Craig Ruttle-Pool/Getty Images
Tom Suozzi argues he’ll be a Democratic bulwark against the hard left in Congress
An AIPAC spokesman said the group will not be endorsing in the New York-03 special election featuring two pro-Israel candidates
While in Congress, former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), who is now seeking to reclaim his old seat in the special election to replace ousted Rep. George Santos (R-NY), liked to boast that he was among the most reliable non-Jewish Democratic votes on legislation supporting Israel.
But as he makes his case to Jewish voters who represent a potentially decisive swing coalition on Long Island, Suozzi, 61, finds himself facing off against a formidable Republican rival, Mazi Melesa Pilip, whose compelling biography and strong personal ties to Israel threaten to overshadow his well-tested pitch.
The Ethiopian-born Jewish county legislator, whom GOP leaders picked as their nominee last week, is leaning heavily on her unique immigration story and service in the Israel Defense Forces as she touts her unwavering support for Israel in its war with Hamas, which is one of the top issues in the race.
Rather than competing directly with Pilip on Israel, where there are no discernible differences, Suozzi is instead promoting a more strategic message arguing that Congress would be better served by a dependably pro-Israel Democrat who, during his time in office, was outspoken in calling out members of his own party who have been strident critics of Israel in the House.
In an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday, the former three-term lawmaker said there was no doubt Pilip “would be another Republican voice that is pro-Israel,” but added that it would be more “valuable” to elect a pro-Israel Democrat — at a moment when his party has grown increasingly divided on standing with Israel in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks.
“Anybody who cares about Israel and wants the relationship between America and Israel to remain strong and bipartisan, I would argue that another Republican voice is not what’s needed right now,” Suozzi reasoned. “What’s needed is a strong Democratic voice. It’s just very needed at this time.”
Whether his argument will persuade voters in the Feb. 13 election remains to be seen, particularly as Pilip and her allies seek to cast Suozzi as aligned with the far left, citing comments from a 2019 TV interview in which he expressed solidarity with the Squad after former President Donald Trump had attacked the group in social media remarks widely viewed as racist.
In a statement to JI on Sunday, Suozzi said his comments have been taken out of context and that he had defended the Squad because Trump’s call for its members to “go back” to the countries they came from, which he described as “un-American,” had been made about his “Italian immigrant father after he returned from fighting in World War II.”
If there was any doubt about his position, Suozzi, a moderate Democrat, clarified that he is not aligned with the Squad on Israel. “I 100% disagree with the anti-Israel positions that some members of ‘the Squad’ have taken,” he emphasized in his statement, “and I have publicly condemned my colleagues for the particularly egregious antisemitic tropes that have been made in the past.”
“I have often spoken about my willingness to work with anyone to try and solve the problems people face, even people I disagree with,” he added. “That’s why I’ll reach across the aisle to find solutions with Republicans as well as members of my own party to try and find issues of common ground, even when I disagree with them on other things.”
At her campaign launch on Saturday, Pilip, a 44-year-old registered Democrat who was first elected to the Nassau County legislature in 2021, positioned herself as a similarly moderate voice on key foreign policy issues. “I stand strong with our communities in support of Israel, Ukraine and all nations that are subjects of terrorism,” she said in prepared remarks to a large crowd of supporters in Massapequa.
The IDF veteran served in a paratroopers unit after she was among more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon. In her speech, she also cited her efforts to fight antisemitism amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, which polling shows is a salient issue to voters in the heavily Jewish district covering portions of Long Island and Queens.
Like Pilip, Suozzi sought to cast his support for Israel and solidarity with Jewish constituents in a personal light, recalling his first trip to Israel as a Nassau county executive during the second intifada in 2002. “I had always been pro-Israel and said I was pro-Israel,” he explained to JI. “But that was the experience that really made it personal for me and what made me recognize what a miracle Israel was.”
“That’s why I’m as passionate as I am” and “why I’m willing to battle with people, even members of my own party when necessary,” he said on Friday, calling himself a “Zionist” who will “always fight for Israel.”
Suozzi, who as a congressman led efforts to push the Biden administration to take a harder line on Hamas as well as Iran and Hezbollah, said there was “no place for second-guessing Israel’s efforts moving forward,” reiterating comments from a recent campaign statement. “We just have to do what it takes to eliminate Hamas,” he said. “It’s difficult and it’s painful, but we have to accomplish that mission.”
He also commended President Joe Biden’s approach to the war, even as the administration exerts pressure on Israel to scale down its offensive in Gaza amid mounting international scrutiny. “The president has been resolute in his support, and I encourage him to continue to stay strong,” Suozzi said.
The two-month race to succeed Santos, who was expelled from Congress just a few weeks ago, is expected to be one of the most expensive in New York history, and could help decide the balance of power in the House.
It has already drawn interest from several outside groups, including the House Republican and Democratic campaign arms and the Republican Jewish Coalition, which endorsed Pilip on Friday moments after she was picked as the nominee.
The super PAC affiliated with Democratic Majority for Israel, which endorsed Suozzi’s campaign in 2020, plans to support him in the special election, according to a source familiar with the group’s thinking.
Meanwhile, Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, indicated that the bipartisan pro-Israel group would not be engaging in the race, expressing satisfaction with both candidates’ records on Israel. “Both candidates have reflected the overwhelming bipartisan support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and Israel’s fight to remove Hamas from Gaza,” he said in a statement to JI on Sunday.
As he endeavors to rejoin the House, Suozzi, who vacated the seat last cycle to mount a failed bid for governor, vowed that his comeback campaign represents a win for all parties when it comes to upholding support for Israel in Congress.
“I’m going to fight hard for support from pro-Israel Democratic groups, but also pro-Israel independent groups and pro-Israel Republican groups,” he said. “I think that if you’re pro-Israel, I’m one of the best people you could have in Congress to advocate for an issue we share in common.”