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Ernst: Riyadh an ‘incredibly important partner’ on security and economy

The Republican senator from Iowa recently traveled to the Mideast

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Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks at a news conference after the Senate luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on June 22, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Having served 23 years in the United States Army — during which time she spent a year on the front lines in Kuwait as a commanding officer during the Iraq War — Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) became the first-ever Republican female combat veteran elected to federal office when she assumed Iowa’s open Senate seat in 2015. Ernst is also the first woman to hold an Iowa congressional seat in either chamber. 

On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, Ernst, who is a co-founder of the bipartisan Senate Abraham Accords Caucus, joined co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein for a conversation on Israel’s current political climate, U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, China, Iran and American foreign policy.

Below are excerpts from the conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rich Goldberg: What do you make of what’s going on in Israel? 

Sen. Joni Ernst: Well, I simply believe that we shouldn’t be dictating to other countries what their judicial systems are, any more than we would want them dictating to us. So I really disagreed with President [Joe] Biden and the way he handled this… I think it’s important that we focus on our judiciary and other countries focus on theirs. And the thing to remember here is that Israel has a very robust democratic process, and that sometimes will include protests, it will sometimes include dissent, and we’re seeing that in Israel right now. But again, it’s not unlike our own system here in the United States.

Jarrod Bernstein: Senator, what do you think the protests and mass demonstrations in Israel signal to Israel’s enemies in the region, particularly Iran? 

Ernst: Yeah, that is a little difficult. And again, I try to stay focused on the ways that we can be helpful as the United States, but certainly, what we want to see in Israel is that they can come together. I do think having protests and seeing those and how the government responds to those protests, whether it’s in Israel or whether it’s in the United States, that it does show the world that we have room for dissent. And that’s important to any democracy, it makes our own system that much more valid on the world stage. And so I think that’s really, really important, but you’re right in that it does cut a different direction, because you have those that are obligated to serve in their government, in particular in the military, and if they aren’t showing up for work that can signal very bad things to others in the region, and in particular probably Iran and how they are watching this unfold. So I think it’s really important that people are messaging that while we disagree on this issue, we remain bound together against Iran.

Goldberg: Just to zoom out to the larger region as we talk about the strategic framework and its shifting sands at the moment, the U.S.-Saudi relations, are we losing the Saudis to China? Should we be concerned about that as America? What should we be doing?

Ernst: I think we absolutely must pay attention to Saudi [Arabia] and we’ve had our own disagreements with Saudi Arabia, and they are by no means perfect, but that nation is so critical. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is so important, they are probably one of the most significant partners in the region, and we really do need to promote closer cooperation on those issues of mutual interest, including regional security cooperation, which is why we continue to encourage them to engage in activities like the Abraham Accords. I did recently visit the region and I had a chance to sit down with key leadership in Saudi, including the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and he did emphasize his concern with the lack of perceived U.S. commitment in the region, and I’m hoping that’s something that I can help shape, that other members of Congress can help shape. But in terms of, again, going back to the Abraham Accords, I think there is a very big interest for Saudi Arabia to join the Accords from that security and economic standpoint, but a move like that will take very careful and competent diplomacy, and that’s something, again, that the Biden administration has really not shown itself capable of doing. So, again, I do believe that Saudi Arabia will be an incredibly important partner.

Goldberg: How do you deal with tension [with China] as you’re talking to thought leaders, you’re talking to members [of Congress]? Everybody wants to confront China, but are we capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, or do we need to rethink how we have this debate altogether?

Ernst: I think that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, but we obviously need a strong defense industrial base to do that, because key, beyond the diplomatic measures and efforts through our various state departments or equivalents, is the military capabilities portion. And we need to think about this quite carefully, because we know that, particularly with the United States, we are spending a considerable amount of hard dollars on military equipment. And, to some extent, some on the soft power side where we’re providing humanitarian support and so forth. But you’re right in that, wherever we move from, China will inhabit, and they do fill that vacuum. And my great fear is that if we do not learn how to walk and chew gum, in this instance whether we’re focusing on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal invasion or whether we are looking at the very real possibility of China invading Taiwan in [the] near term, we’ve got to figure this out. But that means that we do have to step up our game in the United States and make sure that our industrial base is supportive. Because we know that, just given Taiwan for example, they’ve already purchased about $19 billion worth of U.S. military hardware that has yet to be delivered, and it won’t be delivered for many, many years. Well, let’s stop, let’s focus on our defense industrial base and make sure they are capable of delivering the equipment that is needed to our friends and allies, so that all of us collectively can push back against our adversaries. So I know there is division and different thoughts within the Republican Party here, maybe a little bit even on the Democratic side, but I truly believe that we need to be supporting Ukraine, and it is about who controls the global world order and what does that order look like if it’s controlled by Russia, by Iran, by China, by North Korea? It’s not a pretty picture.

Bernstein: To shift gears for a second, we’re hearing rumors at various levels of the potential for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Syria. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on what the implications of that could be? What do you think that bringing [Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad] in from the cold might do to the region generally?

Ernst: Well, again, very strange relationships that we have, but if there is opportunity to leverage Syria, we would want to do that, whether it’s Assad or someone else, but containment must be key there as well. We know that it is key territory for the United States — we still do have members of our military that are operating in that space, we have a lot of terrorist groups that operate in that area, very, very concerning. I don’t know how good a leader Assad would be. Truly, he seems to be leading, but going nowhere. So we do have a concern, we do have a concern, but if there are ways that we can leverage Syria, we need to figure out what those are, but do them without alienating our strong partners and allies. So that is yet to be seen. I don’t have an answer there, but we just know that there’s a lot of terrorist activity in that country and it’s why we continue to have a troop presence there.

Goldberg: On the larger strategic threat from Iran, we know that they have now enriched, at least once, almost to weapons-grade uranium near just below 90%. We’ve heard now over the weekend from the Israeli prime minister, leaking through sources, that he’s telling European leaders that if he sees sustained production of enriched uranium above 60%, that could be a military red line for the Israelis. We have these expanded terror attacks going on, a terror plot in Greece just foiled as well looking to kill Israelis on European soil. It would seem we are at sort of a breaking point, in this yearslong, strategic framework of an Iran nuclear deal. Do you believe there is a moment here to actually change U.S. policy? Will the administration finally say, ‘The Iran deal is done. Snapbacks should come. Here’s a new policy,’ and what should that policy be that you think could get bipartisan support right now?

Ernst: This is an area that we addressed in our discussions on that recent congressional delegation [to the Middle East]. Not only did we visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, we also went to Israel and we were able to visit with the prime minister, and he spoke very clearly about this. And we are seeing a lull, obviously, in negotiations on the JCPOA. I think that’s great. I think that the administration was very naive to think that anything they negotiated would be followed by this regime. But the prime minister made it very clear, and I do agree with the prime minister, that we as Americans need to say loud and clear that this Iran nuclear deal is dead. It is dead, we will no longer negotiate it, and why would we when we know that they have enriched so close to breakout. So I think that we do need to say it’s dead, and we really do need to restore credible deterrence against Iran. It’s so important that we do that and we show Iran that we’re not pussyfooting around, we’re not going to take this, you need to stop. And beyond that, I’m willing to visit a number of the recommendations that will come from our military authorities or political authorities and those that are working in the diplomatic space as well. I’m willing to listen to any ideas that are out there, but we cannot be signaling weakness to Iran.

Bonus lightning round: Favorite Yiddish, Hebrew or Arabic word or phrase? “I would probably have to say ‘schlepping.’” Favorite place visited in any Abraham Accords country? “I’m gonna pick this one because it’s also important to my dear friend and brand new senator, Katie Britt of Alabama. In the Old City, one of the little shops in Jerusalem is an actual Alabama store. And so Katie Britt and I, and the rest of the members of the congressional delegation, visited this store and I bought a T-shirt. Okay, I’m not an Alabama fan, but I bought a T-shirt from there, because half of it was in Hebrew, the other half in English — it was obviously ‘Roll Tide’ — and it was just a reminder that our countries are so interconnected.” Favorite Jewish food? “Matzah ball soup.”

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