Forgive me for not taking seriously the repetitio ad nauseam statement that "the Biden administration has been working hard to change Israeli policy." Too many defenders of our policy towards the tragedy of Gaza usually add the comment that it is not "politically feasible" to issue a demand and then crack down on the Netanyahu government if it does not comply for fear of the backlash from the powerful so-called Israel lobby.
Are Biden’s apologists telling us that the United States, and by extension its president, is a powerless weakling reduced to begging the leader of a small country that owes the U.S. for its very existence to do far more to protect the lives and welfare of the inhabitants of Gaza, who have suffered three months of —in Biden’s own words — ‘indiscriminate bombing’? The situation in Gaza is now so bad that the UN’s humanitarian chief declared the Gaza Strip “uninhabitable” as of last Saturday.
Biden is president of the United States, still the most powerful country in the world by almost every measure and a country without whose support Israel has no future. A firm public demand to cease and desist immediately would have enormous domestic political repercussions in Israel — far less in the United States. Biden would not have to publicly threaten to cut off weapons deliveries; a few words delivered in private to Netanyahu and a few members of his war cabinet would probably suffice.
Most of Netanyahu's government would desert him. Even the most hawkish of the Israel Defense Forces’ leadership would not want to test an American president’s resolve. Netanyahu's refusal would accelerate the departure of secular Israelis from the country — alongside many Haredim, especially those who hold U.S. passports.
A decisive American president can do anything he wants, whether or not a powerful lobby opposes him. Eisenhower did it, forcing David Ben Gurion to withdraw from Sinai in 1956. Carter did it, in his “walk in the woods” at Camp David in 1978, forcing Menachem Begin to abandon Sinai settlements and agree to a peace treaty with Egypt. Reagan did it in June 1982, forcing Begin to order a ceasefire in Beirut. George H. W. Bush did it in 1991, withholding $10 billion in aid after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to stop settlement construction. Israel caved in each case. No one believes Netanyahu is made of the same stuff as Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin nor Yitzhak Shamir.
Biden seems not to understand that his stance supports Netanyahu’s political survival, not the long-term interests of Israel. Bibi does not care how much damage he does to Israel as long as he stays out of jail. He has sacrificed the Jewish homeland to his personal interests. He and his government have presided over a slaughter of innocent civilians unprecedented in any of Israel’s previous wars. Their rhetoric reinforces the view gaining currency across the globe that Israel has decided to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from their homeland; South Africa has brought a case of genocide before the International Court of Justice which is scheduled to take it up later this week.
Israel’s war against the Palestinians has reignited the perception among the vast majority of countries in the so-called Global South that the Palestinians are the new manifestation of the conflict against colonialism and imperialism. UN votes demanding a cease-fire have grown increasingly one-sided against Israel, further isolating the U.S. in the process. If Israel’s bloody campaign against Gaza does not end soon, the Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab countries may survive in name only; popular revulsion against Israel in those countries will rob them of any value. Biden owes it to Israel, a country long dear to his heart, to stop Netanyahu’s recklessness and that of his nationalist-religious extremist allies.
Netanyahu has no plan for the post war. Instead, it appears that he has a plan to keep the war going as long as he can, possibly by attacking Lebanon (which Biden "firmly" opposes), not to mention depopulating Gaza by forcing its now-homeless inhabitants into Sinai or deporting them elsewhere (which Biden also “firmly” opposes). Left unchecked, Netanyahu’s intransigence will drag the United States into military actions we do not need; American hawks are now demanding we bomb the Houthis. Tomorrow, it might well be hostilities with Iran.
Biden’s continued, full-throated support for Netanyahu mystifies. His initial embrace of Israel and unconditional material and moral support were to be expected. It was an emotional reaction to the horrors of October 7. While Biden has earned a great deal of praise for his handling of the Ukraine war, Israel’s war in Gaza has shifted American attention from Ukraine. In effect, the American president has become bogged down dealing with a war marginal to American interests and diverting attention and resources from a conflict whose outcome is a vital interest to the United States. Biden’s policies have caused others to see America as either weak or complicit. He has allowed Netanyahu to get away with “flipping the finger” to the United States, a serious blow to the prestige of the superpower.
The Gaza war has also dealt a serious, if not mortal, blow to Biden's reelection. Given its large Arab-American population, Michigan is lost. Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin also have significant Muslim and Arab populations. He is about to lose the Armenian vote unless someone cracks down on the hoodlums who have viciously attacked Armenian clergy in Jerusalem. As a politician rooted firmly in the 1990s — especially the 1992 Clinton-Bush face-off — Biden may fear the loss of Jewish support in the coming election.
That fear looks misplaced. A recent survey indicates that nearly half of young Jewish-Americans do not support his current policies towards Israel, while Christian Zionists, who form a significant part of the Republican base, are unlikely to vote for Biden in any event. One also wonders why Biden, if politics are indeed the driver of a misguided policy, would support a foreign politician who has demonstrated his hostility towards every Democratic president since 1993.
Biden has a very short window within which he can cut off Netanyahu before he can carry out his apparent war aim to depopulate Gaza and carry the conflict to Lebanon and possibly beyond — a conflict, in other words that could very well drag American forces into another endless Middle Eastern war. A quick and decisive decision, combined with real diplomacy to exploit the crisis and craft a workable solution to 75 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would recover America's reputation.
Now is the time, in other words, for the superpower in this relationship to assert its own interests.
Patrick Theros served as the United States Ambassador to Qatar from 1995 to 1998.
U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applaud the choir after they sang the national anthems in a meeting with Israeli high school students on December 13, 1998 (Reuters)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.