“This is going to be seen as like the Iraq War,” the California Democrat warned. “Were you for a permanent cease-fire or did you just condone Netanyahu’s bombing of women and children in Gaza?”

By Jessica Corbett, Common Dreams

As members of Congress return to Capitol Hill next week, U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna will continue his fight for a lasting cease-fire in Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, which has killed at least 22,600 Palestinians.

Ro Khanna

“We need this war to stop. It is a humanitarian catastrophe,” the California Democrat told Common Dreams in an interview Friday, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken began his fourth trip to the Middle East in three months.

“So many of the people killed in Gaza are children,” Khanna said. “I have heard stories in my district of folks who have relatives in Gaza and they talk about families that have lost multiple children.”

“It is a matter of conscience,” he argued, noting that Palestinians in Gaza face not only Israeli bombs and bullets but also the risk of starvation and spreading disease. “Every international humanitarian organization is begging the United States for the war to stop.”

“We’re isolating ourselves from moral leadership in the world.”

Recalling when U.S. President Joe Biden pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2021 and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 call to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Khanna stressed that “we have a lot of leverage.”

The United States gives Israel $3.8 billion in annual military aid. Since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7, Biden has asked Congress for an additional $14.3 billion package that lawmakers are debating amid concerns about the war and broader spending negotiations.

“I have expressed my views very bluntly to the administration that the time has come for the president to call for a cease-fire,” said Khanna, who is seen as a potential presidential candidate for 2028 or beyond.

While legal scholars and other world leaders have increasingly condemned the Israeli assault on Gaza as “genocide,” the Biden administration has twice bypassed Congress to enable arms sales to Israel and opposed cease-fire resolutions at the United Nations.

“We should not have vetoed the resolution in the United Nations that called for a permanent cease-fire and a release of all the hostages,” Khanna said of the administration’s early December action. “We’re isolating ourselves from moral leadership in the world.”

Khanna’s current effort to sway Biden—who is seeking reelection this year—and Congress comes after his own evolution on the issue, as Israeli forces ravaged the Palestinian enclave governed by Hamas.

He was not among the 13 House progressives—led by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American in Congress—who in mid-October unveiled a resolution calling for a Gaza cease-fire. That led Khanna’s campaign political director, Adam Ramer, to resign. According to messages the ex-staffer shared with The New Yorker, the congressman told him: “You are a man of conviction. I respect that.”

In the weeks that followed, as Khanna publicly stressed the need for humanitarian aid in Gaza but also voted for a bipartisan resolution that expressed support for Israel “as it defends itself against the barbaric war launched by Hamas and other terrorists,” a Palestinian-led, multifaith, multiracial coalition pressured him to call for a cease-fire, occupying his offices in California and on Capitol Hill.

On November 21, Khanna called for an end to the war, saying on social media that “the cease-fire should be permanent so all hostages released, aid gets in, the violence ends, October 7 perpetrators face justice, and the rebuilding begins.”

Khanna’s comments came as the Israeli government and Hamas agreed to a temporary pause in fighting mediated by Qatar, Egypt, and the United States. During the truce, which lasted a week, Israel freed some prisoners and the Palestinian group released some hostages taken on October 7, and much-needed humanitarian aid entered Gaza.

Explaining his shift, Khanna told Common Dreams, “I believe that Israel had the right to defend itself from the brutal Hamas attacks.”

“But once there was degradation of a lot of Hamas’ military capability and a clear sense that the Qataris could get a deal on hostage release, I said, ‘Why aren’t we now having a permanent cease-fire and calling for the release of all hostages?'” he continued. “I also had grown, by then, very concerned about the indiscriminate bombing.”

Khanna was part of a congressional delegation that visited Israel in 2022, just months before the election that led to the nation’s most far-right government in history. That trip, he said, “influenced my sense that we need two states—we need a Palestinian state with equal rights living side-by-side with an Israeli state—that we need an end to the expansion of settlements that’s been the policy of the Netanyahu government, that we need a lifting of the blockade.”

“But the biggest thing I came away with is that America has to be involved in the Middle East and standing up for equal rights for Palestinians and a diplomatic solution,” he added. “We can’t wash our hands of it and just hope that the Palestinian issue goes away.”

Since the brief truce in Gaza ended just over a month ago, Israel’s bombings and raids have made the besieged enclave “uninhabitable,” as the United Nations relief chief put it Friday. In that time, Khanna has urged the Biden administration to “change policy now,” reiterated the need for humanitarian aid, supported journalist Mehdi Hasan as his MSNBC show was canceled, and joined progressive lawmakers and labor leaders for a Washington, D.C. event demanding a cease-fire.

So far, a few U.S. senators and over 60 House members have called for a cease-fire, according to Win Without War’s tracker.

Along with making the case for a lasting end to the violence on social media and national television, “I am talking privately to many colleagues,” Khanna told Common Dreams. “We need to get 100 members of Congress calling for a permanent cease-fire.”

In the long term, Khanna predicted, “this is going to be seen as like the Iraq War, a dividing issue with the Democratic coalition. Were you for a permanent cease-fire or did you just condone Netanyahu’s bombing of women and children in Gaza?”

“The window is rapidly closing to be on the right side of history.”

Politicians’ support for devastating wars tends to haunt them. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contest, the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—for which Khanna was a national co-chair— repeatedly called out Biden for voting to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq when he was a senator.

As a congressman, Sanders opposed the Iraq authorization, but Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) “was the only person in the House to vote against the war in Afghanistan,” he acknowledged at a debate, adding: “She was right. I was wrong. So was everybody else in the House.”

Sanders has recently faced criticism from progressives for not demanding a cease-fire in Gaza. However, he has forcefully criticized Netanyahu’s government and opposes Biden’s request to give Israel over $10 billion in unconditional aid to continue a war that “has been grossly disproportionate, immoral, and in violation of international law.”

Lee has been calling for a Gaza cease-fire since October. She is running for the U.S. Senate against two other House Democrats from California: Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. Khanna considered joining the race, which fueled 2028 speculation, but he ultimately endorsed Lee in March.

“I have concluded that despite a lot of enthusiasm from Bernie folks, the best place, the most exciting place, action place, fit place, for me to serve as a progressive is in the House of Representatives,” Khanna said at the time. “I’m honored to be co-chairing Barbara Lee’s campaign for the Senate and endorsing her today. We need a strong anti-war senator and she will play that role.”

Now, Khanna is using his role in the House to rally support for a cease-fire in Gaza. He is warning colleagues that “this is going to be a dividing issue for the Democratic Party for the future, like the Iraq War was… And I think the window is rapidly closing to be on the right side of history.”