House Democrats Fume Over Unprecedented Israeli Rebuke Of Lawmakers

One week after Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. sent dozens of Democrats in the House of Representatives an unprecedented rebuke, congressional staff say they’re still fuming over the letter, a note that accused lawmakers of aiding the Palestinian militant group Hamas, of misrepresenting Israeli policy and of inappropriately trying to influence President Joe Biden.

The situation reflects how intense tensions between the Israeli government and many influential Democrats have become as Israel escalates its U.S.-backed military campaign in Gaza and conditions darken for the 2.3 million Palestinians there, congressional aides told HuffPost. They cast the move from the Israeli diplomat, Michael Herzog, as a sign of both Israel’s disregard for U.S. concerns about matters like humanitarian aid for Palestinians and its lack of respect for members of Congress, including many who are generally supportive of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

“It really is a stunning document,” said one Democratic staffer. “The tone of this letter is not reflective of the fact that the U.S. is the primary guarantor of Israel’s security. An unaware reader would assume that Israel is the superpower in this relationship and the U.S. the recipient of aid.”

Multiple parts of Herzog’s message were “verging on offensive,” argued another Democratic aide, pointing as an example to an assertion that Congress is overlooking the brutal Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

“It seems that Hamas’s massive invasion on October 7th, its ruthless massacre of Israelis and the kidnapping of hostages to Gaza have been too easily forgotten,” the ambassador wrote in his message, which Politico first reported on.

HuffPost this week obtained copies of the letter received by multiple lawmakers.

Sent on May 8, Herzog’s missive represents the Israeli response to an earlier May 3 letter from House Democrats to Biden arguing Israel is violating a U.S. law that outlaws sending weapons to countries blocking American aid. Led by Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.), both moderates, that letter was signed by 88 Democrats, the most who’ve so far signed a statement alleging Israel is breaking the law. It was released days before the Biden administration issued its own opinion denying that is the case. (No Republicans signed the May 3 letter.)

The two aides, both of whom work for lawmakers who signed the Crow-Deluzio letter, and others described the Israeli pushback as more intense than what they have experienced previously — mirroring heightened disputes as critics of the Gaza war become more vocal, skepticism about it gains broader currency and its toll becomes harder to deny.

“Never before have we received such a harsh letter from the Israeli government. But then again, never before have we been so critical of their actions,” the second aide said. A third aide to another legislator who signed the congressional letter highlighted both Herzog’s Oct. 7 claim and his suggestion that House Democrats were aiding Hamas as particularly disturbing.

And a fourth staffer, a senior foreign policy aide, told HuffPost that, in addition to sending Herzog’s letter, the Israeli embassy had reached out to multiple signatories of the May 3 statement for meetings or calls.

The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

In his letter, Herzog suggested U.S. lawmakers were not adequately doing their jobs. “It is disappointing that you have reached this determination on such a sensitive matter without having conducted sufficient due diligence to learn, check and corroborate the full facts of the matter, without requesting information from Israel, an ally of the United States, or listening to its side of the issue and without waiting for the U.S. Administration to reach its own conclusion, instead attempting to lead it towards a pre-determined one,” Herzog wrote.

The May 3 letter from Democrats included a condemnation of Hamas and a demand for it to release Israeli hostages. The lawmakers also decried an April 13 attack on Israel by Iran, which backs Hamas, following an Israeli strike on an Iranian embassy on April 1. And the majority of signatories had just days earlier voted for $26.4 billion in additional U.S. aid to Israel. Still, Herzog implied they were bolstering Israel’s enemies.

“I believe we can agree that a Gaza not ruled by Hamas is the future we all want to see. I wonder if the position expressed in your letter helps bring this future closer or pushes it further away,” Herzog wrote. “Denying Israel the weapons it needs to defeat Hamas and creating daylight between our countries on the basis of unsubstantiated claims may serve to embolden Hamas and fuel its perception that time is on its side.”

The ambassador closed with an ominous warning to the U.S. lawmakers, writing: “People who genuinely care about the security of Israel should be extremely careful in calling for curtailing U.S. security aid. ... Both friends and foes of the United States, in our region and elsewhere, are taking careful note and drawing conclusions.”

In a notable contrast, Herzog and his team did not make similar protests to the seven senators who signed a March 12 letter similarly arguing Israeli aid restrictions made it illegal for the country to receive U.S. military support, a Senate aide told HuffPost. That letter, however, was released before a fresh wave of condemnations of Israeli restrictions on humanitarian aid from Biden, following the deaths of several international aid workers, as well as limited concessions from Netanyahu on the issue.

The first House aide called the Israeli gambit “embarrassing.”

“It’s disrespectful but unsurprising from a government that has repeatedly made clear they do not care about the attitudes of the American public, or their representatives,” that aide added.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. defended Herzog’s letter and Israel’s approach to aid.

“The letter of the 88 members of Congress ... is based on unsubstantiated claims and jumped to conclusions before the U.S. administration concluded its investigation. Therefore, we felt it was important to share the facts of what’s happening on the ground,” the spokesperson argued in a statement to HuffPost. Saying Israel “has many friends in Congress from both sides of the aisle,” they said the amount of assistance entering Gaza has “drastically increased” and continued: “Hamas started this war, fully knowing the harm and suffering it would inflict upon the Palestinian people.”

The spokesperson also pointed to the Biden administration’s recent report denying any Israeli violation of international and U.S. law regarding humanitarian aid.

On Feb. 8, Biden responded to growing outcry over Israel’s actions — including turning back trucks full of assistance, launching attacks on humanitarian facilities and a refusal to use all available aid routes — by pledging to issue a report on whether Israel’s conduct in Gaza was in line with international and American law.

Palestinians walk through the debris after an Israeli air and ground offensive in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.
Palestinians walk through the debris after an Israeli air and ground offensive in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. via Associated Press

Calls for accountability further intensified when, on April 1, an Israeli airstrike killed several workers with the food aid nonprofit World Central Kitchen. By that point, food was already so scarce in parts of Gaza that famine had begun there, according to an April 2 cable from the U.S. Agency for International Development revealed by HuffPost. Officials at USAID concluded that Israeli aid policy was breaching U.S. law, according to an internal assessment obtained by Devex later that month.

The administration issued its report on Israel’s conduct on May 10. It described “deep concerns during the period since October 7 about action and inaction by Israel that contributed significantly to a lack of sustained and predictable delivery of needed assistance at scale,” saying Palestinians are still receiving “insufficient” aid.

But citing some tweaks to Israeli policy following pressure from Biden in April, the administration claimed Israel was abiding by U.S. statutes.

Outside humanitarian groups said Israel’s shifts in aid policy in April produced “no significant improvement” — and that even small gains have been almost fully lost in recent days, as Israel has advanced on the remaining section of Gaza outside its military’s control.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who mandated Biden’s assessment of Israeli compliance with international law, called the administration’s findings on aid “especially” lacking amid a generally disappointing report.

“For the greater part of the period since October 7, the Netanyahu government has restricted the flow of humanitarian assistance and that they have not facilitated the distribution of humanitarian assistance. That’s why we have the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis that we have now,” Van Hollen told reporters on May 10.

USAID chief Samantha Power and Cindy McCain, the head of the World Food Programme, have said famine is now underway in Gaza.

“It looks at a snapshot right now and says that they find that the Netanyahu government is not currently in violation,” Van Hollen said of the report, “but they entirely duck the question of the conduct of the Netanyahu government with regard to humanitarian aid up to this point.”

Herzog’s letter and the Israeli spokesperson’s May 15 statement to HuffPost also focused on changes implemented in recent weeks. “At no point during the war has Israel had a policy of deliberately withholding humanitarian aid from entering Gaza,” the ambassador argued — though Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Oct. 9 he had implemented “a complete siege” on the region, providing “no electricity, no food, no fuel.”

The push-pull in Congress over Israel’s Gaza operation is continuing to heat up, with defenders of the country’s actions particularly focusing on quelling public challenges from Democrats. 

Democratic Majority for Israel, an ardently pro-Israel group, pushed House Democrats not to sign the May 3 letter, one aide told HuffPost. The aide noted the organization is now sending congressional offices copies of comments from national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who on Monday affirmed “ironclad” U.S. support for Israel and tempered the impression that Biden is winding down U.S. support for the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

On Tuesday, after Sullivan’s comments, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Biden is seeking to provide Israel with an additional $1 billion worth of arms.

Israel’s campaign in Gaza has killed around 35,000 Palestinians so far, according to local authorities. The Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack killed nearly 1,200 Israelis, per the Israeli government.