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doha dialogues

‘Americans are pissed off,’ Sen. Ernst tells Qatari leaders in Doha

Qatar needs to ‘use whatever leverage they have’ with Hamas to free the hostages ‘in order maintain’ the kingdom’s relationship with the U.S.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks to reporters following a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 17, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks to reporters following a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 17, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

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 Hamas custody, warning that a failure to do so could jeopardize the relationship between Washington and Doha, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) told Jewish Insider 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).

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.

“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. “I reminded him that the focus of our trip was on our hostages. And he did seem to feel that, and I feel that he heard that,” the Iowa senator said.

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.”

She said the group had spoken about the hostage crisis with the other Arab leaders during the trip, including those in Egypt and Bahrain.

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 Hamas ties.

But Ernst 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.

She said that the news of the agreement — which has not yet been formally announced or confirmed by the Department of Defense — was poorly publicized in light of Oct. 7 and events in the region.

Ernst recounted that the group heard from Arab leaders that their relationships with Israel are “very difficult right now” because of concerns about civilians in Gaza.

“While they are very much against what happened with Hamas and the terror attacks, they do want to make sure the Palestinian people are cared for. So that was quite a bit of the exchange that went on as well,” Ernst said. “Of course, again, we would push them back to the fact that we are here to talk about hostages.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee member offered particular praise for Bahrain, which is the only Arab state that has publicly joined U.S. efforts to combat Houthi terrorists in the Red Sea.

Bahrain’s prime minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, “is exceptional when it comes to these issues. They’ve been very forward leaning in supporting the United States, supporting Israel,” Ernst said. “They are just exceptional leaders.”

Given that Bahrain does not have a relationship with Hamas, she acknowledged that it will be unable to assist with hostage negotiations, but described the kingdom as a potential “diplomatic leader on the day after” the war.

Ernst and many of the members of her delegation were in the Middle East during the Oct. 7 attacks, and were the first congressional delegation to visit Israel in the aftermath. She said there’s “still a lot of anger” among Israeli leaders and that their message remained the same as it was three months ago: “We will destroy Hamas.”

In addition to meetings with Israeli leaders, the group visited Kibbutz Nir Oz, guided by a resident of the kibbutz. 

“It was really hard to go back and see where we knew people had been killed and children had been taken,” said Ernst, who had visited the kibbutz during a previous trip in 2014.

She added that Israel needs additional aid from Congress, emphasizing the need to re-prioritize the stalled supplemental appropriations bill for Israel and other U.S. allies.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) suggested on Monday that there had been progress toward a deal on immigration policy that would allow that bill to proceed, but lead Republican negotiator Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said that a deal would not be finalized this week.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), who visited Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia with a separate group of lawmakers, said in a statement that he raised concerns with Israeli officials about their use of unguided munitions in Gaza, in addition to discussions about the continued threat from Hams, efforts to free hostages and meetings with hostages’ families. “As an ally, we have a responsibility to stand with Israel and also to state clearly both in public and in private that they must do more to keep innocent Palestinian civilians safe,” Kelly said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who visited the region with Kelly, said in a Senate floor speech yesterday that, “The clock is ticking, and the Senate needs to act soon to ensure Israel has what it needs to defeat Hamas and confront the growing threat from Iran.”

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