Knesset speaker projects unity during trip to US despite division, criticism

NEW YORK – Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana traveled to Washington, DC, and New York last week amid a pivotal point in time for the US’ relationship with Israel as pressures for a hostage deal and humanitarian aid in Gaza mount worldwide.  

Ohana’s trip came at the invitation of his counterpart in Congress, House Speaker Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA). 

In meetings and press conferences, Ohana projected a story of unity albeit diversity as he noted his choice to bring Knesset members from opposition parties along with him to the US. 

Four families of hostages, from three different religions, also accompanied Ohana on his trip to DC, adding to the image of unity.

Numerous times, Ohana repeated Israel’s three priorities of returning the hostages, defeating Hamas, and strengthening US-Israel relations.  

The backdrop of Ohana’s visit however tells a more complicated story; one highlighted by increasing division between party lines, and Washington and Jerusalem. 

Last week saw two failed supplemental bills; a new memorandum that will require Israel to prove its compliance with international human rights laws; President Joe Biden calling Israel’s conduct in Gaza “over the top;” and a proposed deal from Hamas which Israel and the US deemed unrealistic. 

On Monday, Ohana met with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

“These are critical days that may determine the fate of the entire region. The Hamas-Hezbollah-Houthis axis of evil led by Iran must feel the power of the free world in the form of a diplomatic and military iron wall, and America’s actions these days are certainly a good start,” Ohana said on X following the meeting.

Two days later, a US drone strike in Iraq killed Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Wissam Mohammed Abu Baqir al-Saadikilled al-Saadi, who the Pentagon said orchestrated attacks against US troops in the region. The White House said its retaliation against Iran-backed forces for the deaths of three US service members will come in stages and it is uncertain where and when more retaliatory strikes could take place, increasing concerns over a wider-spread war in the region. 

On Monday, Ohana also met with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas amid his Republican-led impeachment hearings. 

Ohana thanked Mayorkas on X, calling him a “true friend of Israel who has worked a lot for her.”

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana in his meeting with the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, February 5, 2024. (credit: NATAN WEIL/GPO)

“At our meeting yesterday together with the delegation, I thanked him for his contribution to strengthening the relationship between the countries and for the time he spent out of his day to hear the stories of the families of the abductees,” Ohana said. 

Israel and US’s friendship and support

On Tuesday, Ohana and Johnson walked out together to a podium on the speaker’s balcony where they professed their country’s friendship and support. Johnson met with the full delegation of Knesset members and hostage families. 

Later that day, Johnson’s standalone aid bill for Israel failed to pass through the house as Democratic members widely opposed it calling it a political ploy by MAGA Republicans.  

“Having such a large package with no humanitarian aid whatsoever, little to no conditions to ensure compliance with US law, and stripping that from aid to Ukraine made it a non-starter for me,” Rep. Alexandria Occasio-Cortez (D-NY) told The Post on Wednesday, a day after the House vote. 

At the Israeli embassy Tuesday night, Ambassador Michael Herzog told The Post he wouldn’t comment on internal American politics, but that Israel needs the funding and that he hopes a bill passes one way or the other. 

On Wednesday in the Senate, the supplemental bill tying aid for Israel with aid for Ukraine and border control policies failed to get enough Republican support as the party criticized the bill for being too soft on the US southern border. 

In a statement on Friday, the Republican Jewish Coalition acknowledged the bill isn’t perfect, but urged senators to support procedural votes to advance the bill and vote in favor of its passing. 

“The Senate has taken an important first step by beginning debate on a bill that includes assistance to our embattled ally, Israel,” RJC CEO Matt Brooks said in the statement. “RJC will always support aid to Israel. And especially now, it is urgent and vital that the Middle East’s only democracy has what it needs to defeat terrorism and defend its citizens. The barbaric atrocities of October 7, 2023, must never happen again.”

“As Republicans, we believe that America is obligated to stand by our allies when they are under attack. We also believe the federal government is obligated to secure the border,” Brooks also said. “It is imperative that our party maintain our determination to fulfill both of those promises and demand better from an administration that is failing mightily in both respects.”

The Jewish Democratic Council of America slammed Johnson while also encouraging support for the Senate’s bill. 

“This is the second time Speaker Johnson has chosen to play politics with Israel’s security, jeopardizing the passage of aid to Israel and other national security imperatives,” JDCA CEO Halie Soifer said in a statement. 

“While JDCA strongly supports aid to Israel – with no cuts or conditions – this is a bad-faith effort by Republicans to use support for Israel to derail security assistance for Ukraine and border security. JDCA encourages swift passage of the bipartisan bill negotiated in the Senate which fully funds the President’s unprecedented request for Israel, funds aid to Ukraine, and advances US national security interests in the Middle East and beyond,” Soifer said. 

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, Ohana met in groups and one-on-one with more than a dozen bipartisan members from the House and Senate who reaffirmed their support for Israel, and commitment to working toward bringing the remaining hostages home and defeating Hamas. 

However, The New York Times reported that this week, members of Congress received intelligence briefings where they were told that while Hamas’ fighting capabilities were degraded, Israel was not close to defeating the group. The Post is working to independently confirm this reporting. 

This reporting follows a month of escalated tensions within the Knesset and Israeli society as a whole over Netanyahu’s war aims, his stance over not stopping the war until Hamas is totally defeated, and pressure to agree to a hostage deal. At the end of January, Netanyahu rejected a proposed deal from Hamas in which Israel would have to agree to a total ceasefire. Knesset members from the coalition and opposition both threatened to leave the government over different deals. 

A separate group of hostage family members also traveled throughout the US last week, meeting with lawmakers, government officials, and the Red Cross. 

One of the trip’s participants Sharon Kalderon, whose brother-in-law remains hostage in Gaza, told The Post on Thursday she’d absolutely support a full ceasefire if that’s what it took to bring the hostages home. 

“I know not everyone supports it, but we don’t have any other choice,” Kalderon told The Post. “If this is the only way to bring them back; we stop the war. We stop the fighting right now.”

“We’ll have time for that. Now, the only mission is to bring them back home,” she also said. 

But the war escalated on Friday with the IDF striking a hospital in Khan Younis, a southern city in Gaza almost 11 kilometers from Rafah, where over one million displaced Gazans sought refuge at the beginning of the war. 

According to reporting from The Post, the IDF found a second round of Hamas hostage cages underground in Khan Yunis. The Post also reported IDF sources suggested that some of Hamas’s leadership and the hostages may be in Rafah, hiding among around 1.5 million Palestinian civilians. 

On Thursday, White House National Security spokesman John Kirby and State Department spokesman Vivek Patel both said from their podiums the administration hadn’t seen any plans from Israel on operations in Rafah, despite Netanyahu publicly broadcasting his intentions to conduct operations in Rafah 

Kirby and Patel both projected the administration’s opposition to conducting operations in Rafah to avoid worsening the existing humanitarian crisis.  

“A military operation would be a disaster” for the more than a million Palestinians who have sought refuge there “and it’s not something that we would support,” Kirby said Thursday. 

On Thursday night during an unscheduled, nationally broadcasted prime-time news conference, Biden took reporter’s questions on the war in Gaza. Biden said he’s “in the view that the conduct of the response in the Gaza strip has been over the top,” a comment the White House stood by on Friday. In Biden’s remarks Thursday night he also emphasized the need for humanitarian aid in Gaza and for negotiating for a sustained pause in fighting to allow aid. 

A spokesperson for Ohana on Friday denied that Biden’s “over the top” comment was referring to Israel. 

The Pentagon said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had spoken on the phone Thursday with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant to discuss post-conflict planning for Gaza, the need to increase humanitarian assistance for civilians in Gaza, and West Bank stabilization efforts.  

“Secretary Austin reiterated the need to protect civilians as Israel conducts its operations against Hamas. Secretary Austin and Minister Gallant also discussed the US response to attacks against US forces by Iranian-aligned militia groups,” according to the Pentagon. 

On Saturday, The Post reported that three senior members of the Hamas police in Rafah were killed as a result of an attack on their vehicle in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood, west of Rafah. Reuters reported 17 people in Rafah were killed during airstrikes on Friday night. These strikes come as Netanyahu has ordered the IDF to begin preparations to enter Rafah and evacuate civilians. 

It’s unclear what the US knew ahead of the strikes on Friday and Saturday. 

The strike in Khan Younis on Friday coincided with Ohana’s visit to the United Nations Headquarters in New York, where the Knesset speaker met with UN’s Interparliamentary Union members from Uruguay, Belgium, Tanzania, and Germany before addressing the full Interparliamentary Union. 

Germany and Uruguay, long-time allies of Israel, were among the 23 countries that abstained from voting in the General Assembly’s symbolic ceasefire resolution adopted in December. 

Belgium, Tanzania, and 151 other countries voted in favor of the resolution. 

Ohana was slated to meet with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Friday afternoon but canceled after Guterres made critical remarks against Israel on Thursday and Friday morning. The leadership of the Hostage and Missing Families Forum in New York highly criticized Ohana’s cancellation, indicating it was a political move. 

“The UN’s duty is to emphasize the importance of releasing the hostages, to put international pressure on all parties involved, and to help us with our negotiations with Qatar,” Forum leader Omer Lubaton-Granot said in a statement. “It is very unfortunate that Amir Ohana canceled his meeting with the UN Secretary-General. In order to save the hostages, it is necessary to speak with everyone. The families of the hostages and the hostages themselves have no time for boycotts, and the official visits abroad are meant to advance the needs of Israel and its citizens, not to advance your political agenda and attempt to improve your place in the primaries.”

In a post on X, Ohana said the cancellation of the meeting did not come in a vacuum. 

“I intended to try and convince, as well as hand him a book we prepared in the Knesset, documenting the 7.10 with still images. But yesterday he again called on the State of Israel to stop fighting, criticizing it ‘even if Hamas uses human shields,'” Ohana wrote on X. “There are also lost causes and red lines. I will not whitewash Guterres.”

Several UN offices on Friday expressed criticism and concern over Netanyahu’s evacuation and operation plans for Rafah.

“We’re extremely worried about the fate of civilians in Rafah,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday, according to The Post’s reporting. 

“What is clear is that people need to be protected, but we also do not want to see any forced displacement – forced mass displacement – of people, which is by definition against their will,” Dujarric said. “We would not support in any way forced displacement, which goes against international law.”

It’s unclear if the full ground operation in Rafah will have begun by the time Ohana returns home to Israel on Sunday. 

Ohana’s staff declined The Post‘s several requests to make the speaker available for a one-on-one interview during his trip through the US. 

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