The Israeli government is preparing to launch a ground assault on Rafah in southern Gaza as their devastating military campaign enters its fifth month. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was adamant that the assault would happen: “We’re going to do it.”
As deadly as the war has been for Palestinian civilians so far, the next phase could be even more terrible. More than a million Palestinians have crowded into Rafah over the course of the war and there is nowhere left for them to go. Even some of Israel’s most reliable supporters in the U.S. and Europe fear that a military operation in Rafah would be catastrophic for the people of Gaza.
The German government, normally a backer of Israel’s war, said earlier this month that an attack on Rafah would “simply not be justifiable.”
The proposed assault is also roiling Israel’s relations with Egypt. The Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said that an assault would have “disastrous consequences.” According to the Associated Press, two Egyptians officials said that Egypt might even suspend its 1979 treaty with Israel if the ground assault goes ahead.
This might be an idle threat, but the fact that it is being made at all is a measure of how bad relations between Israel and Egypt have become. Because Rafah is on the Egyptian border, the assault would create a refugee crisis that Egypt has been desperate to avoid. The Egyptian government doesn’t want to be seen as permitting the forced displacement of Palestinians, nor does it want to have to bear the costs of Israel’s campaign.
The Biden administration issued a pro forma warning that the operation “should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there,” but this warning, like others before it, has no teeth because there is no reason to believe there will be any consequences if Netanyahu ignores it.
At each stage of the war, the administration has urged the Israeli government to adhere to international law and protect civilians only for Israeli forces to wage one of the most destructivecampaigns of the twenty-first century that has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties in just four months. Netanyahu has correctly assumed that he can afford to disregard Washington’s requests because he and his government pay no price when they do so.
There are reports that Biden is becoming more frustrated with Netanyahu, but these leaks about Biden’s frustration seem to be entirely for domestic consumption. They do not suggest that there will be any change in policy. In fact, in some of the same reports administration officials say that the president and his advisers “continue to believe his approach of unequivocally supporting Israel is the right one.” The president’s comments last week in which he seemed to criticize Israel’s campaign are similarly meaningless if they do not lead to actions aimed at reining Netanyahu in.
The president’s “no daylight” approach to Israel and the war in Gaza was a serious mistake from the start, and it has clearly failed on its own terms. Far from gaining the Israeli government’s trust, this approach signaled to Netanyahu that he could safely ignore all U.S. complaints and concerns. The assumption that uncritical support for the war would buy the U.S. greater influence with the Israeli government has been tested and proven wrong.
Washington’s refusal to use its leverage has left the U.S. in the absurd position of enabling Israeli violations of international law while feebly asking for the violations to stop.
Unconditional U.S. backing for the war has enabled a rolling campaign of ethnic cleansing as the Palestinian population has been displaced from one part of the Gaza Strip after another. While the Biden administration keeps saying that the population should be allowed to return to their homes, the Israeli military has so thoroughly destroyed the infrastructure and housing across much of the territory that there is nothing for the people to return to later.
Almost the entire population has been displaced by the war, but each supposed refuge that they find in the south has quickly become a new war zone. There are no other refugees left. There is no safe place for the people in Rafah to go to now. If the Israeli military repeats what it did in Gaza City and Khan Yunis, Rafah will be left as a smoldering ruin and the civilian death toll will skyrocket.
Gaza’s humanitarian crisis is already severe and continued fighting ensures that it will get worse. An assault on Rafah would be a death sentence for tens of thousands of people and possibly for many more than that. The people of Gaza were already teetering on the edge of the abyss, and this assault would push many of them over the edge.
There have been many opportunities over the last four months for the U.S. to end its blanket support for this war and to demand a ceasefire, but so far the president has failed to take advantage of them. Halting the ground assault on Rafah might be the last chance that the Biden administration has to prevent an even greater humanitarian disaster.
The U.S. needs to make a dramatic change in its policy regarding Israel and the war in Gaza. The Biden administration needs to stop providing unconditional support for the war, it needs to restore funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that it wrongly stopped, and it needs to back up its previously empty warnings with serious penalties in the form of aid cutoffs and targeted sanctions on top officials if the Israeli government won’t halt the assault.
Beyond preventing the ground assault on Rafah, the U.S. should also be pressing Israel for a full and permanent ceasefire and a lifting of the blockade that has created famine conditions in Gaza. These are all things that the U.S. should have done months ago, but there is still time to correct course and prevent the worst-case scenario.
Daniel Larison is a regular columnist at Responsible Statecraft, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and a former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He writes regularly for his newsletter, Eunomia, on Substack.
Mourners react next to the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at Abu Yousef Al-Najjar hospital, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 12, 2024. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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.”
keep readingShow less
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.
keep readingShow less
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%.