‘We can’t just show sympathy, we actually have to show support,’ Democratic congressman Panetta says after visit to Israel

A congressional delegation originally in the region for meetings about normalization spoke today with Israeli officials and the families of hostages in Israel

Rep. Jimmy Panetta/X

Congressional delegation meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials as well as victims of the massive Hamas terror attack

Following meetings in Israel on Tuesday with a range of Israeli officials, as well as the family members of an Israeli being held hostage by Hamas, Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) emphasized that Israel will need tangible, long-term support from the U.S. and Congress as its efforts to respond to Hamas’ massive terrorist attack move forward.

“There’s a number of ways in which we can show our support. It starts with our solidarity. That solidarity is going to be strengthened when people continue to hear about this bloodthirsty assault on Israel,” Panetta told Jewish Insider in an interview from Jordan. “But then moving forward, we can’t just show sympathy, we actually have to show support. And it’s got to be through legitimate actions, like funding supplemental packages.”

Panetta was part of a delegation that was in Saudi Arabia when the assault on Israel began. The delegation included Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) and Darrell Issa (R-CA). They were initially meant to discuss regional normalization, and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman the day before the attack.

The group ultimately continued on to Bahrain and Jordan, traveling into Israel by car when flights in and out of Israel were canceled. Miller-Meeks and Issa ultimately were unable to continue on to Jordan and Israel.

The lawmakers met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid. Cohen brought Noam and Lior Peri to the meeting. Their father, Chaim Peri, was abducted from his home on Kibbutz Nir Oz. Lawmakers also met with American citizens in Israel.

“The terrorists tried to break into my parents’ home,” Noam told them. “My father pushed one of the terrorists away with his hands, which allowed my mother to run away and hide for hours and be saved. The terrorists kidnapped my father from the house.”

Panetta said that hearing directly from the Israeli civilians and government officials and fully understanding the scope of the tragedy will help drive support for Israel in the coming conflict.

“It’s this type of understanding of what took place here that I do believe allows us to continue to come together, be unified in our support for Israel,” he said. “The magnitude of the devastation and depravity that we heard about, ultimately, will lead to our strength going forward.”

The California lawmaker, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said that the lawmakers had “pushed very, very hard to get into Israel,” despite pushback from the U.S. government, “to make sure that our support was shown.”

“Us being there, in-country, on the ground — that’s exactly the type of support they wanted to see and feel,” Panetta said.

Wasserman Schultz added in an interview on CNN on Tuesday, “There’s a long road ahead here. We wanted to make sure we came to Israel and didn’t go home, so we could stand in solidarity with Israel — and not just talk about our support for Israel, but demonstrate it.”

Norcross said in a statement to JI that it was important for the legislators to make the trip “to show the strength of the U.S.- Israel relationship and our unwavering bipartisan, bicameral unity for Israel and the Jewish people. Israel is our closest and most important ally in the Middle East, and they need our support now more than ever.”

Panetta and Wasserman Schultz said that the administration’s decision to move a carrier group into the Eastern Mediterranean was a key show of support for Israel as well as a deterrent to Iran and Hezbollah.

Going forward, Panetta said that it will be important for Congress to pass a widely supported bipartisan resolution expressing support for Israel, “but ultimately it’s going to come down to a supplemental funding package.” Israel has a particular need, he continued, for additional precision guided missiles and Iron Dome interceptors. 

In order to advance that, however, Panetta emphasized that Republicans must choose and seat a new speaker. Asked about the potential of a compromise speaker, to ensure pro-Israel measures can begin to move forward, if Republicans’ leadership deadlock continues, Panetta said it’s incumbent on Republicans to make overtures to Democrats and present “reasonable offers.” He said they have not done so.

Panetta also pushed back on the growing speculation that the strong support for Israel seen in recent days could be fleeting, especially among progressive Democrats otherwise skeptical of Israel.

He noted that, despite critical rhetoric from some Democrats, lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly in favor of Israel, highlighting the vote in favor of supplemental Iron Dome funding in 2021 “when there wasn’t serious conflict like we’re seeing now.”

“Is it going to be easy? No. But at the same time, we have to realize and appreciate what Israel has gone through, and what Israel will continue to go through, if they do not act to deter any sort of future attacks like this,” he said. “The will that we felt today is something that I believe will allow them to win this war. But ultimately, we also understand that it’s going to take the United States to continue to support Israel.”

Panetta also pushed back on emerging calls for de-escalation and restraint by Israel, which he said has “the ultimate right to defend itself” and “destroy Hamas, to eviscerate them and exact a huge price.”

“Yes, there is going to be escalation because of this bloodthirsty assault that was perpetuated upon the people of Israel,” Panetta said. “And people need to understand that it is going to be a difficult path ahead.”

But he emphasized that the group received “assurances” that Israel will abide by the laws of war and international law, “especially when it comes to distinction and proportionality.”

The lawmakers also said that, despite the attacks, normalization efforts in the region are alive and well. Panetta said that he is still “hopeful” because Israeli leaders said they are having conversations with Arab leaders about the attack, and receiving “moral support.”

Wasserman Schultz said that the group heard directly from Saudi leaders and civil society members, as well as Bahraini leaders, following the Hamas attack that they were committed to continuing with the normalization process.

“Universally, they believed and remained committed to continuing and not allowing Hamas to do what their intention was… to execute the peace process,” Wasserman Schultz said.

While some Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have put out public statements condemning Israel and avoiding criticism of Hamas, Panetta suggested that those statements aren’t reflective of the sentiments being expressed privately.

“There are official messages, statements that have to be put out depending on the politics of each country,” he said. “However, I think there are relationships behind those statements between Israel and these Arab countries that I believe will go a long way.”

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