A recent essay from Israeli writer Gadi Taub in Tablet makes clear that Israel’s war in Gaza is not its last. Israel is going “to shed its defensive strategy and go on the offensive.” That means taking out Hezbollah and then taking on “a multifaceted struggle against Iran over its drive for regional hegemony and its nuclear weapons program.”
Taub, whose hawkish views in many ways reflect the vital center of Israel opinion, sees the Biden administration as following a longstanding Democratic policy of appeasing Iran. In sharp contrast to Henry Kissinger, whose 1970s diplomacy he lauds, Taub finds Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s policy to be a disaster. “By empowering the Iranians, Blinken’s policy will inevitably also further the penetration of the region by Iran’s patrons, the Russians and the Chinese, at America’s expense. Kissinger’s policy was focused on pushing America’s great power rivals out. American policy today is inviting them in.”
The Dream Palace of the Israelis
The most extraordinary feature of Taub’s essay is its unreal portrait of the regional forces arrayed for and against Israel. Iran, Taub writes, “is at war with the old American regional alliance system — which includes Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But Secretary Blinken and President Biden are appeasing the new radicals, not containing them.”
In this imaginary tableau, shared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is in an unspoken but deep alliance with the Sunni Arab states, who want to see Hamas crushed and Iran and its proxies relentlessly attacked. What these rulers say in public, so the story goes, is miles apart from what they say in private. In public, of course, Arab leaders are breathingfire about Israel’s mad amplification of the Dahiya Doctrine in Gaza. In private, these Arab leaders are reportedly telling U.S. and Israeli insiders (but seemingly no one else) that they heartily approve Israeli’s operations.
This Israeli view of Arab leaders is delusional. Yes, Arab leaders have big issues with Hamas. But they also think, as do their people, that Israel’s extreme violence in Gaza may open the gates of hell, as the 2003 Iraq War once did. They don’t think it’s possible to pulverize Hamas into oblivion, because new defiant leaders will inevitably emerge. Israel, in their view, is not solving anything, but rather magnifying insecurity in the region.
The (feeble) attempt by Blinken to put restraints on Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza is said by Taub to invite Russia and China into the region, but in fact it is Israel’s policy that does so. That policy pushes Iran and America’s traditional Arab coalition into one another’s arms, making them realize that they have congruent interests in opposing Israeli plans. These interests, in turn, are likewise simpatico with those of Russia and China right now. Taub believes that Israel’s coming offensives would break the new relations between the Saudis and the Sino-Russian bloc. No, these relations would be strengthened.
This Islamic consensus — which joins Arabs, Iranians, and Turks and is supported by Russia and China — would be given further impetus if Israeli ambitions in the West Bank are fully realized. Another Nakba in Gaza and in the West Bank is anathema to America's Arab friends.
Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of the Palestinian Authority just as harshly as Hamas or Hezbollah. He has rejected U.S. proposals to bring the PA into Gaza after the war. Netanyahu maintains within his coalition powerful ministers (National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich) who have big plans for the West Bank and Temple Mount. In this regard there appears to be a fourth security front in the West Bank and Jerusalem, distinct from Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran.
Washington as Enabler and Restrainer
Taub hangs his essay on a comparison between Henry Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy in the 1970s and Antony Blinken’s policy today. Kissinger, Taub relates, taught a masterclass in diplomacy. Arab leaders, Kissinger saw, “would understand that only the U.S. could deliver Israeli concessions, and that the price–peace with Israel and breaking with the Soviet orbit–would be worth it. It worked.”
Fast forward to today. If the United States cannot or will not deliver Israeli concessions, surely its leverage with the Arab states is sharply diminished.
Israel is totally dependent on U.S. arms for the conduct of its current and projected operations. “The Israelis are playing with house money,” as one U.S. official puts it. As of December 1, transfers loaded on to U.S. cargo planes included 15,000 bombs and 57,000 artillery shells. More is on the way. The Biden administration has lots of leverage over Israel. They are just unwilling to use it.
The Biden administration has rightly warned Israel against a big offensive operation in Lebanon. Hezbollah is in a use-it-or-lose-it situation with respect to its offensive systems, with Hezbollah reportedly having 100,000 to 150,000 missiles and rockets, far superior to Hamas’s force. The evacuation after October 7 of some 80,000 Israelis from communities bordering Lebanon is undoubtedly an unacceptable outcome for Israel, but Israel cannot seek to eliminate Hezbollah without incurring grave risks to its own population.
It would be far better for Israelis to reoccupy the northern towns under the auspices of the mutual deterrence that prevailed before October 7, rather than to launch a big war against Hezbollah. However, the Israelis clearly think otherwise.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has promised a military campaign to drive Hezbollah beyond the Litani River unless Hezbollah heeds Israel’s ultimatum to evacuate the border region. The horrifying risk from such an escalation is that Israel would turn Beirut and southern Lebanon into Gaza.
If Taub’s views are a reliable guide, the Israelis have totally given up on Biden and the Democrats. The putative “appeasement” of Iran is not “an offhand mistake of the Democratic Party” but “a premeditated strategy designed to strengthen Iran at the expense of America’s traditional allies.”
At a time when Arab Americans and their allies are livid with Biden and Blinken, it is curious to find Taub and the Israelis joining in the execration. The former group hates B&B for giving Israel the greenest of green lights, the other for the bright red lights (stop with the civilian killing, don’t invade Lebanon) that Taub discerns.
The administration’s position is unenviable. On one side is the geopolitical disaster that follows from a blank check to Israel, on the other the domestic perils of having a gigantic fight with Netanyahu and the whole Israeli nation. In this acute battle between the national interest and personal political survival, will President Biden do a John Adams and choose country over party? I do not have an answer to this question.
One thing is crystal clear. Supporting Israel means supporting a grand design that calls for a war on all fronts, financed and enabled by the United States. The Israelis seem to have no consciousness of the fact that previous uses of force in Lebanon and Palestine didn’t solve their security problem. Instead, they believe that more destruction, on a Dresden-like scale, will do this time around what it has not done in the past.
Given Israel’s lonely existence in a sea of Muslims, this belief seems irrational to me. Israel cannot get rid of its security problem or its enemies by the massive use of force. Escalation imperils Israelis as much as it imperils their neighbors. But the Israelis hold to their belief in force with theological conviction, and the belief should be taken with the utmost seriousness. Thus far, this irresistible force has not encountered an immovable object.
David C. Hendrickson is professor emeritus of political science at Colorado College and the President of the John Quincy Adams Society. He is the author of several books, including Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition.
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%.