regional reactions

Cardin calls Arab leaders’ comments on Hamas ‘extremely frustrating,’ says private messages are different

‘To Erdogan, I’d say, “You’re stupid,”’ Sen. Joni Ernst says. ‘And to the queen of Jordan, I understand the difficulty that she has in this situation’

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Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said yesterday that comments from Arab leaders, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Jordanian Queen Rania, defending Hamas and criticizing Israel are “extremely frustrating” but emphasized that the messages being delivered privately are much more critical of Hamas.

“In private conversations I’ve had with leaders in the region of Arab states, they all recognize what Hamas is all about. They all recognize that Iran and its proxies are dangerous to the stability of the region, [that] they’re committing atrocities,” Cardin told Jewish Insider during a press briefing yesterday. “We recognize that these are terrorists that are disrupting the peace for Arab states.”

Cardin, who traveled to Israel and Saudi Arabia last weekend, said that Arab leaders have relayed that they can’t express those sentiments publicly because of fears about public opinion in their countries, which are generally hostile to Israel.

“When you challenge them, they say, well, ‘It’s their politics of their country.’ I don’t accept that,” Cardin continued. “Leaders, to me, have to lead. So I don’t accept what they’re saying. But I do recognize that they have been helpful in strategic partnership with us in our region.”

Behind the scenes, he added, there has been “some helpful cooperation” from Arab leaders to counter Hamas and plan for the postwar situation in Gaza.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who led a trip to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as the Israel-Hamas war was beginning, offered strikingly different messages for Erdogan — who denied this week that Hamas is a terrorist group — and Queen Rania — who said that Hamas’ atrocities could not be verified.

“To Erdogan, I’d say, ‘You’re stupid. They are a terrorist organization,’” Ernst told JI. “And to the Queen of Jordan, I understand the difficulty that she has in this situation. But yes, we can confirm [the atrocities] because we have body camera footage from the Hamas terrorists of the atrocities that they committed. You should be very clear about that. And they should be very clear about that.”

Ernst said that her messages for the two leaders were different in light of Jordan’s “enormous Palestinian population” and the “ties between the family and the Palestinians.”

“I think they’re trying to tread very lightly with this,” Ernst said. “But let’s be clear, Hamas is a terrorist organization. Erdogan shouldn’t have any problems saying that, and they have wiped out many families in Israel. And I’d like to see that come twofold to Hamas.”

Cardin also told reporters yesterday that, following his meetings with leaders including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was “very clear… that they want to be able to continue that path towards normalization.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair described Qatar as having been “very helpful” in facilitating negotiations to release hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, but said that lawmakers have also been “very clear” with Qatar that it’s “wrong” for them to continue to harbor Hamas leaders.

“We have pointed that out and we’ll continue to point that out. As you know, we have a military facility also located in Qatar. So we have a complicated relationship,” Cardin said. “At this point, we’re focusing on the release of the hostages. That’s our reason for their contact.”

Cardin defended Israel from accusations that it is misusing U.S.-provided weapons or intentionally endangering civilians, emphasizing that Hamas is intentionally putting civilians in danger.

“I am convinced that their values are such that they want to minimize the loss of innocent life. They’re not trying to do anything other than that,” he said. “And I will, strongly as I can, try to dispel those who try to think there’s some moral equivalency between terrorists who murdered babies and Israel trying to defend their country.”

Cardin also questioned the reliability of Palestinian casualty data provided by the Hamas-run health authorities in Gaza, a day after President Joe Biden called that data unreliable.

“I don’t think [Israel] give[s] the same reports that others are giving as to the consequences of some of their campaigns,” Cardin said. “I don’t think they accept that.”

He said the U.S. has not urged Israel to delay its ground invasion of Gaza and that a cease-fire, at this point, would only provide Hamas time to regroup and strengthen its position.

After the war in Gaza, Cardin said a “credible administrator” will need to enter Gaza to ensure humanitarian support, opportunity and security for Israel, a role he said can’t be performed by either Israel or Hamas. He added that the international community will need to be involved in such an arrangement, which must meet the approval of both Israel and the Palestinians.

He said Israeli officials continue to believe a ground invasion is necessary to accomplish their primary goals of eliminating Hamas leadership and infrastructure, like tunnels. Accomplishing those tasks, Cardin said, would provide “some breathing time, hopefully to get a responsible administrator into Gaza.”

In Saudi Arabia, Cardin said the Senate delegation in which he participated had a “really candid discussion” with the crown prince, known as MBS, on human rights issues, including the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

But he emphasized that there has been “significant progress… on all fronts” in Saudi Arabia in the last five years and described the country’s Vision 2030 agenda as “consistent with what we would want to see.”

“Is it where I’d like it to be? No. But are they moving to the right path on these rights? Yes,” Cardin said. “We have to judge that moving forward where we want our relationship to be and where we can have the most leverage on the future for the Saudi people, as well as having an alliance with one of the major countries in the region against Iran and the countries that are supporting terrorists.”

Regarding Iran and its other proxies’ roles in the war, Cardin described recent attacks by Iranian proxies as “freelance activities of some of the terrorist organizations,” which he expects will continue. But he emphasized that the U.S. and Israel have been successful in keeping the conflict contained for the moment and that he doesn’t see Iran as interested in escalating.

“Could there be a miscalculation and things could blow up? Absolutely. It’s an extremely dangerous situation. So Israel today is on extremely high alert, recognizing there could be a new front at any time,” he said. “So I expect that we have to continue to pay extreme attention. And be prepared to deal with any type of an episode that occurs that could be used as a trigger event for further escalation. “

Cardin said that Egypt has been hesitant to open its border crossing with Gaza to admit American citizens stranded in the enclave because Cairo is concerned about infiltration by Hamas terrorists who could connect with Muslim Brotherhood operatives inside Egypt.

He also said that a long-delayed sale of F-16s to Turkey would not move forward until after the country finalizes Sweden’s accession into NATO, but said that, even then, there are other issues that need to be evaluated, including human rights concerns.

Also yesterday, 45 House members led by Reps. Chris Pappas (D-NH) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) urged the State Department “to take decisive action to hold the Republic of Turkey accountable for its role in supporting and facilitating the operations of Hamas,” any issue they say the U.S. has overlooked for too long. 

They ask the State Department to pressure Turkey to designate Hamas as a terrorist organization, close Hamas offices, revoke Turkish citizenship from and expel all Hamas operatives from the country, sanction Turkish banks holding Hamas funds and investigate Turkish officials’ involvement in the Oct. 7 attack.

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