INTERVIEW: Democratic Rep. Greg Landsman Defends Israel in ‘Existential Moment’

By Reuvain Borchardt

Rep. Greg Landsman at the Kotel, April 2023. (Office of Rep. Landsman)

Less than a year after Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) was elected to Congress, Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostage in the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust. The freshman Congressman, whose district includes Cincinnati and many of its suburbs, quickly emerged as one of the most outspoken voices in the Democratic Party in defense of Israel.

Support for Israel was nearly universal — except on the far left — in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7, 2023, attack. But as Israel’s war against Hamas has gone on for half a year and collateral damage in Gaza has mounted amid Hamas’ use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, some in his party have begun stepping back support of Israel, such as by conditioning future weapons transfers.

But Landsman has firmly stood with Israel.

He was one of around two dozen Democratic Congressmembers to vote to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) over her use of the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which many view as a call to genocide.

While he is critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he says, “I don’t think it’s helpful” to call for an ally to hold new elections, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has. 

And he said he was “very disappointed and unsettled by” a letter signed by around three dozen of his Democratic colleagues — including former Speaker Nancy Pelosi — calling on Biden to condition aid to Israel.

Landsman is reserved and measured with his words publicly, believing it best to maintain good relationships and have heart-to-heart conversations even with those with whom he disagrees, such as Tlaib. 

But, as he told Hamodia in an interview, “There is a line, and if it gets crossed, and I’m in a position to say, ‘Hey, don’t do that,’ I have the courage and conviction to say it.”

Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Yeah — where it counts, yeah. I mean, I think support for Israel and the strategic partnership remains incredibly high throughout the Congress, the country, certainly the administration. 

There have been legitimate and honest disagreements and frustrations, as you would expect — this is as complicated and as difficult of a situation as it gets. 

I think a lot of it has to do with the prime minister. And the fact is, he’s probably just as unpopular there as he is here. And folks are looking to leaders of the coalition government in the vibrant Israeli democracy to get the kind of leadership that Israel needs and the world needs. 

So I believe very much, yes, there are obvious concerns with the prime minister. That is not unique to the Biden administration; the Israelis are also incredibly frustrated. So we all have this in common.

I will say there is an enormous amount of frustration here, too, with the lack of focus on the hostages, on Hamas and what it has done and continues to do — including walking away from multiple ceasefire offers — and what Iran has done and continues to do, to fund and promote chaos and terror. And the fact that these things are being overlooked is very problematic, both in the short run and, ultimately, long term.

Palestinians leave an Israeli kibbutz and return to Gaza after carrying out a deadly attack on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo)

No, I think it’s generally felt among folks who are involved in this — my colleagues and I.

The international community, the way in which this has been covered outside of Israel. Even what you see on social media — you see a lot of legitimate critiques of the humanitarian-aid situation, the way in which some aspects of the war have been pursued by Israel, but you do not see much about the hostages or Hamas or Iran. And that’s enormously frustrating for me and many of my colleagues.

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know how much daylight there is between the prime minister and Gallant and Gantz. You would know better. 

When I talk to folks in Israel, and when I was there in February, I couldn’t tell from a policy standpoint what would be different. Though I can just tell you that the same level of frustration and dissatisfaction with the prime minister is not unique to Israelis; it is something that you’re seeing play out here. Ultimately, it’s up to the Israeli democracy and Israeli leadership to deal with that.  

That doesn’t mean that putting pressure on the prime minister diplomatically, as the administration has, is wrong. In fact, I think it’s incredibly important.

Palestinian men seen near destroyed buildings and vehicles near the Hamas stronghold of Khan Yunis in February, after Israeli forces withdrew from the area. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

I don’t know if it’s appropriate or not; I don’t think it’s helpful

I think the idea that you can’t suggest or encourage another country to take action  — I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate about it, I just don’t know how helpful it is. It’s certainly not something I have done. I do believe that Israel has a vibrant democracy that is showing itself week in and week out on the streets of Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, and that there is an enormous amount of pressure on this coalition government and the prime minister to get the hostages home, to finish the job in terms of ensuring that Hamas is no longer a threat to Israel or the Palestinians. 

And I believe that it’s being done in a way where there isn’t unnecessary suffering. 

And I know humanitarian aid, there are questions within Israel about it, but at least the folks that I talk to and I certainly feel that it is absolutely critical that the aid be surged, that all of the things that Israel is doing to increase the number of trucks, to increase the number of points of entry, to create these “coordination and deconfliction cells,” which I think is hugely important in terms of ensuring that the aid is getting to where it needs to be without incident, the fact that they’re fixing water lines and bringing in fuel for the water wells, that they’re building this water pipeline, those are all hugely important — short term in terms of ending the humanitarian crises and issues, and long term in terms of being in a position where we can have a sustainable peace. 

I wouldn’t say “support for Israel.” I think — and the Israeli government is saying it — this was a huge mistake, an awful, tragic mistake. And I think it did accelerate the urgency from the administration in terms of what they have been asking and pressuring the prime minister to do. But I wouldn’t confuse that with support for Israel. 

Landsman shaking hands with Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog, April 2023. (Office of Rep. Landsman)

This is where I and many, many of my colleagues I are frustrated. And I hear this out in the community, so I think this is not something that is unique to members of Congress; I think a lot of Americans feel this way, which is, there is a larger existential threat to Israel in Iran. Iran is being funded and supported by Russia and China. Why would we, why would anyone, suggest disarming or undermining Israel’s ability to defend itself while Iran is getting the support that it needs from foreign adversaries in China and Russia, and they are literally at every doorstep that Israel has. They are funding, obviously, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, others in Syria and Iraq, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, the Houthis in Yemen. So I think that it is a truly problematic and unfortunate decision to even suggest that this strategic partnership would change in any material way, considering this existential threat faced by Israel — the only democracy in the region and our strategic partner in the region.

I don’t know; I really don’t. I would hope that it wouldn’t. 

I mean, obviously, it’s important to listen — they represent everybody, but these are life-and-death decisions. So I think you have to do what you believe is right. And I believe that the president believes the following things to be right: that what happened to Israel was a horrific terror attack, that Israel has to ensure its security — and that involves ensuring that Hamas is no longer in a position to harm anyone, Israelis or Palestinians — and that Israel be as surgical as humanly possible in their pursuit of Hamas, and that the humanitarian situation be resolved as quickly as humanly possible. I feel very confident that that’s where the president’s coming from.

Landsman meeting on Capitol Hill with a delegation from Agudath Israel of America last week. (Agudath Israel/Kuvien Images)

It’s the same reason that if there was a censure vote that was brought to the floor over Congressman Walberg — his comments recently were horrific and deeply troubling and very counterproductive and not representative of who we are — I would vote to censure him. [Ed. – Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., said, “We shouldn’t be spending a dime on humanitarian aid. It should be like Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Get it over quick.”]

And so I voted yes [to censure Tlaib] in part because it is incredibly unproductive to have rhetoric that is so divisive, especially at a time when we need de-escalation and people coming together in terms of shared values. So part of it was just my own visceral reaction to the divisiveness of it, and how truly unproductive it is.

In addition to that, I absolutely believe that this is an existential moment for Israel. Seventy-five years after the founding of the State of Israel, here we are with Iran seemingly making pretty significant progress in its quest to eliminate the State of Israel. I have never been familiar with this “river to the sea is aspirational.” I don’t know what that means. [Ed. – In response to criticism of her use of the phrase, Tlaib tweeted, “From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”] The only “river to the sea” ideology I have ever been familiar with is the way in which the Ayatollah and the others have used it to describe the end of Israel. And what then becomes of the eight million Jews? And G-d forbid if this were to happen, I want it recorded in history that I said no. That when it was put in front of me, I said, “Absolutely no, we are not going to let that happen.”

Yes, I do believe in having as positive of a relationship with all of my colleagues as I possibly can. And so I am trying to meet her and others who disagree with me where they are as human beings, and appreciate that they’re struggling and that they’re experiencing frustration and trauma and hurt and pain — but also to know that there is a line, and if it gets crossed, and I’m in a position to say, “Hey, don’t do that,” I have the courage and conviction to say it.

Our conversations are a bit more broad. I think she truly doesn’t want anyone to be hurt, but at the same time, she sees this differently. And I hope when she says that she supports a two-state solution, that that is true. 

Rep. Landsman speaking at a roundtable discussion marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Capitol Hill, Jan. 18. (The Friedlander Group)

No, I’m not going to get in the middle of that. 

[Laughs] No, I’m not going to make any endorsements.

I truly mean this: My worry right now in terms of Israel is not the far left — though it is very frustrating, and I was very disappointed and unsettled by that letter. It is the far right. 

We need the Senate bill that passed by 70 votes, in a bipartisan vote, this national security package that includes aid for Israel and Ukraine and humanitarian assistance for Gaza. The only reason that isn’t being brought to the floor has nothing to do with Jamal Bowman or Rashida Tlaib; it has everything to do with Donald Trump and the far right and Mike Johnson refusing to bring it to the floor. That is where the pressure should be. And I hope people see that. I hope people see that the impediment to us getting this done is Trump and the far right. And as soon as Mike Johnson stands up to them and says, “I’m bringing this critical and urgent national security bill to the floor,” it will pass with 300 or 350 votes, and that’s it. Then the funding is done, and we are no longer talking about what’s going to happen to aid to Israel or to Ukraine, or whether or not we’re going to put serious financial assistance into the humanitarian aid efforts. [Ed. – Republicans have been holding up a security bill, which Democrats allege is because of disputes with Biden over the border.]

It is the job of universities, and I would argue adults, to educate, to help young people find a path forward together, and learn and to explore. And that’s what these universities should be doing. And unfortunately what you’re seeing on way too many of our college campuses is not that, and it is putting kids in danger and it’s scaring a lot of parents, including me.

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