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In Israel, freshman GOP lawmakers focus on supporting Jewish state after WCK incident

Reps. Jen Kiggans (R-VA), Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-NJ), and Juan Ciscomani (R-AZ) visited Israel with the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

WASHINGTON - MARCH 6: Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., participates in the Bipartisan Defending Borders, Defending Democracies Act news conference in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, March 06, 2024.

Freshman Republican lawmakers visiting Israel this week focused on supporting the Jewish state when asked about the IDF strike in Gaza that hit a World Central Kitchen convoy and killed seven of its aid workers this week.

Three members of a delegation in Israel with the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation, Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-VA), Rep. Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-NJ), and Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-AZ), spoke with Jewish Insider on Thursday, ahead of their meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog.

Asked about the WCK incident, Kean said that “the IDF has been clear it was unintentional and they apologized for that mistake very quickly and very clearly.”

“Now is a time to focus on what Israel and the IDF is doing, which is rooting out the evil that is the Hamas terrorist organization,” Kean added. “We need to make sure that Israel has the time, weaponry and resources necessary to conduct the operations to destroy Hamas.” 

When asked about the deaths of the aid workers, Kiggans, a former helicopter pilot in the U.S. Navy, said that “war is ugly.”

“We should work at all costs to avoid war, and we do that by being strong. The Biden administration needs to look at its foreign policy decisions that made the world less safe. The world is not where we want it to be and civilians were unfortunately killed. We need to work to prevent war and preserve peace,” she said.

Kiggans, who was visiting Israel for the first time, emphasized “peace through strength,” saying that “Israel needs strong friends to support its ability to defend itself and respond to the events of Oct. 7.”

She also took issue with “the president unilaterally deciding to send our own military members [to Gaza] to build a pier paid for by our taxpayers without including people in Congress. We represent those taxpayers.”

“Now there are American boots on the ground in Gaza to complete the building of that pier,” she added. “Those types of decisions need to be made in the halls of Congress, not by unilateral action.”

Kiggan’s remarks joined the “strong reservations” about the plan to build a pier for the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, expressed by 12 Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a letter to Biden last month.

She also said she “worr[ies] about making sure [aid] gets in the right hands” in Gaza, as opposed to being looted by Hamas.

In that vein, Kean noted that the House approved a $1.2 trillion budget bill that banned funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, in light of some of its workers’ participation in and support for terrorist attacks against Israelis.

“That is a very significant statement,” Kean said.

Ciscomani said that “war is an ugly thing…Israel is going to a great extent to do as much as they can to stay focused on the mission to destroy Hamas, and we’re supportive of that,” but at the same time, he added, “we don’t want to see innocent people suffer.” 

Kean said he supported the aid package for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan and that the bill has improved over time, including adding the ability to use seized Russian assets to fund some of the aid.

“It’s important to get it done in the next two weeks when we return,” he said. “Aid to Israel has always had extraordinary bipartisan support among the American people and Congress.”

Kiggans also said that Congress “need[s] to be passing aid bills for our friends” Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, and tied that effort to securing the U.S. southern border.

“When the U.S., which has been the world superpower, has weaker leadership on the world stage, we see Russia enter Ukraine and China’s increased aggression…and watching what’s happening in Israel,” she said. “We need to be stronger for our enemies to fear us and our friends to trust us. The next important thing after providing for our allies is securing our own border, which is a national security risk, as well.” 

Back in the U.S., the group’s Senate GOP colleagues were similarly inclined to defend Israel in the wake of the airstrike.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who rebuked criticisms of Israel’s handling of the humanitarian crisis last week as “bulls**t,” said on Wednesday that he was “very sorry to hear” about the WCK strike, praising the organization and its workers. 

“Israel was right to take responsibility for this and launch an investigation into how such a tragedy could have happened,” Graham wrote on X, formerly Twitter. 

“Protecting aid workers and ALL civilians is important, but that includes the innocent civilians and Americans who were murdered or have been held hostage by Hamas for 181 days,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) wrote on the platform on Thursday. “No ceasefire should ever be on the table until all hostages are released and Hamas is destroyed.”

Kean is running for reelection in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, viewed as one of the most competitive in the country. The presumptive Democratic candidate, Sue Altman, was the leader of the progressive Working Families Party in the Garden State, a party that favors conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel and called for a cease-fire in Gaza less than a month after the Oct. 7 attack. However, Altman released a position paper last month calling Israel “a vital friend and ally” that “has the right and obligations to respond” to the Hamas attack, and saying she supports U.S. military aid to Israel and opposes boycotts. 

The incumbent member of Congress, however, did not see that change as particularly credible.

“She’s had a long history of very public positions when it comes to the state of Israel and they’re absolutely inconsistent with the current positions she’s espousing,” Kean said.

Asked about a call earlier this week from Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), the presumptive Democratic nominee for the state’s Senate seat in November, for an immediate, permanent cease-fire, Kean said, “I speak only about what I believe, and I believe Israel has the absolute right to do what is necessary to defend her citizens…It’s clear that there is a continued threat from Hamas, and Israel needs to have the time and space to defend itself and its citizens.”

The legislators visited sites of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, including Kibbutz Nir Oz and the location of the Nova music festival, and heard the stories of witnesses to the attacks who helped save lives. They met with the parents of Hersh Polin-Goldberg, a U.S. citizen being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. They also took time to visit historic sites, including the City of David in Jerusalem, during their visit. 

Ciscomani said that visiting Israel was a “dream come true” for him, and that he was learning things that were “relevant” and “critical” to his work in Congress.

Kiggans said that the visit drove home that “Israel is our most important ally in the Middle East, and it’s important for us to show that support.” 

Emily Jacobs contributed to this report. 

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