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Kamala Harris, Doug Emhoff AP-22318713090450
Vice President Kamala Harris has attempted to assuage concerns over the administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff Are Trying to Keep Everyone (Mostly) Happy on Israel

The vice president has attempted to balance speaking out about Gaza with staying in step with President Joe Biden.

Vice President Kamala Harris called her friend José Andrés after news broke on Monday that Israel’s airstrike in Gaza killed seven aid workers with his group World Central Kitchen. She told him she was “devastated” by the deaths, spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and voiced support for his team’s efforts, her office said of the previously unreported call.

Andrés has spent the ensuing days speaking out against Israel’s strike. The outrage over the deaths may lead to a policy shift: On Thursday, President Joe Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warned that the U.S. could place conditions on Israel aid if the nation does not present a plan to better protect civilians and aid workers. Harris was on the phone call as well and reiterated afterward that Biden had drawn a line. “If there are not changes to their approach, it is very likely we’re going to change our approach,” she told Spectrum News 1, describing the conversation as frank and candid.

Harris’ role in both conversations shows how involved she has become in the administration’s response to the conflict, attempting to acknowledge outrage over the Israel-Hamas war while maintaining the White House’s support for Israel.

The vice president has been critical of Israel’s military campaign into Gaza — an issue she hears about often as she speaks to voters and political allies. She feels personally upset about the high civilian death toll, according to a source close to her. But Harris is also acting in step with the White House. She received support from the administration to criticize Israel’s actions and has tried not to overstep Biden, who until this week was reluctant to place conditions on aid to Israel. And she’s worked in concert with her husband, Doug Emhoff, who has been active in the administration’s efforts to combat antisemitism before and after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

“Privately, she has been much more forceful as time has gone on in finding a way to get to a cease-fire,” said a source close to Harris who requested anonymity to talk about private discussions. “She has a very pro-Israeli record but is concerned about so many innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of the war.”

Harris has been involved in diplomacy, particularly in developing a plan for what will happen after the war, including reconstruction, security and governance, sources said. She has joined nearly 20 calls between Biden and Netanyahu and repeatedly spoken or met with other high-level Israeli officials and Arab leaders, including during a trip to Dubai, according to her office.

Sources said Harris and Biden are mostly aligned on policy. “Is she a different generation than Biden? Yeah, of course. But I don’t see any daylight between them,” said Tom Nides, former ambassador to Israel who left his post last year.

The vice president’s balancing act nearly toppled over her call for a cease-fire during remarks in Selma, Alabama, in early March. At the time, administration officials privately believed they were nearing a breakthrough on a temporary cease-fire agreement that would release hostages taken by Hamas.

Harris’ prepared remarks were edited and approved by the National Security Council, as is customary. But the delivery was broken up in a way that suggested she was calling for a policy shift.

“Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate cease-fire,” Harris said to applause that nearly drowned out the next line: “for at least the next six weeks, which is what is currently on the table.”

Many journalists declared that Harris had gone further than Biden; she attempted to quell the speculation that the two were not in sync. “The president and I have been aligned and consistent from the very beginning,” she told reporters the next day.

It wasn’t just the media that thought Harris had separated from Biden. Some congressional offices were surprised by the cease-fire language when the vice president’s office asked them ahead of time to amplify her remarks, two sources familiar with House offices told NOTUS.

“It felt like it was the vice president’s office going rogue and working separate from the White House, and trying to show leadership in a different way from Biden himself while still trying to portray it as consistent with what Biden has been saying and doing,” one of the sources said.

An aide to the vice president’s office called the source’s assessment “not accurate.”

“As is often the case before the vice president addresses major policy issues, before her Selma remarks, some offices on the Hill were notified that the vice president would address the Gaza conflict and the humanitarian situation, reiterate support for Israel’s security and reiterate President Biden’s call for a six-week cease-fire as part of a hostage deal,” the aide said.

Still, the entire episode caused some eye rolls inside the West Wing at the VP’s office, according to a third source familiar with the matter.

Doug Emhoff Shirin Herzog Michael Herzog
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff has appeared at multiple events to raise awareness about the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel. Susan Walsh/AP

Harris is continuously approached by people who warn about the political ramifications of the Biden administration’s unconditional support of Israel and the human cost of war.

Last year, Harris received an “earful” over Gaza during a dinner with Spike Lee, D.L. Hughley, Fat Joe and others at the Naval Observatory. Attendees told her that Black Americans often related to Gazans and see the war as a top issue, a person familiar with the dinner told NOTUS.

The vice president’s office declined to comment on the specific conversations but said generally that listening to these types of conversations is a key part of her job.

“She recognizes the pain and concern regarding the terrorist attack on Oct. 7 and the resulting conflict has caused for many Americans,” an aide to Harris told NOTUS. “As she travels the country, the vice president has been listening to a wide range of perspectives and articulating the Biden-Harris administration’s approach. She will continue to engage with a diverse range of Americans and hear their perspectives everywhere she goes.”

People close to Harris believe these conversations shape how she responds to the crisis.

“She’s really speaking to what she really thinks and feels about the loss of life,” said one person close to the vice president. “I think it’s genuine. And I think that’s why it’s resonating in the same way that when she speaks out on reproductive rights.”

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The vice president’s comments on Israel have caused concern among some Jewish leaders who lean more conservative. Some people question whether Harris’ comments represent a shift in policy from the White House and whether Harris is being used as a “trial balloon” to test changes in posture.

In the past, Harris has faced backlash from some Jewish leaders for defending Rep. Ilhan Omar, who at the time was under fire for questioning the influence of pro-Israel groups on U.S. politics.

However, Harris also has long-standing relationships within the Jewish community and long-stated support for Israel. She often recalls collecting money for the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel as a child. And her husband holds a historic role as the first Jewish spouse to a president or vice president.

“Doug was the person who they relied on to make sure that people knew that Kamala was a friend of Israel, and she has always been supportive of Israel,” a source close to the vice president said of the 2019 controversy over her defense of Omar. “Doug has become a useful validator for her.”

Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Emhoff and Harris have met with impacted Jewish leaders, former hostages and their families and hosted roundtables to discuss both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“He has totally leaned into this [antisemitism] work,” said a person close to both Emhoff and Harris. “He’s built a lot of relationships with many of the Jewish groups and the coalition. And in some ways, maybe that’s even giving her a little more license to be more critical [on Gaza].”

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt said that Harris took “the middle ground” during a private meeting with interfaith clergy last month when non-Jewish leaders criticized Israel’s campaign.

“What I was hearing from her in that room … was that she gets Jewish trauma,” Holtzblatt said. “In my mind, I was like, that’s got to be from living with Doug. And that’s got to be from her relationship with her husband and her in-laws.”

When NOTUS asked Harris’ allies about her and Emhoff’s ties to the Jewish community, many noted that she took him on his first trip to Israel.

“I distinctly remember her placing a yarmulke on the now-second gentleman’s head before he visited the Western Wall for the first time. And it was a special moment,” said Halie Soifer, a former national security adviser to Harris during her time in the Senate and current CEO of Jewish Democratic Council of America.

“It was clear that she understood and could relate to the deep connection that he felt that they both feel to Israel,” she added. “Her ties to the pro-Israel and Jewish communities run deep.”

In the fall of 2019, Harris and Emhoff attended a conference to get to know Jewish leaders, including Stuart Appelbaum, the current president of the Jewish Labor Committee and an executive board member of the conference. He encouraged the then-senator to lean into the Jewish community and believes her relationship with her husband shows that she takes Jewish issues seriously. Harris gifted him a menorah during that meeting, a wedding gift for his 2019 nuptials.

“I think that when you’re talking about empathy, it’s taken more seriously because she also has a husband who is Jewish, and there’s a sense that she understands Jewish culture,” he said. “And that’s not a minor thing.”

Jasmine Wright is a reporter at NOTUS.