Israel allies in Congress losing confidence in Netanyahu in Hamas war

January 20, 2024
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WASHINGTON — Pro-Israel hawks in both parties on Capitol Hill are sounding the alarm that they are losing confidence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his handling of the war against Hamas.

While progressive lawmakers have consistently been critical of Netanyahu and Israel’s counterassault in the Gaza Strip that has leveled buildings and killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, it’s significant that pro-Israel lawmakers who serve on key national security panels are now voicing frustration about Netanyahu’s leadership, albeit quietly.

Three of the lawmakers who spoke to NBC News said they are even questioning whether the 74-year-old prime minister has a strategy to end the bloody war in Gaza and have suggested that the unpopular Netanyahu may be deliberately trying to prolong it in order to remain in power.

“It’s really hard to defend Bibi or to justify his political strategy in all of this,” said one House Republican who deals with national security issues and requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “From a personal level, I think it’s to his political benefit to stay engaged in conflict, whether that’s with Hezbollah or whether that’s in Gaza. Any type of cease-fire or peace agreement, rebuilding effort or off-ramp is detrimental for him politically, and I think that factors in on what he’s doing.”

The Republican added: “There’s real distrust, there’s real questions about his ability to lead, and I think he’s very, very unpopular. I think you’re seeing that within his Cabinet. You’re seeing that within his coalition. You’re seeing that within the military, within the country. And I think that is front and center for a lot of policymakers here in the U.S. from a national security standpoint.”

A House Democrat who serves on a national security committee agreed with that assessment, calling Netanyahu a “disaster” and saying he’s highly concerned this military campaign could be an “endless war” with many more civilian casualties.

“It appears the Israeli government has given the IDF an unattainable mission, which is to eliminate Hamas. And if that is the mission that they expect the IDF to perform, then this is going to be an endless war,” said the Democratic lawmaker. “And in the meantime, countless, countless people are going to get innocently killed, and the devastation will be unacceptable.”

“Everybody has been a strong friend of Israel, but Netanyahu is a disaster,” said the Democrat, who called himself a “strong friend” of Israel. “And the worst part of it is, a lot of us fear that Netanyahu could potentially be stringing this out, because he knows that the moment that the conflict ends he’s out of a job. And so it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that for a craven politician like that, the current situation is just fine. But for everyone else, it’s horrible.”

In a statement to NBC News, the prime minister’s office rejected the lawmakers’ comments that Netanyahu may be deliberately dragging out the war for political purposes.

“The claim that Prime Minister Netanyahu is prolonging the war unnecessarily is utter nonsense. The IDF chief of staff has said that this will be a long war which will take ‘many months.’ While significant progress has been made, more needs to be done to achieve the goals set by Israel’s cabinet — destroying Hamas, returning Israel’s hostages and permanently demilitarizing Gaza,” Netanyahu’s office said in the statement.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to achieving this total victory and the people of Israel are overwhelmingly united in continuing the war effort until it is achieved.”

Mounting frustration

The growing anger at Netanyahu on Capitol Hill echoes the Biden administration’s mounting frustration with the leader of one of the United States’ closest foreign allies. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to the Middle East last week and pitched a proposal to get Israel and Arab leaders to agree on a path forward for Gaza after the war ends. But Netanyahu rejected the proposal.

Biden and Netanyahu, who have known each other for decades, spoke by phone on Friday to discuss Israeli operations in Gaza, increasing the flow of flour shipments and other humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and efforts to free hostages, the White House official said. It was the first time they had spoken since Dec. 23, the longest stretch that the leaders had been out of touch since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel. The pre-Christmas call, U.S. officials said, had ended abruptly in a disagreement over Israel’s refusal to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues it has been withholding from the Palestinian Authority since the war began.

“I’m extremely disappointed and upset by the lack of shift in strategy despite the very high and untenable rate of civilian casualties, which serves neither Israel’s interests nor American interests,” said a second House Democrat who also serves on a national security committee. “The current strategy of military approach only in large-scale bombing will absolutely make the problem worse, not better.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., who recently led a bipartisan delegation of senators to the Middle East, said they urged Israeli officials to send more humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or risk the opening of another front in the three-month war.

Smoke rises over the residential areas following the Israeli attacks on Khan Yunis, Gaza on January 19, 2024.
Smoke rises over the residential areas following the Israeli attacks on Khan Younis, Gaza, Friday.Abed Rahim Khatib / Anadolu via Getty Images

“Our support for Israel remains strong. But we’ve got to have a partner in the Israeli government that realizes that you could lose a generation of American support if they don’t think about conducting this conflict in Gaza in a different fashion,” Warner said during an appearance this week on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

Asked if regional peace could only happen in a post-Netanyahu world, Warner replied: “There are some outliers in Mr. Netanyahu’s Cabinet who do nothing but stir the flames of passion against the Palestinians with some of their comments, like saying, ‘Let’s try to move all the Palestinians out of Gaza.’ That’s just, that is totally inappropriate kind of comments from some of the ministers in his government.”

Warner’s counterpart in the lower chamber, House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, declined to comment for this article. Another House GOP lawmaker said he still supports Netanyahu and the war effort but believes the embattled prime minister will not be able to keep his job after overseeing military operations that the Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry says have killed roughly 24,000 civilians. A poll this month by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that only 15% of Israelis want Netanyahu to remain in power after the Gaza war.

‘Doing what he has to do’

During the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, Hamas terrorists killed about 1,200 people, committed acts of sexual violence and took roughly 240 hostages, 134 who have not yet been released. This week, Congress marked 100 days since the attack with a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Capitol.

“I don’t think Netanyahu will be able to survive this,” said the GOP lawmaker, who has spent time in Israel but does not sit on a national security panel. “It will be so atrocious what he has to do. There’ll be so many deaths, and there’ll be so many innocents that will die in order to get Hamas and completely obliterate them to the best of their ability. And I think in our day and age, people don’t understand the terrors of warfare are sometimes necessary.”

“Netanyahu will be the scapegoat for doing what he has to do,” the GOP lawmaker added.

Frustrations with Netanyahu come as a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators is furiously working to strike a deal on an emergency national security supplemental package that would include tougher immigration policies and military aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

But on Thursday, Netanyahu inflamed tensions by restating his opposition to the creation of a postwar Palestinian state, arguing that it conflicts with the need for Israeli security. The United States supports a two-state solution.

“With or without the settlement, the state of Israel must have security control over the entire territory,” Netanyahu said. “This conflicts with the idea of sovereignty. I also say this to the U.S.: A prime minister in Israel should be able to say ‘no’ even to our best friends — that’s how I drive.”

Asked by reporters Friday if he could convince Netanyahu to back a two-state solution, President Joe Biden simply replied: “Yes.”

The president floated the idea of a Palestinian state with no military or restrictions on its military.

Standing by Bibi

While Netanyahu is hemorrhaging support among some Israel backers on the Hill, other longtime allies in both parties say they are standing by the man they affectionately call “Bibi.”

“I think he’s fine. They think it’s war, and you have to give people that are in the war a free hand to do what they need to do, so I don’t see any diminishment of support for Israel on the Republican side,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who serves on the Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the former majority leader who has known Netanyahu for two decades and frequently travels to Israel, said the prime minister is “wrong” in his opposition to a Palestinian state. But Hoyer said he backs Netanyahu and his fight to protect Israel.

“I’m supportive of Bibi Netanyahu. Am I supportive of Israel and its objective to eliminate the ongoing, continuing since 1948 intention to destroy Israel and kill Jews? The answer to that is absolutely yes,” Hoyer told NBC News.

But Hoyer also added that the special U.S.-Israel relationship is not dependent on personalities. “Largely, Netanyahu’s time has come and gone,” he said. A changing of leaders “will happen. When this is over, and I hope it’s over sooner rather than later, I think that will happen.”



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