Good Tuesday morning.
In today’s Daily Kickoff, we report on Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s fourth trip to Israel since the start of the war, and talk to Sen. Joni Ernst about her discussions with top officials in Qatar about Israeli hostages. Also in today’s Daily Kickoff: Josh Rogin, Amb. Rahm Emanuel and Idan Amedi.
Across Washington, national security experts, journalists and political officials are all asking the same question: Why was Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hospitalized in the ICU — and why did it take three days before anyone informed the White House?
After a still-unknown elective procedure on Dec. 22 — which was also not disclosed to the White House — Austin suffered complications (the details of which have also not been made public) and went back to the hospital on Jan. 1. He handed duties to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks. But she, too, did not know the reason for Austin’s absence. On Monday, Austin was moved out of the ICU.
Austin’s hospitalization comes at a busy time for the military as the U.S. continues to monitor the ongoing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. On Thursday, while Austin was in the ICU, a U.S. strike killed the leader of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq. The move was reportedly approved by Austin before his condition worsened.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and a group of allies released a joint statement last week cautioning the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen to cease their attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea, and threatening a strong response if they do not obey.
All of this information was revealed after the fact. We know now that the strike in Iraq was carried out successfully, and U.S. service members were unharmed. But what if they came under fire after? Who would have made the decisions about how to respond? At the same time, action could have been required in the Red Sea, where U.S. forces killed several Houthi fighters last month. Who would the White House have contacted to discuss these matters?
The episode also raises questions about how influential Austin is within President Joe Biden’s inner circle. Politico reported that Biden’s choice of the lower-profile Austin as defense secretary meant he wanted to empower the State Department and National Security Council at the expense of the Pentagon. Biden reportedly prizes Austin’s discretion and values the fact that he “doesn’t knife-fight in the media like some previous defense chiefs,” according to the publication.
Biden has pledged to stand by Austin, who apologized for the lack of transparency but still has not revealed the details of his hospitalization. The incident is the rare case of a Biden personnel drama becoming a major national story. And so far, in the days after the story surfaced, the Pentagon has yet to convince Americans that this story is resolved. (Austin is still hospitalized with no set release date, the Pentagon said last night.)
On the campaign trail, anti-Israel protesters interrupted Biden on Monday during a speech at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the Black church in Charleston, S.C., where a white supremacist killed nine people in a 2015 mass shooting. The protesters chanted “cease-fire now” before being removed from the event. Other attendees responded by cheering: “Four more years!”
“I understand their passion,” Biden said in response, deviating from his prepared remarks. “I’ve been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.”
A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment questioning what Biden meant by his call for Israel to “significantly get out of Gaza,” and if it represented a new U.S. policy position.
Clarification: In the opening section of yesterday’s Daily Kickoff, we reported that Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) did not have time in their schedule to visit Israel. According to a source, the two senators were unable to visit Israel over the weekend due to the high volume of other congressional trips in the country at the same time.
Blinken back in Israel with hopes to stave off escalation in Lebanon
Secretary of State Tony Blinken landed in Israel on Monday night with a mission to cool tensions on two fronts – Gaza and Lebanon. Blinken’s fourth visit to Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks comes amid heightened tensions with Hezbollah following the assassination of two senior terrorists in Lebanon and another in Syria, and as Israel announced its move to a less intensive stage in the fighting in Gaza, Jewish Insider’s Lahav Harkov reports.
Packed schedule: Sirens blared across Israel’s north, warning of Hezbollah shelling as Blinken met with Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Tuesday morning, after an earlier meeting with President Isaac Herzog. Shortly after, Blinken sat for a one-on-one with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was still ongoing at press time, and is set to meet later today with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Benny Gantz, the former defense minister and current war cabinet member, hostages’ families and others.
Northern front: Amid the exchange of fire along Israel’s northern border today, three Hezbollah terrorists were killed in a strike on a car in Ghandouriyeh in southern Lebanon. The strike came a day after Israel killed Wissam Tawil, the commander of Hezbollah’s special forces, called Radwan, who was responsible for much of the onslaught on Israel from Lebanon, which began at a lower intensity long before Oct. 7 and internally displaced tens of thousands of residents of Israel’s north. The uptick in fire comes a week after the assassination of senior Hamas official Saleh Al-Arouri in Beirut, an act that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who alleged Israel was behind the attack, pledged would bring a reprisal.
Diplomatic efforts: Blinken warned at the start of his Middle East tour — during which he also visited Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — that the war in Gaza “could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and even more suffering.” White House Senior Advisor Amos Hochstein, who traveled to the region last week, is working to reach a diplomatic solution that would force Hezbollah to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, moving it away from the Lebanon-Israel border.
‘Americans are pissed off,’ Sen. Ernst tells Qatari leaders in Doha
A group of senators and House members who visited Doha this weekend pressed Qatari leaders to take stronger action to help free hostages who remain in Gaza, warning that a failure to do so could jeopardize the relationship between Washington and Doha, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) told Jewish Insider’s Marc Rod following her return from the region. The lawmakers’ trip, which also included stops in Israel, Egypt and Bahrain, was focused primarily on the plight of the hostages still being held by Hamas. Ernst was joined by Sen. Ted Budd (R-NC) and Reps. Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Ann Wagner (R-MO), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Donald Norcross (D-NJ).
The message: Ernst described the conversation with Qatar’s prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, as “a difficult one,” during which each of the lawmakers emphasized the need for Qatar to “use whatever leverage they have” with Hamas to free the hostages “in order maintain” the kingdom’s relationship with the U.S.
Leverage ties: “I literally told him, ‘Americans are pissed off,’” Ernst said. “They have hosted Hamas in Qatar — sometimes at the behest of various administrations along the way. But these are terrorists. They murdered Americans. They are holding Americans … [Qatar needs] to leverage those ties to get our Americans back.” She said that the message was delivered “loud and clear” to the Qataris. But asked whether she expects to see a change in behavior from Qatar after delivering this message, Ernst said, “I don’t know how this will transpire.”
Base agreement: Going into the trip, Ernst said she and other members of the delegation were “fired up” about news last week that the U.S. had quietly agreed to keep a critical U.S. airbase in Qatar for an additional 10 years. Ernst and other lawmakers have been pushing for the U.S. to increase pressure on Qatar over its hosting of Hamas. But she said that the group learned prior to their meeting with Qatari leaders that the agreement to maintain the base was signed “well before Oct. 7,” at the conclusion of negotiations that had been ongoing for two and a half years.
California synagogue keeps preschool teacher on staff despite antisemitic social media posts
One major challenge for some Jewish institutions after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks is where to draw the line against employees sharing anti-Israel content on their social media — especially for organizations like Jewish community centers and preschools that often employ a diverse staff, where views on the Middle East have rarely been part of the vetting process. The issue has recently roiled two Conservative synagogues that run preschools in Southern California, with the two school administrations reacting in very different ways, eJewishPhilanthropy’s Haley Cohen reports for Jewish Insider.
Problematic posts: Most recently, at Congregation B’nai Israel in Orange County, a teacher in the preschool was found to have posted ample pro-Hamas and antisemitic content on her personal social media pages, and the synagogue’s leadership has opted to take no punitive action against the employee. In response, some congregants have left the synagogue, according to one former member — and others are fuming over the synagogue’s decision to keep the teacher employed. According to images views by JI, a preschool teacher at CBI has been posting prolifically to her personal accounts since the Oct. 7 attacks. Among the messages include: posts falsely claiming that “Isr*eli forces steal 145 dead bodies from Al-Shifa hospital” and that “Israel is skinning the bodies of killed Palestinians! What does it use their skin for?”
First grade lesson about ‘genocide’: Fifty miles from Congregation B’nai Israel, in North Hollywood, a charter school and the synagogue that rents its space found itself dealing with a similar incident in November, KTLA-TV first reported. One of the teachers at Adat Ari El complained on social media about Israeli flags, displayed days after Oct. 7, on the campus of the Conservative synagogue, which also operates a preschool. The first-grade teacher, as well as one of her co-workers, also held lessons claiming that Israel is committing “genocide in Palestine.” Brian Schuldenfrei, senior rabbi of the congregation, told KTLA at the time that, “after the lesson, one of the teachers proudly shared on Instagram, and I quote, ‘LOL but I did a lesson on the genocide in Palestine today w my first graders… My fav was a kid who was like ‘What if they just gave the land back to Palestine and find somewhere else to live.’”
Ramifications: Both incidents immediately sparked condemnation among parents at the synagogue and the charter school, Citizens of the World-East Valley. Following a third-party investigation, both teachers and the charter school’s principal, who also confronted Schuldenfrei about the Israeli flags, were placed on leave.
‘Passages’ brings pro-Israel Christian college students to Washington
For the 300 Christian college students gathered in Washington, D.C., the conference over the weekend was something of a rite of passage — a three-day crash course in modern-day Israel at a fraught moment for the Jewish state. The students were taking part in an event organized by Passages, a group that runs Christian trips to Israel, often referred to as “Christian Birthright.” And they seemed ready to embark on a learning process about Israel and all its complexities, Mykenzie Johnson, a former Passages employee who is active in their alumni program and was part of the D.C. gathering, told eJewishPhilanthropy’s Haley Cohen.
Students’ sentiments: Johnson relayed to eJP some of the sentiments she heard from the college students: “I used to default that ignorance is bliss, but now I feel that as a Christian it is my responsibility to be educated about Israel,” said one. “We want to go to a Hillel Shabbat dinner,” said a second. “We want to pray with Jewish students,” added a third.
Survey says: The conference took place at a critical moment for the Christian community as it relates to Israel. Polling shows that evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 and 29 are less supportive of Israel than their elders. According to a recent University of North Carolina at Pembroke study, there was significant slippage among younger evangelicals’ support for Israel between 2018 and 2021. Passages CEO Scott Phillips called the decreased support for Israel among young evangelicals “alarming.” But he noted that views are far more pro-Israel among Passages participants, pointing to a survey conducted by Lifeway, the media division of the Southern Baptist Convention, on young evangelical attitudes on the current Hamas-Israel war. “We polled a diverse sample of our alumni and found that, because of Passages, the views are much more favorable to Israel,” Phillips told eJP. Compared to about one-third of the general Christian public ages 18-29 who say they are following the war closely (at least weekly), 92% of Passages alumni say the same.
Fanning the Flames: The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin spotlights the proliferation in antisemitic content across Chinese state-controlled social media platforms in the wake of the Oct. 7 terror attacks and ensuing Israel-Hamas war. “Comments comparing Jews to Nazis are pervasive on videos relating to the Israel-Gaza war on one of China’s largest video-sharing platforms, Weibo. State-controlled media outlets have been spreading conspiracy theories about the American Jewish community online as well, including the idea that a small number of Jewish Americans control the vast majority of power and wealth in the United States. A false statistic along those lines, originally posted on Oct. 10 by state broadcaster China Central Television, went viral online, becoming a Weibo trending ‘hot topic.’ Of course, not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, and antisemitism existed in China before Oct. 7. But via its internet censorship regime and state-controlled media, Chinese authorities have been fueling the flames of anti-Jewish hate online. Now, the U.S. government is starting to publicly push back on China’s promotion of antisemitism.” [WashPost]
Ennui in Iowa: Puck’s Peter Hamby previews next week’s Iowa caucuses, explaining why this year’s primary battle in the Hawkeye State differs from those in years past. “Try as the TV networks might to hype up ‘Election Night in America’ next week, the truth is that this is a snoozer of a primary, irrelevant to the general public, and followed with interest only by hard-core news addicts and Republicans within driving distance of a Hy-Vee or Kum & Go. Each night, the primary is routinely the third or fourth story on the network evening news broadcasts — the most-watched television news shows in the country, and a good indicator of how little appetite there is for Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley with national audiences. But even for political insiders, there’s really not a lot to say, not a lot to cover. I glanced at Politico’s homepage today, which in past cycles would be absolutely swamped by Iowa coverage with just a week until the vote. I had to scroll down past stories about Lloyd Austin and Israel and congressional redistricting to find an actual story about Iowa, which is pretty remarkable. The story itself was a simple ‘What we’re watching’ preview, asking the question: Will it be a Trump blowout, or could he face some serious competition? Come. On. This is the least competitive caucus race since 2000, when George W. Bush routed his opponents in Iowa — and that rout was only a 12-point win. Trump is on pace for a 25-point victory or more.” [Puck]
Threat Assessment: In The Wall Street Journal, the American Enterprise Institute’s Kenneth Pollack and Katherine Zimmerman suggest Washington adjust its approach to the threats posed to the global economy by the Houthis. “It’s clear from the mess in the Red Sea that a Houthi victory would endanger American interests and those of our allies. If they win, the Houthis are likely to become more aggressive and more active helpmates of Iran in its campaign to dominate the Mideast. Their control and eventual conquest of Yemen is also the one thing the Houthis care about and that Washington could put at risk. It’s proved a strong motivator in the recent past. In 2018, a combined task force of Emirati armor and local Yemeni tribesmen retook most of southern Yemen and then began driving up the Red Sea coast, smashing Houthi defenses and threatening Hudaydah, the last major port in Houthi hands. The Houthis raced to the negotiating table, desperate to cut a deal and stave off a disastrous defeat. These two factors combine in one clear strategic necessity: The U.S. needs to begin military support to the Yemeni government. That is the only way to ensure the Houthis won’t consolidate their grip on the country and be able to project more power abroad. And it is the only thing that might cause the Houthis and Iranians to rethink their current strategy.” [WSJ]
Street Smarts: In the Liberal Patriot, Steven Cook rejects the claim that the Biden administration has lost the “Arab Street” in its support for Israel. “Would it be better if Middle Easterners held more favorable views of the United States? Absolutely. There’s the risk of being so closely associated with Israel’s withering military response to Hamas attack that any number of Islamist extremists will target Americans in response, but this has long been a risk to the United States for its support for Israel and other policies. Still, the issue at hand remains whether support for the United States has cratered because of U.S. policies in the current conflict. If polling over recent decades is accurate, it has not for the very simple reason that Washington was profoundly and persistently unpopular well before the first IDF soldier crossed into Gaza. And despite Washington’s deep unpopularity, it has historically achieved its strategic goals in the region — the free flow of energy resources, helping ensure Israeli security, and making sure the United States remains predominant in the region so it can achieve its other two goals.” [LiberalPatriot]
Money Matters: In The Hill, Gregory Angelo calls for the passage of legislation that would end the nonprofit status of groups that provide support for terrorist organizations. “If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably asking yourself why the IRS bestowed tax-exempt status to terrorist-supporting organizations in the first place. Qualifications for nonprofit approval have always been vague. While the IRS is extremely strict about the paperwork needed for consideration and annual reporting requirements, organizations pursuing a 501(c)(3) letter of approval need only exist for a ‘charitable’ purpose. Amateur sports leagues, save-the-guinea pigs, a foundation devoted to the needs of tall people, and a Star Wars cosplay advocacy group are all certified nonprofits — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Is it any wonder groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and the Council on American-Islamic Relations managed to secure the same?” [TheHill]
Around the Web
He’s Running: Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who served as House majority leader until last January, announced plans to seek a 23rd term.
Hate Speech Crackdown: Substack said it will crack down on publications that express support for Nazis, after coming under fire for allowing hate speech to be published on its online blogging platform.
Bond Hearing: A judge in Memphis declined to reduce the $1 million bond set for a man who fired shots on the premises of a local Jewish day school over the summer.
Booted Off the Team: Following an incident at a high school girls basketball game in which students from a public school in Yonkers, N.Y., hurled antisemitic insults at their Jewish opponents, the coach and a player were dismissed from the team.
College Try:Pucklooks at Bill Ackman’s crusade against antisemitism in higher education, as the Pershing Square founder and CEO sets his sights on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rahm’s Revamp: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel spearheaded an overhaul of the Tokyo embassy’s library, thanks in part to a $50,000 donation from JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.
Borough Block: Anti-Israel protesters blocked key rush-hour arteries around New York City, including the Holland Tunnel and the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, snarling Monday morning traffic and drawing the ire of New Yorkers transiting between boroughs.
Tunnel Tussle: The NYPD clashed with a group of rogue students who recently constructed an illegal tunnel leading into the Brooklyn headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch; a Chabad spokesperson said that the tunnel was built by “a group of extremist students” who “vandaliz[ed] the sanctuary, in an effort to preserve their unauthorized access.”
Match Point: Elliott Investment Management has built a $1 billion stake in Match Group, in an effort to bolster the online dating company’s declining stock.
First in Flight: Eight airlines — Air France, Bluebird Airways, Bulgaria Air, Tus, Transavia, LOT, Vueling and Air Europa — will resume partial service to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport in the coming weeks; no U.S. carriers have announced plans to resume flights.
Life Imitates Art: Israeli actor Idan Amedi, a singer known for his role in the hit series “Fauda,” sustained serious injuries in combat in Gaza and is recovering in Israel.
Blocked Sale: Germany removed its block of the sale of Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, a decision that German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, visiting Israel this week, said was made in light of the Oct. 7 terror attacks and Riyadh’s “very constructive attitude toward Israel.”
Flight Fury: Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Ukraine filed a complaint with the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization over Iran’s downing of a Kyiv-bound passenger jet in 2020 that killed 176 people.
Pushing Back on Pretoria: Israeli President Isaac Herzog said that South Africa’s recent filing of an International Court of Justice complaint alleging Israel is engaging in genocide is “atrocious and preposterous.”
MBZ Moment: UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed rebuffed a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Abu Dhabi to pay unemployment stipends to West Bank Palestinians barred from working in Israel since Oct. 7, sarcastically telling Netanyahu to “Ask [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky for money.”
Road to Riyadh: Saudi Arabia is continuing efforts to establish itself as a regional hub for international corporations, as Google, Microsoft and Amazon commit to increasing their presence in the Gulf nation.
Taking out Terror: Israel is ramping up its efforts to disrupt Iran’s terror infrastructure in Syria, increasing its strikes on weapons transfers and facilities and other Tehran-linked targets.
Remembering: Author Norman Finkelstein, a longtime educator at Massachusetts’ Hebrew College, died at 82. Stella Lucas, the founder of the British chain of charity shops All Aboard and a mainstay of St John’s Wood United Synagogue, died at 107…
Pic of the Day
Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Secretary of State Tony Blinken met on Tuesday in Tel Aviv.
Hungarian-Israeli retired gymnast, she won 10 Olympic medals, Ágnes Keleti turns 103…
Advertising executive and author, Jerry Irving Reitman turns 86… Law professor at Georgetown University, Peter Edelman turns 86… Former member of the Swiss Federal Council and president of the Swiss Confederation in 1999, Ruth Dreifuss turns 84… Rabbi emeritus of Kehilath Israel Synagogue in Overland Park, Kansas, Herbert Jay Mandl turns 79… Vice chairman of the private equity firm Gilbert Global Equity Partners, Steven Kotler… Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times for 40 years, she is now a lecturer and senior research scholar at Yale Law School, Linda Greenhouse turns 77… Retired MLB umpire, he worked in 3,392 major league games in his 26-year career, his family name was Sklarz, Al Clark turns 76… Presidential historian, spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, Alvin S. Felzenberg turns 75… Composer, singer, radio show host, he has released seven albums under the name “Country Yossi,” Yossi Toiv turns 75… Actress, singer and songwriter, she is the half-sister of Barbra Streisand, Roslyn Kind turns 73… Australian author of more than 40 books of children’s and young adult fiction, including a five-book series about a 10-year-old Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Poland, Morris Gleitzman turns 71… Former governor of the Bank of Israel, she served from 2013 to 2018, Karnit Flug turns 69… Investment banker, Joel Darren Plasco turns 53… Justice of the High Court of Australia, James Joshua Edelman turns 50… Filmmaker, she is the second lady of New York State, Lacey Schwartz Delgado turns 47… NFL insider and reporter for the NFL Network, Ian Rapoport turns 44… Founder and CEO of Skydance Media, David Ellison turns 41… Israeli actress and model, Rona-Lee Shimon turns 41… Director of development and community relations at Manhattan Day School, Allison Liebman Rubin… Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at The New Yorker, Ben Taub turns 33… Account executive on the enterprise corporate sales team at Tableau from Salesforce, Madeline Peterson… Television and film actress, Nicola Anne Peltz Beckham turns 29…