The twice-extended “humanitarian pause” in the Gaza Strip has ended, and the bombs are dropping again.
The Israeli assault on the territory has been a tragedy on multiple grounds, with the tragedy only likely to deepen as the attack resumes.
The most obvious tragedy is the extreme suffering of the people who live in the Strip, with resumption of the assault adding to a death toll that the destruction itself makes hard to estimate but already is well into five figures. Additional suffering includes many maimed or injured persons, deprivation of food, water, and fuel, the displacement of well over a million residents from the northern part of the Strip, and little left for the displaced persons ever to return to other than rubble. Even for anyone who cares only about the lives and welfare of Israelis and cares nothing about Palestinians, implications of a continued war in Gaza are bad. The violent operation is the latest lethal chapter of an Israeli policy — of clinging to land captured in a previous war and never resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians — which, as long as that policy continues, means that Israelis will always live by the sword and will never know true peace.
The myth underlying the declared Israeli objective of “destroying Hamas” is that there is some clearly delineated hostile capability that can be destroyed and elimination of which will end violence emanating from Gaza. The myth disregards how even if whatever capability in Gaza Hamas used in its attack on October 7 were to disappear, Hamas has long used other lethal capabilities, such as individual suicide bombers, to strike Israel. It disregards how the added suffering that Israel has been inflicting on Gaza increases the pool of recruits who are enraged at Israel and willing to replace whatever capability the Israeli Defense Forces manage to destroy.
Most fundamentally, it disregards how Hamas is but one manifestation of anger and resentment that will take other forms as long as occupation and denial of self-determination — and now, more devastation at the hands of the IDF — continue.
To the extent that Americans care about suffering of either Israelis or Palestinians, all this bad news associated with continued warfare in Gaza is a setback for U.S. interests. The perpetuation, with no end in sight, of the blood-stained Israeli-Palestinian conflict harms U.S. interests in multiple other ways, ranging from the conflict being a major distraction of policymaking time and attention away from other pressing matters, to the recurrent danger of the United States being dragged more directly into the conflict.
Despite talk about how the current war can and should be a turning point leading toward a resolution of the conflict, continuation of the assault makes such resolution less, not more, likely. It further enflames the already high mutual hatred. It provides further recruits for extremists seeking to subvert any progress toward peace. It physically destroys homes and livelihoods of Palestinians who would be expected to live contently next to Israelis. It moves the Israeli government ever farther down the road of brute force, rather than a road toward peaceful resolution, in dealing with its Palestinian problem.
The damage to U.S. strategic interests from the continued assault in Gaza centers on how the United States is widely seen, with good reason, as sharing responsibility for one of the biggest manmade humanitarian catastrophes since World War II. Like so much else regarding the current conflict, the relevant history did not start on October 7. The longstanding U.S. provision of diplomatic cover for Israeli policies of blockade and occupation, including through vetoes at the United Nations Security Council, is part of that history. So is the provision of voluminous no-strings-attached aid to Israel, which adjusted for inflation has totaled well over $300 billion.
Now amid the current war, the Biden administration is requesting an additional $14.3 billion to be given to Israel on top of the usual annual largesse. With a continued war, relatively little of that aid would go to what can legitimately be called defense. Most of it would go toward wreaking more destruction on the Gaza Strip.
The administration’s increasing talk about the need for Israel to exercise restraint — after the administration’s initial post-October 7 theme of going all-in with Israel — cannot be expected to carry much weight in the eyes of foreigners and foreign governments. Apart from the recent pause in the fighting, whatever pro-restraint urging the administration has voiced to Israel has had little effect. Observers can correctly interpret the relationship as one in which potential leverage never gets translated into usable leverage as long as the United States stays committed to being Israel’s bankroller and diplomatic patron.
U.S. credibility suffers from all this, especially regarding matters of war and peace. U.S. invocations of a “rules-based international order” are disdained and dismissed when the world sees the U.S. facilitating blatant and lethal Israeli disregard for the laws of war and other international law.
The credibility deficit has been especially acute regarding the other ongoing war in which President Biden has taken a strong interest — the one in Ukraine. The president himself has linked the two wars, if only as a device to get aid for both Israel and Ukraine through a divided Congress. Foreign observers can see that in one of theses conflicts the United States is supporting resistance to an armed occupation (by Russia of Ukrainian territory) while in the other it is supporting the occupier.
Biden’s own linkage of the wars also encourages comparisons of the scale of death and destruction, such as how the number of women and children killed in seven weeks of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip is more than twice the number killed in nearly two years of Russian attacks in Ukraine.
Perpetuation of the assault on Gaza makes foreign observers more conscious than ever of how much the dominant U.S. role in decades of a Middle East “peace process,” — in which the United States often functioned as Israel's lawyer — has been a failure, a point that Russian president Vladimir Putin is exploiting. That means less foreign willingness to look to the United States for leadership in handling not just this international conflict but also other ones. It means an opening for rival powers to play a greater role as peacemakers. China had already begun doing that in the Middle East and is now using the Gaza war to expand its regional role further.
This development contributes to a decline in U.S. influence in the region, and probably elsewhere, relative to that of China.
The damage to U.S. interests is a matter not only of credibility but also of the resentment and hatred that the U.S. backing of the Israeli assault — with the United States in a minority internationally by not supporting a permanent cease-fire — has engendered. That resentment is most apparent in the Middle East but not limited to that region, with many perceiving a double standard in how the United States reacts to civilian suffering from the use of force.
Even if regimes try to filter out emotion from their own decision-making and have little sympathy for the Palestinians, they — including authoritarian regimes — must take account of strong sentiment among their populations. The effects on regime policies of importance to the United States are impossible to predict in detail but can be substantial, ranging from denial of access rights for U.S. military forces to lessened support for the United States in international organizations.
Enraged populations can inflict damage on U.S. interests regardless of the policies of their government. Boycotts in the Middle East of the products and services of U.S. companies are already under way.
More worrisome is that the anger over the assault on Gaza will stimulate anti-U.S. terrorism. One of the most consistent themes in the propaganda and confessions of terrorists who have attacked U.S. interests in the past is that they were striking back against U.S. support for Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians. As recent calls to arms by al-Qaida and Islamic State suggest, the stepped-up anger resulting from the assault on Gaza may stimulate new terrorism against not only Israel but also its U.S. patron.
The ingredients are present for a repeat of the perverse relationship between terrorism and the ill-fated U.S. war in Iraq. Although that war was misleadingly sold as part of a “war on terror,” one of its effects was to increase terrorism, especially by giving birth to the group that became Islamic State. Today, the habit of labeling Hamas as nothing more than a “terrorist group” — when in fact it is a nationalist movement focused on political power in Palestine, whose only U.S. victims have been collateral casualties in attacks on Israel — obscures the potential for current U.S. policy toward the Gaza war to lead to new anti-U.S. terrorism.
These major costs to U.S. interests can be diminished if the United States calls strongly and clearly for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and uses its leverage to move Israel in that direction. In so far failing to do so, the Biden administration has been in a minority not only internationally — with the United States becoming more isolated as a result — but also within American opinion.
The current crisis has underscored some of the major longstanding differences between U.S. and Israeli interests. But regarding the Israeli interest that ought to matter most — the long-term security of Israeli citizens — the administration can honestly tell Israelis that a quick end to the slaughter in Gaza and a turn to political means for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are far more likely to assure that security than a continuation of living by the sword.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make statements to the media inside The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defense, after their meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday Oct. 12, 2023. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERSREPORT CONTENT
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%.