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Democrats’ rising Jewish star has some advice for Biden ahead of Israel trip

Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s first-ever Jewish senator, tells of his bipartisan efforts to get Israelis and Palestinians talking again, despite the pessimistic atmosphere on the subject

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

WASHINGTON – Jon Ossoff generated headlines worldwide after his 2020 electoral victory made him Georgia’s first-ever Jewish senator, the first Jewish senator to be elected from the South since the 1880s and the youngest Democrat elected to the Senate since Joe Biden in 1973. And a year and a half into his national political career, he is emerging as one of the most significant voices in Washington on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“What you’ve seen, not just in the last few months, is that when I act, I intend to act in a way that has impact. And when I speak, I intend to speak in a way that has impact,” he says in an interview.

Not only has the Georgia senator crafted lasting relationships with Israeli, Palestinian and political, diplomatic and military officials in the region, he has done something arguably even more notable: spearheaded significant bipartisan efforts aimed at pushing conflict resolution and a political settlement forward.

“I believe that peace is best built on a foundation of trust, and effective leadership toward peace requires the establishment of trusting working relationships with all parties,” says the 35-year-old Atlanta native.

“At the same time,” he adds, “I’ve been building very strong partnerships across the aisle – with colleagues like Sen. [Mitt] Romney and Sen. [Lindsey] Graham – to pursue the U.S. national interest and support efforts toward peace and stability in the Holy Land.”

Ossoff’s first act of Mideast public leadership was leading 29 senators in calling for an immediate cease-fire to last year’s war between Israel and Hamas. In the 12 months following that call, he has met repeatedly with Israeli and Palestinian officials in Washington, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“From the beginning, my approach has been and remains to build really effective working relationships with key leaders on all sides of these issues. That is an undertaking of years, and it requires frequent conversations that require the establishment of trust,” he says. “On that basis, I can be an effective interlocutor at supporting talks between parties who have difficulty talking, and an effective advocate for U.S. interests in the region.”

One of those leaders is Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, with whom Ossoff is on texting terms after the two met during the senator’s September visit to Israel and Lapid’s October visit to Washington.

As President Biden prepares for his Middle East trip next week, Ossoff hopes he uses the visit as an opportunity to bond with Lapid, who will be Israel’s premier at least until the November 1 Knesset election.

“I encourage the president and his team to clear the time for [him] to sit down with Prime Minister Lapid for several hours, [have] unstructured conversation, to really build a relationship between the president and the prime minister,” he says.

Ossoff hopes Biden’s visit will “lay the foundations for an improvement of conditions in the region, and reduce the probability of a broad outbreak of conflict in the region. I will be, as I am routinely, in close touch with the White House and the State Department as they prepare for the president’s visit.”

Deeply personal

Over the past several weeks, Ossoff has led two bipartisan letters to the U.S. administration alongside Romney and Graham – widely considered two of the strongest supporters of Israel in the history of American politics – that might have been viewed as overly critical of Israel without their co-sign.

The letter with Romney called on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to ensure justice over the May killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while covering an Israel Defense Forces operation in Jenin.

The issue is deeply personal to Ossoff, who served as CEO of an investigative journalism production company that probed war crimes (among other topics) for international news organizations.

“My background in journalism has deepened my appreciation for the risks that journalists take in pursuit of the truth and in conveying information to the public,” he says. “Much of the work that I led at my company involved preparation for and management of operations in hostile environments, areas and active armed conflict and high-risk journalism,” he adds, stressing the risks journalists face in conflict zones.

“Not only was a journalist killed in the course of reporting; she was also a U.S. citizen. The U.S. Congress and the U.S. government has a profound obligation to ensure that justice is served for [Abu Akleh]’s death. We cannot accept the killing of an American journalist killed in the course of reporting without accountability,” says Ossoff.

He was speaking to Haaretz prior to the State Department releasing a statement Monday in which it said gunfire from Israeli positions likely killed the journalist, but said a forensic examination of the bullet proved inconclusive.

The other issue Ossoff has shone a spotlight on is the pending downgrade of the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority from the rank of three-star general to that of colonel. Asked why this issue is so important to him, Ossoff says it is key to step back and survey the broader landscape.

“While it is possible that significant progress could be made toward peace in the immediate future, a political settlement of the conflict will likely require the formation of stronger and more durable governing coalitions, and stronger and more capable political leaders among the Israelis, the Palestinians and in the United States,” he explains.

Ossoff says he believes the U.S. security coordinator “performs a vital function” liaising between Israeli and Palestinian security forces, and also “sustaining high-level security engagement not just with Israelis and Palestinians, but also with regional governments and NATO partners who are concerned with peace and stability in the Middle East.”

He continues: “This is one of the few positions in the U.S. government that, despite the general paralysis around the political process, specializes in talking to everybody and engaging in tangible and practical ways to reduce the possibility of collapse, armed conflict and widespread violence.

“This is an intervention that can have a substantive impact to support efforts toward peace and stability against a political backdrop that right now is very hostile, generally, to such efforts,” Ossoff adds.

As for working with the likes of Romney and Graham, he says he doesn’t “worry about the domestic politics of the issue. I don’t take my cues on foreign policy from one advocacy group or the other.”

Deep ties

Ossoff’s concerns on Israel are personal. He was raised among Holocaust survivors, and his family came to the United States after fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. He was sworn into Congress with the ship’s manifest documenting their arrivals in his jacket pocket, alongside the Tanakh belonging to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild – the Atlanta rabbi whose congregation was bombed by white supremacists over his support for civil rights in the South.

“Growing up among Holocaust survivors, steeped in my family’s experience and my community’s experience of antisemitism, I care deeply about the safety and security of the Jewish people,” Ossoff says. “I have family who have made aliyah to Israel. My grandfather played in the Maccabiah Games in the 1950s. My family’s ties to Israel are deep.”

This commitment extends, he says, to helping to build a world where both Israelis and Palestinians can flourish in peace and security.

“I was raised in the political tradition of my mentor, Congressman John Lewis, who always said we all live in one world house. [He] taught me to put the equal dignity of every human being at the core of my public life, and now my endeavors in office. That leads me to a place where I care deeply about this part of the world. I’m committed to peacebuilding, and upholding and protecting the dignity and fundamental human rights” of people.

“The festering conflict in the Holy Land is something that saps humanity’s spirit, and we must be working toward a political settlement. That’s not a two-year project – it may be a 20-year project – but it’s essential, and something I want to play a supportive role in realizing.”

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