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Interview

Unlike fellow Dems, Jewish senator Ossoff favors tight-lipped approach on Israel

After staying silent following meetings with Israelis, Palestinians, US lawmaker indicates that public criticism early on would prevent building of necessary personal relationships

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks during a Senate Judiciary hearing on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)
Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks during a Senate Judiciary hearing on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON — Freshman United States lawmaker Jon Ossoff was one of four Democratic senators who traveled to Israel and the West Bank earlier this month for meetings with political leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

But he was the only one not to participate in a post-trip press briefing, where the other three lawmakers divulged details on what was said in some of the closed-door meetings and specified their points of disagreement with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

While Ossoff’s absence could well have been chalked up to a scheduling conflict, a subsequent interview with The Times of Israel indicated that it had more to do with a difference in style distinguishing the 34-year-old senator from Georgia from his Democratic colleagues.

The J Street endorsee refrained from voicing any criticism of Israeli and Palestinian leaders during the 15-minute phone call. Instead, he used the opportunity to lay out his strategy for maximizing the US role in conflict mediation, which Ossoff maintained would require close personal relationships with key figures on the ground.

Ossoff said that he used the trip — his first mission since entering office eight months ago — to begin building those relationships. Whatever disagreements the Democratic lawmaker may have with the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, he was careful not to air them publicly, in an apparent effort to avoid ruffling feathers right out of the gate.

His reticence may also be tied to the complex political reality in Georgia, where Ossoff and fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock pulled off narrow upsets over Republican frontrunners in elections where candidates deemed it necessary to flash their pro-Israel bona fides in order to earn the support of key voting blocs in the state.

(From left to right) US Sen. Jon Ossoff, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal meet in the Knesset, on September 3, 2021. (Sen. Chris Murphy)

Ossoff appears to be playing the long-game on this issue though, and the young senator, who has drawn comparisons to former US president Barak Obama, described the current moment with new administrations in Jerusalem and Washington as a “fresh opportunity to chart a path forward toward a peaceful resolution of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Being the first Jewish senator elected to a southern state since the 1880s — and one with Orthodox relatives who moved to Israel roughly a decade ago — Ossoff said that it was important for him to play a “constructive role” in bringing about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ossoff, along with Sens. Chris Murphy, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Van Hollen, met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Israel, along with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in the West Bank.

“I think there’s a real space for a new path forward for the resolution of conflict and toward the outcome that I believe ordinary Israelis, ordinary Palestinians and ordinary Americans seek, which is a future where all people in the region live in peace, live in prosperity and have equal rights,” Ossoff said, reflecting on the trip.

“The walk down that path really begins with relationship building, with listening, and building the trust that’s necessary to work together over the long term to work toward an outcome that has eluded Israeli and Palestinian generations of leadership as well as many US administrations and Congresses,” he explained.

Asked what specifically left him optimistic, Ossoff remained vague.

“It comes down to what ordinary people in Israel and Palestinian territories want. The same things that ordinary people everywhere want, which are peace and freedom and prosperity and security,” he said.

While he didn’t divulge any details, Ossoff said that his “constructive conversations” with both Bennett and Shtayyeh left him with the impression that both governments are serious about peacemaking.

Meanwhile, Israel is moving forward with plans to expand West Bank settlements on land Palestinians hope will be part of their future state.

Pressed on the matter, Ossoff reiterated the “constructive” conversations he held with Israeli leaders, while adding that the “goal on this first visit was to listen and to learn and to build trust.”

The US lawmaker’s responses were steeped in idealistic rhetoric, but he insisted that his approach is “founded on a genuine belief in the realism of achieving a peaceful outcome.”

“That’s why I engaged last spring when hostilities broke out, leading the Senate effort to accelerate a ceasefire,” Ossoff said, referring to the statement signed by 28 other Democrats that he issued in the midst of fighting between Israel and Gaza terror groups in May.

US Sen. Jon Ossoff arrives for a vote on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on August 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“I intend to remain deeply engaged in building those relationships and continue to work to help Israeli and Palestinian leaders come to the table to find a peaceful outcome and realize it,” he said.

Addressing J Street’s most recent conference in May, Ossoff said that he seeks “to identify a real path forward, get beyond rhetoric that’s too often empty and determine how we can really make progress to bring peace for people living in the Middle East.”

The degree of the young senator’s ability to translate those new relationships to improvements on the ground will determine whether his more tight-lipped approach is one more Democrats will want to consider moving forward.

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