Vermont progressive Senator warns Biden Israel-Gaza will be election issue: ‘Young people are just horrified’

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Senator Peter Welch tells Eric Garcia and Katie Hawkinson his thoughts on the Biden administration’s response to the Israel-Hamas war — and why the President could face backlash from voters

Thursday 14 March 2024 20:30 GMT
Peter Welch spoke with The Independent in an exclusive interview about the Israel-Hamas war
Peter Welch spoke with The Independent in an exclusive interview about the Israel-Hamas war (Getty Images)

Senator Peter Welch has a rare reputation on Capitol Hill. In the words of Senator John Fetterman, the Vermont junior Senator is the “nicest guy in Washington, DC.”

Along with the tattooed Pennsylvanian, Mr Welch also counts Alabama Republican Senator Katie Britt among his dearest friends since he joined the upper chamber in 2023 after spending 16 years in the House of Representatives.

Now, the nicest guy in the nation’s capital is on a mission, one at odds with the leadership of his party: achieving a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza.

Mr Welch spoke to The Independent on a day when the issue of the Israeli-Gaza war electrified DC, with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the United States, delivering an impassioned speech simultaneously defending Israel's right to defend itself but also calling for new elections in Israel, a statement that sparked a backlash not just from Republicans but from one Democratic senator, John Fetterman; and as White House officials met with Muslim leaders in Chicago amid fears that US policy on the war could become a key issue in swing states like Michigan come November.

He said: “It’s a practical issue.”

“The only way we’re going to get [aid] in is to get peace, but we need a lot more cooperation from Israel,” the Vermont senator told The Independent, later noting that celebrity chef Jose Andrés’ nonprofit World Central Kitchen is sending more food to Palestinians than “just about anyone in here.”

When Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel on 7 October, they killed at least 1,200 people and took more than 200 people hostage. Now, Israeli forces have descended on Gaza, killing at least 30,000 since October — including several thousand children — according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The United Nations warns that some 576,000 people — or one-quarter of Gaza’s population — are “one step away from famine.” The organization has also accused the Israeli government of “systematically” blocking aid deliveries into Gaza and of opening fire on convoys that do make it through.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Welch made his stance clear: President Joe Biden must work towards peace and delivering aid in Gaza as he faces the wrath of young voters concerned about Palestinians.

Chuck Schumer says Netanyahu's government 'no longer fits the needs of Israel'

Biden will have to face young voters on Gaza this November, Senator Welch says

“Young people are relating to the Palestinian suffering,” Mr Welch told The Independent. “When they see Israel and [Itamar] Ben-Gvir where he is explicitly for pushing all the Palestinians into the sea, they’re called, and I think the President is.”

Mr Ben-Gvir is the far-right Israeli National Security Minister who has strongly supported the Israeli war effort in Gaza. “My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs,” Mr Ben-Gvir said in an interview last year, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

More recently, Mr Ben-Gvir has called for the emigration of Palestinians from Gaza.

Itamar Ben-Gvir is Israel’s far-right Minister of National Security (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Welch said President Biden has made the right move in calling for more aid to Gaza and threatening to condition Israeli aid if an offensive in Rafah moves forward.

“It’s a real issue — that’s why moving this direction to try to have some equality and reignite this aspiration from the two-state solution and the dignity of the Palestinian people is so important,” Mr Welch said.

In Michigan, more than 100,000 Democratic primary voters cast their ballots as “uncommitted” as part of a campaign by activists and lawmakers in the state to signal their opposition to Mr Biden’s response to Israel’s war in Gaza. Democratic voters in Washington, Minnesota and North Carolina followed suit.

“That’s why I think what Schumer has done today can help really shift our direction,” the senator continued. “But it’s a big issue. I mean, it’s a war issue, and young people are just horrified at the suffering of the Palestinians”

Some members of the Senate Democratic caucus appear to be moving in Mr Welch’s direction as of late. Mr Schumer called for an end to Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership in Israel in his speech on Thursday morning.

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel,” Mr Schumer said on the Senate floor. “The Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past.”

Chuck Schumer says Netanyahu's government 'no longer fits the needs of Israel'

Mr Welch praised Mr Schumer’s speech — but not all Senate Democrats appreciated the call.

Mr Fetterman, a Democrat from Pennsylvania and close ally to Mr Welch, told The Independent he didn’t agree with everything the Majority Leader said.

“My support of the Israeli leader is the one that we have, or any leader that Israeli citizens elect,” Mr Fetterman told The Independent. “I would hope that every one of those leaders would agree that you have to go after Hamas, even if that means going against, sometimes, even the United States wishes as well.”

Meanwhile, those across the aisle condemned Mr Schumer’s remarks — including House Speaker Mike Johnson.

“This is not only highly inappropriate, it’s just plain wrong for an American leader to play such a divisive role in Israeli politics, while our closest ally in the region is in an existential battle for its very survival,” Mr Johnson said in a statement from the 2024 GOP retreat in West Virginia.

Speaker Mike Johnson speaks at the 2024 GOP retreat (Getty Images)

Senator Welch says US aid to Israel breaks American law

Not only does Mr Welch support a ceasefire, but he also told The Independent the US has broken foreign aid law by sending weapons to Israel.

Mr Welch’s predecessor, Senator Patrick Leahy, is best known for championing his namesake Leahy Law, which refers to two statutory provisions that prevent the federal government from using funds to assist foreign governments when there is credible information that they have committed “gross violations of human rights.”

Last week, Mr Leahy told The Independent the US has broken the Leahy Law by sending aid to Israel due to “the number of civilians who are being injured or killed by US paid armaments.”

“I agree with Senator Leahy,” Mr Welch told The Independent.

“The reality is, whatever legitimate military reasons [Israel has], they have also a humanitarian responsibility under international law to allow people to be fed,” he continued.

Last month, the president released a new memo on foreign aid requirements, with some Democrats praising it as a step towards potentially conditioning US aid to Israel. However, the memo only outlined existing laws — like the Leahy Law — stating that countries receiving US aid must follow humanitarian guidelines, such as providing “credible and reliable written assurances” that they are complying with international law and humanitarian standards.

Mr Welch was one of only four members of the Senate Democratic caucus — along with Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and fellow Vermonter and independent Bernie Sanders — who voted against a national security package last month that would provide aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Mr Sanders, unlike Mr Welch, has not come out in support of a permanent ceasefire but has called for an end to aid for Israel’s war in Gaza. Despite his objections, Mr Welch noted Democrats who support his position lack a critical mass.

Senator Bernie Sanders wants the US to condition aid to Israel (Getty Images)

“We don’t have votes in the Senate, we don’t have the votes in the House,” Mr Welch said when asked about conditioning aid to Israel. “So, this is something where the Administration has to make a decision.”

The President has also said he will consider conditioning aid to Israel if the Israel Defense Forces ramps up its offensive in the city of Rafah. On Wednesday, news broke that Israel struck a United Nations facility in Rafah, killing an aid worker and injuring civilians. White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby said the administration is “deeply concerned” in response.

For Mr Welch, it is Mr Biden who must act immediately to condition aid and ensure a ceasefire in Gaza.

“It’s really the president who has got the authority — he‘s got the authority and the power,” Mr Welch told The Independent. “Congress has some of us who would cut off military aid, but not that‘s not a majority in the House or Senate.”

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