May 8, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Israeli officials fail to ease tensions in Capitol Hill meetings

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog, wearing a blue suit, light blue shirt, blue tie and glasses.

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images.

A top Israeli general and diplomat tried to address Democrats' growing frustrations over the war in Gaza in two separate Capitol Hill meetings on Tuesday, but made little headway, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Democrats have grown increasingly concerned in recent months about the civilian toll of the war — a dynamic worsened by Israel moving into Rafah this week.

What we're hearing: Israel Defense Forces Gen. Eliezer Toledano met with a group of House Foreign Affairs members and staffers in both parties, while Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog met with a group of Jewish House Democrats.

  • Toledano was grilled by Democrats about the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, Israel's deteriorating global PR and its use of 2000-pound bombs, according to multiple lawmakers and aides who were present.
  • He addressed the first two topics largely by attacking U.S. media coverage of the war and denying reports of famine in Gaza, according to several sources, who described his response to the third question as technical and uninformative.
  • Herzog, for his part, was peppered with questions about Israel's plans in Rafah, but to no avail, according to two lawmakers present. "He didn't tell us anything, really," said one.

What they're saying: "To be honest, I was kind of disappointed with [Toledano's] positions on some things," House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.) told Axios.

  • "The world is concerned about innocent lives being lost, and that's how you lose the public relations war. So there's got to be some acknowledgement of that."
  • Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a staunch Israel ally who attended both meetings, said "it's not clear to me they're trying to get ideas on how to modulate their policy, particularly their public relations policy."
  • Sherman added that lawmakers got "no information" on Israel's plans in Rafah, but "it's clear that some of the thinking in Jerusalem is how to do a long-term war of attrition, and boy is that a bad idea."

The other side: Republicans pressed Toledano to confirm that the Biden administration has blocked weapons transfers to Israel, but he didn't bite, according to Meeks and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

  • "His reply to that was that the United States is their partner and he hasn't seen anything where they're not getting what they need," Meeks said.
  • Toledano declined to comment for this story, telling Axios he doesn't speak with media.

Zoom out: Democrats' once largely united pro-Israel front has come under enormous strain since the beginning of Israel's offensive in Gaza last October.

  • U.S. public opinion has turned against Israel as Gazan civilian casualties have mounted, with the left flank of the Democratic Party becoming particularly animated and active in mobilizing for a cessation of violence.
  • A growing movement of Democratic lawmakers has pressed for the Biden administration to withhold sales of offensive weaponry to Israel.
  • Meeks has declined to sign off on the Biden administration's transfer of F-15s to Israel, effectively placing a hold on the sale.

The bottom line: "I think they have the meeting, that checks the box," Sherman said.

  • "It's not like they're saying, 'you know, we're losing a world-wide public relations war' ... I don't see the humility."
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