed calling for the prosecution of price-gouging executives at big companies is any indication, he would be a big improvement over most Democrats in the Senate — at least on domestic issues.

When it comes to foreign policy, Fetterman seems to be far more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, he supports a renewed nuclear deal with Iran, and in describing his overall approach to foreign policy he’s made some of the right noises about “[e]nding costly wars of choice” and “embracing diplomacy.” On the other hand, he’s shown no sign whatsoever that he’ll be the kind of senator who would make waves over such issues or pick foreign policy fights with Democratic leadership. Far from showing any interest in embracing diplomacy with Russia to end the war in Ukraine, for example, Fetterman’s comments on that have consisted of generic flag-waving talk about standing “united” in “the fight against Putin.”

And when it comes to Palestine, John Fetterman might as well be Dr Oz.

Israel’s “Internal Affairs”

In statements to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Oz has tried to portray Fetterman as an advocate for the rights of Palestinians.

John Fetterman is on the opposite side of just about every major issue from me, and that includes Israel. He’s OK with the United States putting pressure on Israel to manage their internal affairs differently, in particular how they manage the Palestinian population within Israel.

I wish this were true. The way the Israeli state “manage[s] the Palestinian population” has involved severe violations of the human and democratic rights of millions of people on both sides of the “Green Line” separating “Israel proper” from the territories it conquered in 1967 — not to mention all the Palestinian families across the region and the rest of the world who have been legally denied their basic right to return to the country since they were expelled from it during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Palestinians on the Israeli side of the line are openly treated as second-class citizens, with mainstream Israeli politicians routinely wringing their hands about the “demographic threat” posed by the higher birth rates of Palestinian citizens in a way that would sound outright fascist if it came out of the mouth of an American politician talking about the birth rate of an ethnic minority group here.

Nor is this merely a matter of racist rhetoric. Israel officially regards itself not as a state of everyone who lives there, or even just of its citizens, but as (in the words of a 2018 Israeli law) “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” Palestinian citizens of Israel are legally discriminated against in areas ranging from family unification with noncitizen spouses to leasing state-owned land.

And that’s the part of the Palestinian population that has Israeli citizenship. Palestinians born on the other side of the line aren’t citizens of Israel or any other nation, even though Israel has ruled the West Bank since 1967 — and Israeli Jews who move there are legally considered to live in Israel. Unsurprisingly, this noncitizen population is routinely brutalized by Israel’s military and by heavily armed settler vigilantes — and the idea of seeking redress for this mistreatment in Israeli courts would in the overwhelming majority of cases be a bad joke.

Oz frames this as a matter of Israel’s “internal affairs,” but of course Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank is funded with lavish American aid. Supporters of Palestinian rights aren’t calling for America to create a Palestinian state by invading Israel, or even financing Palestinian resistance. They’re just calling for American aid for Israel to be ended — or at least attached to conditions that would give Palestinians hope for some sort of progress toward securing basic rights.

If Oz’s claim that Fetterman was among these critics of America’s long-term backing of Israel’s human rights abuses, it would make me like him even more than I already do. Unfortunately, Oz is lying.

Fetteroz vs. Palestinian Rights

Months before Dr Oz told the Republican Jewish Coalition that Fetterman was “OK” with pressuring Israel to respect the elemental human rights of its Palestinian citizens and noncitizen subjects, Fetterman was clarifying that he’s not OK with any such thing. During his first race for Senate in 2016, Fetterman dodged the issue, but in April of this year he told Jewish Insider that he had an “unwavering” commitment to “Israel’s security” and that he was in favor of additional military assistance “without any additional conditions.”

In the interview, Fetterman was emphatic in his opposition to attempts by private citizens to promote an economic boycott of Israel as a pressure tactic — never mind making further “security assistance” by the US government conditional. On the latter, he supported a ten-year moratorium on the imposition of any such conditions. Before the interviewer even had a chance to broach the subject, Fetterman specifically expressed his disagreement with the decision by some members of the Congressional progressive “Squad” to vote against US funding for Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system — funding that of course came on top of a baseline of already extensive aid.

It’s true that Fetterman nominally supports a “two-state solution” to the conflict, while Oz answered a question about the West Bank at the Republican Jewish Coalition event by saying Israel shouldn’t “give up any of its territory.” But this difference about what the Israeli government should do is largely irrelevant, since on the question of whether the United States should even consider further aid conditional on better Israeli behavior, the two candidates might as well be a single entity — “Fetteroz.”

We Need Berniecrats to Be Better on Foreign Policy

Absurdly praising Israel’s supposed “democratic values,” Fetterman accurately said of himself in the Jewish Insider interview that he’s “not really a progressive in that sense.” That would presumably be the “sense” in which the “progressive” position on Palestine involves criticism of unconditional US aid to Israel. John Fetterman has, in other words, unashamedly confessed to being what’s sometimes known as a PEP — a “progressive except for Palestine.”

Most left-wing Pennsylvania voters who are progressives in that sense will support him anyway, based on the obvious calculation that on issues ranging from labor unions to marijuana legalization to trans rights to criminal justice reform, the “Fetteroz” description wouldn’t fit. The two candidates have dramatically opposed positions. And on Palestine, if Fetterman’s not meaningfully better than Oz, he at least isn’t worse.

It’s hard to fault that calculation. But Fetterman’s awful positions on this issue are a troubling symptom of a much larger problem in progressive politics. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez notoriously voted “present” on Iron Dome funding. Jamal Bowman voted “yes.” So did Bernie Sanders — although he at least extracted increased humanitarian funding for Gaza as the price of his vote.

Foreign policy in general is a weak spot for elected left-wing politicians. Internationalism is central to the socialist left’s vision of the world, but the pressure on elected officials to cleave to the establishment foreign policy consensus is powerful, and it’s extremely difficult for the grassroots left to exert meaningful pressure on politicians who bow to that pressure. Realistically, most voters — even ones who see themselves as deeply progressive — are going to be more motivated by issues like health care policy that immediately impact them than they are by issues whose most immediate impact is felt by people on the other side of the world.

That problem can be at least partially mitigated by the Left taking every opportunity to aggressively point out that every dollar spent on buying weapons for the Israeli military, or on America’s own imperial war machine, is a dollar not spent on domestic social spending. That’s a long-term project, though, and as things stand in 2022 I’m well aware that neither the Palestine solidarity movement nor the antiwar movement is powerful enough to exert much pressure on progressive politicians.

Even so, when it comes to Palestine, we should expect better than this.