Tempers flare over Israel-Palestine in California Senate debate

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) pressed her fellow Senate candidates over Middle East policy in a debate Monday, pushing Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to back a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war — something he declined to do.

Lee called the Israeli military operation in Gaza “counterproductive to Israeli security” and said the conflict could “spiral out of control.”

“I voted against the Iraq [War] authorization,” Lee said. “I said then, and I’m saying now, it could spiral out of control,” Lee said. “You see what’s happening. It’s escalating in the region. We have to make sure that our national security is also protected. In fact, as this war escalates, as the Arab nations pull back, then what do we have? We do not have a path to Israeli security, nor do we have a path to a Palestinian state.”

The topic sparked a fierce debate among the top four candidates in the Senate primary, which also includes Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif) and Republican candidate Steve Garvey. 

Lee and Porter have both backed a cease-fire in the war, while Schiff and Garvey have refused. 

The Israel-Hamas war began in October after Hamas militants killed over 1,200 Israelis in a surprise attack on border settlements. The Israeli military operation in Gaza has since killed over 25,000 Palestinians.

“I don’t know how you can ask any nation to cease fire when their people are being held by a terrorist organization,” Schiff said.

“It’s not, in my view, incompatible with human nature to grieve the loss of both innocent Palestinians as well as innocent Israelis,” he added. “We can’t leave Hamas governing Gaza. They’re still holding over 100 hostages, including Americans.”

All three Democrats also emphasized their support for a two-state solution in the region, with Lee directly calling out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for saying he would not support a Palestinian civilian government in Gaza.

The Biden administration has continuously pushed Netanyahu towards a two-state solution, so far to no avail.

Garvey avoided detail in his responses on the conflict, saying the political situation in Israel makes a two-state solution untenable “until the next generation,” and said expectations of a diplomatic solution are “naive.”

Monday’s Los Angeles debate marked the first time the four Senate candidates faced off before a March 5 primary. The top two vote-getters in the March 5 primary will advance to the general election, no matter their party. 

Schiff leads the field in early polls, nine points ahead of Garvey in a Politico/Morning Consult poll last month. Butler and Porter trailed Garvey by two and five points, respectively.

The race is set to determine the full time replacement for the late Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who died in October. Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) was appointed to the seat, but announced that she will not seek election.

The primary will likely be the most expensive ever at is conclusion. Porter and Schiff are the top two Senate fundraisers for the 2024 cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data, pulling in $22 million and $21 million, respectively, as of October. Lee raised $3.4 million in that period, while Garvey is yet to report fundraising.

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