Jan 12, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Jewish Democrats grill Israeli ambassador on far-right ministers

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images.

A group of Jewish House Democrats pressed Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog on inflammatory comments by ultranationalist Israeli ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in a meeting on Thursday, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Israeli and U.S. officials say the statements and actions by the extreme right-wing ministers, particularly around the war in Gaza, have created growing tension between Israel and many of its allies — especially the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers.

  • Smotrich, the minister of finance, said in a recent interview with Israeli media that Israel should take steps to encourage the emigration of the majority of the more than 2 million Palestinians in Gaza to other countries.
  • Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, also expressed support for such a move, saying it would allow Israel to rebuild Jewish settlements in Gaza.

What they're saying: Herzog sat down with roughly 15 Jewish members, who range from staunchly pro-Israel to more critical of the Israeli government, according to a half dozen members present at the meeting.

  • Disapproval of the two ministers' comments was "unanimously expressed by members — the most progressive and also those who have been ardent supporters of Israel," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) told Axios, adding that some lawmakers said they "ought to be fired."
  • While the comments from the two ministers were the primary focus of the meeting, a "whole list of ill-advised statements from members of the Knesset" was brought up, said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.).
  • "We did press him on our very serious concerns about the statements from some of these right-wingers about what happens next with Gaza, as part of a series of really abhorrent statements," said Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio).

The backdrop: Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are both ultranationalists with a long record of racist, Jewish supremacist and anti-Palestinian statements and actions.

The other side: The State Department has condemned the remarks, with a spokesperson calling them "inflammatory and irresponsible."

  • Netanyahu said Wednesday — the night before the International Court of Justice began hearings on South Africa's charge that Israel is committing genocide — that Israel "has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population."
  • A member of the Israeli war cabinet told Axios that Ben-Gvir is using the war in Gaza for an "extremist political campaign," and, instead of reining him in, Netanyahu keeps silent most of the time for domestic political reasons.

Zoom in: At the meeting on Thursday, the lawmakers warned that the comments are damaging not only to efforts to get a hostage deal and a pause in Gaza fighting but also to U.S. public opinion towards Israel.

  • "It doesn't help Israel's position that this [war] is not genocidal, which I don't believe it is," said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), summing up the argument that was made. "What these two cabinet members have done is make it more difficult on those of us who support Israel to be 100%."
  • Cohen pointed to Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) reading into the congressional record a portion of the South Africa case that quotes Israeli ministers' controversial statements about Palestinians.
  • Landsman said the lawmakers also expressed that "anything that undermines [peace talks] and the work to rebuild Gaza is problematic, including their statements."

What we're hearing: A source familiar with the meeting said that in response to the concerns raised by the lawmakers, the ambassador referred them to Netanyahu's statement that Israel does not seek to forcefully displace Palestinians or reoccupy Gaza.

  • Three lawmakers told Axios that Herzog also emphasized that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are allowed to speak freely but their remarks don't necessarily represent the government's official position.
  • Some were unsatisfied with Herzog's responses: Schakowsky, one of the more progressive members, said she and her colleagues "kind of hammered away at getting some sort of answer, and [got] nothing."
  • "The strongest supporters of Israel were really pressing, and he just kept shaking his head, like, 'there's nothing I can do,'" she added.

The Israeli Embassy told Axios that "Ambassador Herzog maintains regular communication with members of the U.S. Congress, which allows him to keep them up-to-date on official Israeli government policy. We do not comment on the content of these private discussions."

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