Israel to receive US aid ‘very quickly’ despite House delay, Knesset speaker says

Senior members of both parties in the US House of Representatives and Senate are certain that a $14.1 billion aid package for Israel’s war effort will arrive quickly, despite it being a part of a wider US foreign aid bill currently stuck in Congress, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana (Likud) said to The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Wednesday in the Knesset.

The interview came after a weeklong trip to Washington and New York City earlier in February, at the invitation of his counterpart in Congress, House Speaker Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana).

The warm meeting between the two and their remarks to the media were a central part of the visit.

Johnson, however, has since thrown cold water on the foreign aid bill that passed in the Senate on February 13, thus delaying the arrival of the much-needed aid. This, seemingly, is not the behavior of a dedicated friend, but Ohana is not worried.

“There is no disagreement in the US – Democrats, Republicans, Senate, House – everyone agrees that Israel must receive aid. It is because the agreement is so broad that they probably tried to add additional topics that are controversial, so that they would pass as well.

US HOUSE SPEAKER Mike Johnson and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana meet with family members of hostages taken by Hamas, at the US Capitol earlier this month. (credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ)

“We made a great effort, and succeeded, not to enter the internal arguments on controversial issues… we just made it clear that we are in our hardest times as a country, and we could use any help we receive,” Ohana said.

“It’s not just the aid but the message that it brings to the world, and especially to our enemies – look how much the US stands by Israel,” Ohana said.

He said that he is “very optimistic” that the aid would pass and arrive quickly, as senior members of Congress from both parties were even surer about this than Ohana himself. The aid will arrive; the question is just under what framework, he said.

Ohana stressed that it was important for him to bring with him politicians from both the coalition and opposition in order to express a message of unity. He later learned that this had never been done before – former Knesset speaker MK Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid) took with him to the US Congress a delegation of MKs, but all were from the coalition at the time.

Ohana’s delegation included families of hostages

Ohana’s delegation also included the families of four hostages who were or are still being held by Hamas in Gaza, and the makeup of the families also reflected unity, as they represented Israel’s three central religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism: Thomas Hand, whose daughter Emily was freed by Hamas as part of an exchange deal with Israel, is Christian; Ali Alziadna, the brother of Youssef and uncle of Hamza, both of whom are still in Hamas captivity, is Muslim; and Eitan Gonen, whose daughter Romi was kidnapped to Gaza from the Supernova music festival, and Efrat and Tzvika Mor, the parents of hostage Eitan Mor, are Jewish.

Ohana said that he was surprised that he was not faced with as many hard questions as he expected. The delegation held many bipartisan and bicameral meetings, including with White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to the Vice President Dr. Phil Gordon, and US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, people who are not part of American right-wing politics. But Ohana was positively surprised – there were differences of opinions, but he was not faced with heavy pressure or criticism, he said.

Ohana said that the delegation also returned with a practical achievement: the formalization of a prior pledge between Ohana and former House speaker Kevin McCarthy during the latter’s visit to Israel in May, to establish US-Israel parliamentary friendship groups. The US, which only had five such groups at the time, has already formed its group, and named Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tennessee) as its leader, but Israel has yet to do so, as Ohana wants it to be a large event.

McCarthy was scheduled to come to Israel in November and an event was scheduled then, but the Hamas massacre of October 7 and McCarthy’s ouster as speaker changed the situation. The launch will be rescheduled during an expected visit by Johnson in May, Ohana said.

There could be a lot of politics involved regarding who would lead Israel’s parliamentary group, as the position would be coveted. Ohana said that either he will lead the caucus alone, which would be unprecedented, or he would lead it alongside a senior member of the opposition. A third option is that two senior Knesset members, one from the coalition and one from the opposition, would lead the group together as cochairmen.

Ohana said that he keeps in close contact with American Jews. In meetings with them on his trip, they discussed the explosion of antisemitism, and the contribution of US Jewry to Israel in spirit and in practice, with funds, equipment, and more. Since October 7, this support grew and broadened, quieting voices that were critical of Israel over its judicial reforms throughout 2023, Ohana said. He added that despite the rise in antisemitism, Jews in the US care more about Israel’s safety than their own, since the US was treating these threats seriously and not leaving its Jewish citizens undefended.

Regarding comments by far-right Israeli politicians that have irked the US administration, Ohana said that he attempted to reflect in his meetings that Israeli society is in trauma, and mentioned that inflammatory comments were coming from both sides of the political divide.

“People who were in the kibbutzim… who called themselves the peace camp, if you listen to them, you will not believe it. People ask us, ‘How are you giving humanitarian aid to our enemies during wartime?’”

But Ohana is proud that Israel continues to do so, since it is “part of the family of nations” and a “proper country.”

“If there is part of the public or representatives who made [controversial] statements… I would not be too judgmental during this period, and I will tell you in addition that what is important and is decisive is what the country does, not what people say; and we are doing the correct things to defend the lives of citizens,” he said.

Still, Ohana stressed that “we must impose restraint on ourselves, in our statements.” Soldiers who are fighting shoulder to shoulder include both supporters and opponents of the government, he said. “They put the disagreements aside because that is not what should interest us now, and we, too, must impose on ourselves the same thing.”

Ohana pointed out that since the war broke out, 95% of the Knesset’s work has been dedicated to the war effort, and over 60 laws have passed with the coalition and opposition working together. The political battles that still exist are blown out of proportion by the media, and do not reflect the real situation, he said.

Asked about current events, Ohana expressed clear opinions on two central issues: haredi conscription and Israeli policy regarding the Temple Mount during Ramadan.

The issue of haredi conscription came to the fore in recent weeks after the government made public a plan to meet heightened security needs by increasing the length of mandatory and reserve duty, but without addressing the fact that tens of thousands of military-age haredi men are exempt from service.

“There are many things that changed and many things that need to change. One of them is that we cannot afford a small and smart army. We need a smart army, but a large one…. We need to recruit to the IDF among wider swaths of the public. I tell this to my brothers the haredim… and it is even a matter of life and death,” Ohana said.

But this must be done via dialogue with the haredi public, and not with force.

“There is no other way,” he said. Haredi enlistment can improve, “but not when you threaten to imprison; so there will be another war in the streets, as if wars are what we need right now.”

Ohana said that he hears from haredi leadership that if they are not approached with force, there will be success. The problem is that there are people who are pushing for force.

“We are a people who do not lack external enemies… and one of the things we need most now is a bridge,” Ohana said.

Therefore, he thinks even the most vocal proponents of haredi conscription – Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman – should join the government.

The war in Gaza seems under control, but a war against Hezbollah is a real possibility and will be much more challenging – and Israel will need to create as broad a coalition as possible.

Under these circumstances, the government will make “very great efforts” to broaden the ranks, but it takes two to tango, Ohana said.

He added that he believes that joining the government is in Lapid’s interest as well.

“Most of the people are not at the extremes… most want quiet.” This is the reason for centrist National Unity Party chairman and Minister-without-portfolio Benny Gantz’s recent success in polls, Ohana opined. Lapid made a mistake by turning to more antagonistic rhetoric, but can fix this by joining the government, Ohana said.

The issue of the Temple Mount flared up last week after the government decided to examine limitations on visits to the Temple Mount during Ramadan, even for Israeli citizens.

“We have an interest not to create a ‘convergence of [battle] arenas’…. On the other hand Hamas has an interest to ‘converge the arenas,’ to ignite the West Bank and, if possible, Hezbollah, the Houthis and other militias,” Ohana said.

“We must act wisely and use common sense, and I will suffice with this,” Ohana said. He noticeably did not want to criticize National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is pushing publicly to controversially limit Israeli-Arabs visitation rights, but Ohana’s subtext was clear – policy-makers should be very careful.

The interview was held shortly after a vote against international unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state passed in the Knesset plenum with the uncommon support of 99 members of Knesset out of 120. Ohana laid out his view on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We, as leaders, should not give delusions to the public and say that everything is solvable. In reality there are problems that do not have solutions, at least not immediate solutions,” Ohana said.

He said that he does not belong to the camp that believes that retreating to the pre-’67 lines will bring peace, and that the opposite is true – such a move would bring more violence, especially after October 7.

On the other hand, he is not under the delusion that the Arabs will disappear. There will eventually need to be coexistence, but this requires two necessary pillars: education and the economy.

Regarding education, “The incitement to terrorism must stop – the glorification of terrorists by naming streets and buildings after them – [as should] the crazy payment of salaries by the Palestinian Authority to the murderers of infants, terrorists who killed innocent people,” Ohana said.

Regarding the economy, Ohana said that joint economic projects – such as the industrial zones in Mishor Adumim and Barkan – create Palestinian-Israeli workplaces, and serve as real examples of coexistence in the making. This must be replicated in other projects, but ironically, peace activists want to boycott these places because they are in Judea and Samaria, Ohana said.

“I am not naive, but optimistic,” he added. “The optimism in me says that there is no alternative; it is either this or that we continue killing each other… which is a possibility but not a desired one,” he said.

Rather, “Naivete is to say that [a peace process] will last years. The truth is that it will take generations,” he said.

Ohana said that between the idea of two states for two peoples and the idea of one binational state, there is a concept that he calls “a state and a half.” This means that between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, everyone would take part in elections; Palestinians would vote for the PA, “but on the other hand you ensure the safety of Israeli citizens, since forming another Arab state would endanger Israel,” Ohana said.

Asked why not call this a “demilitarized state,” Ohana said that while he is not religious, he believes that the Jewish people have a historic right to Judea and Samaria, and therefore he is unwilling to completely give up on these lands. They must remain in Israeli hands. But Palestinians must have “some autonomy or self-rule, because I understand that there is another people here. I see it, and I do not ignore it.”

Regarding his future, Ohana said that there are those in the Likud who have stated that they will run for head of the Likud on “the day after Netanyahu.” Some are hoping for this day, and some are even acting to bring it about, Ohana said.

He does not count himself as one of these people, and was not willing to say what ministerial position he would want in the future. Ohana concluded that his current focus is to succeed in his current role.