US officials suggested that Israel would have to shift to a “lower-intensity” campaign in Gaza from the new year. But Joe Biden is still unwilling to apply any serious pressure, even if his support for Israel’s war threatens to hand victory to Donald Trump.
US president Joe Biden speaks at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, on January 5, 2024. (Photo by Mandel Ngan /AFP via Getty Images)
Joe Biden and his team are still giving their firm support to Benjamin Netanyahu as he talks about a war in Gaza lasting for “many months.” With a presidential election pitting Biden against Donald Trump due in the fall, there appear to be strong echoes of Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam in 1968 as a Democratic president alienates his supporters with an unpopular war.
Akbar Shahid Ahmed is the senior diplomatic correspondent for the Huffington Post. He’s been following Joe Biden’s policy since October 7 and the dissent among US government officials.
We spoke on Tuesday, January 2, shortly after an Israeli bomb attack killed a Hamas leader in Beirut, sparking fears of a wider escalation. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the interview here.
On the eve of the October 7 attack, what was the general outlook of the Biden administration toward the Middle East and toward Israel in particular? How did they see the government of Benjamin Netanyahu?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
It’s useful to begin with two points in order to understand how the Biden administration came in here. The first is the role of Israel in the Democratic primary of 2020, where we saw a shift toward a more questioning approach to the US relationship with Israel. The Biden team was aware of this.
They were conscious of having a Democratic primary base that was perhaps more energized and pro-Palestinian, so they said, “we are going to do things on this issue that Donald Trump has not done — we are going to prioritize the two-state solution,” etc. They started from a baseline position of saying that Trump had gone not just totally pro-Israel, but pro-Netanyahu in particular, and they were going to reverse that.
In the Democratic primary of 2020, we saw a shift toward a more questioning approach to the US relationship with Israel.
Importantly, however, they didn’t make a lot of specific promises. They made hopeful noises, but when it came to policy changes by Trump that were quite shocking and that had changed the status quo in ways that made peace harder to achieve, Biden never made specific promises to walk any of that back.
For example, Trump had recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel without also recognizing it as the capital of a Palestinian state. The United States no longer had a consulate with the Palestinians, and it no longer described Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal, which they are under international law. The United States had always said the settlements were illegal, but Trump reversed that.
Biden took no action on those issues once he came into office. Biden’s team certainly see themselves as the adults in the room and take themselves quite seriously. To some extent, Biden and the people closest to him such as [National Security Advisor] Jake Sullivan and [Secretary of State] Antony Blinken wanted to do the “big boy” stuff. They wanted to focus on Europe and on strategic competition with China. Of course, the invasion of Ukraine happened in 2022.
The idea was, we want to keep the Middle East in general and definitely this file in particular off the president’s table. We do not want Biden to be the one having to think about this or having to make progress on it. They didn’t want to change much — there wasn’t the political will.
There was some hope, with an Israeli government that didn’t have Netanyahu as prime minister in office for the first time in more than a decade. They saw that as encouraging, but at the same time they didn’t want to ask the new government to do too much for the Palestinians in case that undermined them at home. All of that brings us up to October 6, at which point the United States had a pretty bad relationship with the Palestinians.
In a broader Middle Eastern context, the one question that Biden and his team were interested in was repairing US relations with Saudi Arabia. This is something they have done to an extent, although they haven’t gotten what they thought they’d get out of it in terms of lower oil prices.
The early response of the Biden administration to October 7 was very important in terms of shaping the terrain for what was going to happen and establishing a sort of path dependency for their later orientation. What would you say were the main factors shaping that response, and what role was played by Biden’s own particular, personal attitude toward Israel?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
The initial reaction was one of human sympathy, which is totally understandable when you consider the details and scope of October 7, and the fact that it was the biggest attack on Jews since the Holocaust. I think there was deep, deep shock in Washington and certainly within the Biden administration. Perhaps that raises the question of whether people should have expected something like this to happen after years of growing resentment, but they didn’t.
They started with the view that we need to support Israel and demonstrate that we are with them 1000 percent, which very much came from the president himself. This is someone who has been visiting Israel and working on foreign policy issues for fifty years. He can recall meeting Golda Meir, the famous prime minister of Israel in the 1960s and ’70s, and he very much has an image of Israel from that period. He sees it as a small country surrounded by enemies, having been founded by people who had fled immense tragedy in Europe.
The president’s own sense that ‘we must be with them’ directed the policy of support for Israel.
The president’s own sense that “we must be with them” directed the policy. From what I’ve heard from people inside the administration at multiple national security agencies, the feeling was that even strategic analysts and national security experts — people who would normally be taking a little bit more of a rational step back to ask, “where does the planning go from here?” — were told (or certainly got the impression) that this was not what the president and the administration wanted.
What they wanted was for the United States to demonstrate its unconditional and overwhelming support, and let’s not think too much about where things go from here. That started to disturb a lot of people who said that there were going to be consequences not just for Israel and not just for the Palestinians but for US interests and security as well, along with the US desire not to see a huge regional war.
In terms of personnel, who have been the key figures alongside Biden himself? Could you give us some background on Brett McGurk in particular, for people who might not be familiar with the role that he’s played over the last few years?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
Antony Blinken, of course, is running the State Department. He’s a long-serving, very close aide to Biden personally, and he has been the face of US actions here, travelling back and forth to Israel and around the region something like six or seven times now in the space of three months. He is very much the driving force in terms of implementation and to some extent in terms of decision making.
But decisions are still very much being made by the president, informed by Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and a couple of others, including Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, to some extent. Then there is Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East. This is a job that means he has a broad portfolio stretching from Yemen all the way to Morocco.
Brett McGurk is one of a handful of people who have served under Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden, working on the same portfolio.
McGurk’s defining agenda since Biden took office in January 2021 has been to establish a different US relationship with Saudi Arabia and broker a historic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. He sees Saudi Arabia as the heavyweight of the Muslim-majority world. Historically, that wasn’t the case — Egypt played that role — but with Saudi wealth and the diminished influence of other players, the Saudis are now the big boys in the room. McGurk is very much attracted to power, so they’re the ones he wants to have a close relationship with.
He’s a very smooth operator who gets things done and knows the workings of the bureaucracy. He has been in Middle East policymaking roles since the time of George W. Bush. He’s one of a handful of people who have served under Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden, working on the same portfolio. I would invite you to consider what the United States has done in the Middle East in that time, and whether you would want that person to be in charge.
While all this has been unfolding, you and others have reported on dissent within the State Department in particular among long-serving US government officials, who by the very nature of their work are not the sort of people who are inherently uncomfortable with US foreign policy. Yet they have been expressing dissent, with some going so far as to resign from their positions, while others have been using the internal channels of the State Department.
First of all, what is the nature of the criticisms that they have been putting forward, and is it novel in terms of what has happened with previous wars and major foreign policy flashpoints? Secondly, what impact, if any, has it had on the policy of the Biden administration?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
The first big instance, which really shocked me, was the resignation of a veteran State Department official overseeing weapons transfers — not a faint-hearted dude — called Josh Paul. For eleven years, he had been running weapons sales, including to Saudi Arabia and many other countries which engaged in questionable use of American weaponry. When I got the tip that he was resigning, I really started to feel that there was something deep and novel going on here.
Someone like Josh Paul, a hardened diplomat who has served under multiple administrations, was saying that he couldn’t shift the needle because the president was so focused on telegraphing and directing support for Israel, no matter what Israel chose to do with that support. People inside the government felt they couldn’t shape policy at all.
I’m hearing from people inside the State Department that they haven’t seen this degree of uproar since the Iraq invasion twenty years ago.
Josh Paul was the most high-profile resignation. I broke that news story on October 18. Since then, we haven’t seen more high-profile resignations, and there are a number of reasons for that. It’s hard to resign — it’s scary. Certainly, if you were to resign during this period, even if you don’t say that it’s about Israel, it’s hard for people to avoid that assumption, which could be very toxic for the rest of your career.
On top of that, of course, federal employees are cautious by nature, and they have employment-related benefits and things like that. But a lot of people have been using these internal channels, which is novel. I’m hearing from people inside the State Department that they haven’t seen this degree of uproar since the Iraq invasion twenty years ago. This is manifesting in memos that are going up to Tony Blinken and will be kept on record. Blinken has a requirement as a matter of State Department policy to respond to those memos.
Those memos are saying that there are many reasons to question the manner of the Israeli offensive. The vast majority of these people would say “look, we understand Israel wants to retaliate against Hamas after a brutal and horrifying shock attack, but does it need to respond in this way, where we now have more than twenty thousand Palestinians dead and Gaza besieged for more than three months?”
These memos are saying that the United States will pay the price for this, through being seen as Israel’s chief supplier, benefactor, and diplomatic cover, in terms of its reputation and the risks it faces. They’re also saying that this could be a strategic disaster for Israel itself, which the United States has a huge commitment to defending. If Israel is sowing the seeds of future conflict and future risks for itself, that will necessarily embroil the United States and could upend a host of issues.
People will point to things like the disruption of shipping, of course, as well as concerns about war crimes and major allegations of Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. There is a huge specter of ethnic cleansing to which the United States could be a handmaiden if Israel does succeed, as some officials are suggesting, in pushing tens of thousands of people out of Gaza.
There is a huge specter of ethnic cleansing to which the United States could be a handmaiden if Israel does succeed in pushing tens of thousands of people out of Gaza.
These are real risks for the United States and for anyone interested in foreign policy, with ramifications far beyond Israel and the Middle East. For example, many of these diplomats have noted that it makes it harder for the United States to advocate for Ukraine when it’s seen to be supporting Israeli actions that are akin to some of Russia’s excesses. It also has ramifications for US policy in Asia, which is supposed to be the real focus of the next few decades of foreign policy.
One particular issue that I want to bring up in terms of how Biden himself responded to Israel’s war arose toward the end of October, when Biden and his spokesman John Kirby both cast doubt on the casualty figures that were being released from Gaza. A story appeared in the Washington Post during the period of the temporary truce which said that within twenty-four hours of having made these comments, Biden privately walked them back in a meeting with representatives of Muslim American groups. He said that he was “disappointed” in himself and that he would do better in the future.
But there hasn’t been any public statement from Biden himself or from representatives of the government clarifying their position on the casualty figures. Has there been any discussion around that, or any pressure from within to say whether or not they consider those figures to be credible and authoritative?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
I think we have to see the conversation about the numbers — which was truly shocking to observers and deeply hurtful to Palestinians, not to mention millions and millions of people who are sympathetic to them — in the context of Biden having this old-school approach, in which for years and years it’s been very common among certain intensely pro-Israel figures to treat any Palestinian claim as spurious or potentially propagandistic.
That’s just how he thinks, so I don’t think we’ll see a walk back in public. I think privately, the president does not want to lose whatever Muslim support he still retains, particularly in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. In terms of the internal dynamics around it, that was a breaking point for a lot of people inside the government, and not just at the State Department.
Those people do the analysis. They know there’s no denying there are scores of Hamas employees in the health ministry. Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007, so obviously there are many Hamas officials. But it’s still the best, most reliable source of knowledge, and one that the State Department internally relies on all the time without using caveats. I obtained a tranche of diplomatic cables where they were constantly relying on the health ministry.
What’s so telling about it — and so chilling in a way — is that two days after the president made these comments, amid the uproar, State Department employees were being asked to find other sources for casualties. Instead of saying “maybe we got this wrong, we actually have relied on these numbers,” some people on the political side at the State Department said, “it’s a PR game, so let’s just try to back up what the president said, even if we are relying on dodgy data.”
It’s almost difficult to remember now, although it was just a few weeks ago, but there was, of course, a temporary truce between the Israeli military and Hamas in order to facilitate an exchange of prisoners. Was there any thought within the Biden administration at that point as to whether it was wise to support Israel in the resumption of a full-scale war with the explicit goal of eliminating Hamas — whether this might be an off-ramp, so to speak, from continuing down that path?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
The short answer is “no.” There is no real feeling at the most senior decision-making levels of the US government right now that the United States will stop support for Israel in this campaign. They may want Israel to pursue the campaign differently, but their desire to do that is so much weaker than the desire to continue supporting Israel.
There is no real feeling at the most senior decision-making levels of the US government right now that the United States will stop support for Israel in this campaign.
There was a telling moment after the collapse of the cease-fire. You suddenly saw US officials making claims, without providing public evidence, that the cease-fire collapsed because Hamas wanted to sexually assault hostages. That was the implication of what they said. You saw this line coming out again and again from US and Israeli officials, who were saying that Hamas doesn’t want these young women to come out of Gaza.
All of a sudden, the conversation shifted away from discussing why the cease-fire collapsed, what the sticking points in diplomatic negotiations were, and what could perhaps have been done to bring more hostages home and get more aid into Gaza. That conversation disappeared, because we were now having a very different conversation about sexual and gender-based violence — an important conversation, but one that did seem to be strategically deployed to change the narrative.
In addition to those comments about the casualty figures, while Israel was in the course of attacking al-Shifa Hospital, there was an effort by Israeli officials to promote the idea that Hamas was using the hospital as a command-and-control center. Just before Christmas, the Washington Post published another article which concluded that the evidence of the hospital having been used as a Hamas base or a control center was lacking. Joe Biden had specifically claimed that the US government had intelligence of its own to confirm what the Israelis were saying. Again, has there been any question of walking back that position, or any hesitation to accept Israeli claims about other targets supposedly being used by Hamas as command-and-control centers (or whatever the formulation might be)?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
I think there’s a bit of hesitation. There are elements of the intelligence community who are tracking these things as well. Hamas is a US-listed terrorist organization, so it’s also the job of US intelligence to know what Hamas is up to. I think there is discomfort. There is a sense that the Israelis overstate their claims and may be working, not from strategic reasons, but more from reasons of vengeance or whatever other reasons they may have for choosing specific targets.
There has been no instance where the United States has in any meaningful way pulled support, refused support, or even publicly reprimanded Israel.
But it just goes to show you how much of this is political. We are seeing US government claims that Biden, Blinken, and others are being tougher on Israel and that they are doing what they can to lean on Israel to be more humane in this mission. Yet there has been no instance in the three months we’ve been in this war where the United States has in any meaningful way pulled support, refused support, or even publicly reprimanded Israel.
It has come close to saying, “We would like you not to violate international humanitarian law — things should change.” But that’s just a matter of words. In terms of actual action, what we’ve seen are continued influxes of US weaponry. In recent days, we’ve now seen the Biden administration twice bypass Congressional oversight of arms sales to rush emergency weapons to Israel.
Again, that is creating huge discomfort. One of the things I reported in December, which is becoming relevant right now in early January as we see tensions grow in Lebanon, is that US officials and a number of national security agencies were worried that Israel’s requests for weapons were not actually intended for Gaza or Hamas. Rather, they were intended for a war in Lebanon against Hezbollah. These US officials are well aware of the capabilities that Israel is requesting. But the approvals are given way up the chain, and that’s where there is still a blank check for Israel.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we saw reports that Antony Blinken had said to the Israelis there was going to have to be a transition toward a lower-intensity campaign in the new year, moving away from what Biden himself referred to as “indiscriminate bombing.” Are we seeing any shifts in that direction, and is there any sign that the patience of the Biden administration will finally run out if it doesn’t happen soon?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
I would phrase it not in terms of the patience of the Biden administration but almost in terms of their fear. I think that they are juggling their own competing instincts. They are truly afraid of being seen to be tough on Israel — they are afraid that will cost them politically in the United States. They’re also afraid that it will anger the president personally. I think that’s what we need to measure — if that runs out.
Even at the end of the deadline that was quietly communicated to the Israelis, they were given the message that US support remains largely unconditional.
We have seen a directive from the Israelis to pull out some troops from northern Gaza. But at the same time, we are hearing the Israelis say they want to go more into southern Gaza and take control of the Gazan border with Egypt. That’s where they’ve already told the displaced people — more than 80 percent of Gaza’s entire population — to go. If they now go into a place which is even more densely populated than northern Gaza, I don’t see how that can be done in any sort of strategic, targeted way, because their stated goal is not to kill particular Hamas leaders, but rather to take control of the southern border.
In terms of whether there might be US pressure on Israel, at the end of 2023, there was a campaign by other countries at the UN [United Nations], including some important allies of the United States like France, who were pushing for a resolution to get more aid into Gaza. You ultimately saw the US water down that resolution to the point where it was largely ineffectual. Even at the end of the deadline that was quietly communicated to the Israelis, they were given the message that US support remains largely unconditional.
Alongside the idea of a lower-intensity campaign, there have also been various pointers toward a very different approach, which would effectively be to slam the accelerator to the floor and escalate things. On the one hand, we’ve seen multiple reports of Israeli government officials, including Netanyahu himself, lobbying for states to accept large numbers of Palestinian refugees from Gaza. At the same time, there have been various straws in the wind about potentially spreading the conflict. There is the standoff because of the Houthi movement in Yemen attempting to block the passage of Israeli or Israeli-bound ships through the Red Sea. We saw this week the assassination of a Hamas commander in Beirut by Israel. Of course, there is also the question of Iran.
Is there a fear on the part of the Biden administration that, whether they intend it or not, they may be dragged into a wider escalation? Is there a sense that it would be better for US interests to begin winding things down before it gets completely out of hand?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
There is certainly a strong fear, and Blinken is very attuned to this. I would say Jake Sullivan is also probably quite attuned to it. Something that a person said to me has really stuck with me in recent days. It’s so dark to think of, but this is really how Washington and the US foreign policy establishment work.
They said yes, it’s the president and he has been doing this for a long time, but Jake Sullivan has a lot of influence, and he is going to want more jobs in the future. He may just have a personal incentive not to be associated with a tremendous tragedy, because he’s less than fifty years old. What’s he going to do for the rest of his life?
I think what you may see happen is the United States relying on others to create pressure. Egypt has very much put a red line on the idea of forced migration of Palestinians out of Gaza, and Israel really needs its relationship with Egypt — it can’t do without it. Egypt is its closest neighbor, a country with more than a hundred million people and a huge military. The Biden administration may not need to be the one putting the pressure on that point.
Israel also really wants a deal with Saudi Arabia. It’s a US goal, but it’s also very much Netanyahu’s goal. There was a recent poll showing 96 percent of Saudis right now do not want normalization with Israel. Yes, it’s an absolute monarchy, but 96 percent is a very high proportion of your people to go against.
Hezbollah is heavily armed and, just as the Israelis have a domestic audience to play to, so does Hezbollah.
In terms of Lebanon, that’s the one issue on which the United States has been willing to exert some pressure. We saw a Wall Street Journal report on December 23 saying that Biden had stopped Israel from launching a strike in Lebanon in the aftermath of October 7 attack. Lebanon is the real point of concern.
The question of the Houthis and Red Sea shipping is important, but there are a lot of interests at play that will try to keep a lid on things there. The Houthis themselves don’t want a bigger war in Yemen, which has been devastated over the last few years. They are not as close to Iran as people think, and certainly not controlled by Iran.
Lebanon, however, is a place where there are huge Iranian equities. Hezbollah is heavily armed and, just as the Israelis have a domestic audience to play to, so does Hezbollah. It doesn’t look very good for them to not respond to a drone strike in the capital of Lebanon.
As you were referring to earlier, there have been many reports where diplomats from the United States and states allied to Washington have been talking about how damaging this is for the immediate US effort to rally support behind Ukraine, but also looking beyond that to a potential confrontation with China over Taiwan.
People in the Global South might be deeply skeptical toward the United States for well-known historical reasons, but they would also have good reasons for being skeptical toward Russia or China — Vietnam is a good example of that — so it seems like a historic liability and burden for the US to be so closely associated with what Israel is doing at a time when it’s trying to forge alliances. Is this something that Biden and his team are fundamentally not concerned about, because they think the danger is overstated, or do they think it is a price worth paying?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
I think they do see it as a price worth paying — for this president, for his legacy, and how he perceives Israel in the world. You raise a very important point with the Global South. People are not wide-eyed. They are well aware of the relative power of the United States, but they’re also well aware of the relative power of Israel. While Joe Biden may have the idea that Israel is a babe in the woods surrounded by foxes, other countries are looking at this and saying, “Are you kidding? They are essentially carpet bombing a tiny strip of land with two million people.”
While Joe Biden may have the idea that Israel is a babe in the woods surrounded by foxes, other countries are looking at this and saying, ‘Are you kidding?’
I think you’ll see cracks that could be jarring for US officials. One important one to watch is a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) — not the International Criminal Court, which is a little toothless. The ICJ involves all UN member states, and South Africa has brought claims of genocide against Israel there. South Africa is certainly seen as a leader among countries in the Global South and on the African continent.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you see other countries pursue other initiatives as well. There had already been so many claims of US hypocrisy in terms of caring about Ukraine, but not caring about various other countries that have been invaded or faced similar struggles, as well as some instances of the United States being the invader. It’s the double whammy.
If this had happened in the absence of Ukraine, perhaps the damage to US credibility wouldn’t be that bad, but you were already at a pretty low point. Add to that the prospect that this country could choose to reelect Donald Trump in 2024, who gave a middle finger to most of the world. I think that all makes it a very dangerous time to be representing the United States or to be associated with the United States worldwide.
We’re looking at a presidential election due to be held this fall where, all things being equal, it will be another contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. There’s already considerable evidence that Biden’s policy over Gaza is damaging his prospects for reelection, in particular with younger voters and ethnic minority voters, some of whom are concentrated in swing states like Michigan.
Again, is this a case where Biden, his team, and perhaps the wider Democratic Party establishment don’t see this as a real danger, because they think those voters will come back into the fold between now and next autumn? Or is there a fear of not being able to manage the backlash on the other side of the question? It’s worth mentioning in this context that AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] issued a pledge to target those Democratic members of Congress who have been calling for a cease-fire, with the extraordinary figure of $100 million being bandied about. Is that a factor that’s shaping the calculus of the Biden administration and the Democratic leadership?
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
I think the primary thinking is that these people will come home. The strongest messaging from the Biden campaign has been to say that if you don’t like this guy, the other candidate is Donald Trump, who has the Muslim ban on his track record and who is hostile to migrants and generally dismissive of the idea of systemic racism, as well as being chaotic.
I think there’s a real, terrifying wake-up call that will come for Democratic Party operatives in the spring.
I don’t know if that’s a strong enough argument. I think we’ll see. But it is certainly facing immense pushback from community leaders in places like Michigan, Minnesota, and Georgia. I think they’ll have to trot out another argument, but they are still assuming they can get those people back.
When it comes to the money from AIPAC and AIPAC-linked groups — another important one to keep an eye on is Democratic Majority for Israel — these groups have meddled in Democratic primaries for a few years now. They tried it against Summer Lee in Pennsylvania and failed. I think members of Congress who are being targeted are ready for that fight, although some of them may not be. It will be interesting to see how the ones who have not been targeted before in the same way as Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar deal with that.
But I think there’s a weird “wait and hold your breath” approach right now, because Democratic Party organs are assuming that as usual, foreign policy will not be a top-five issue for voters. That said, we’re in a situation where voters also don’t seem very happy with the president over the economy. He’s about to sign an immigration deal that could turn off a lot of voters of color as well. I think there’s a real, terrifying wake-up call that will come for Democratic Party operatives in the spring.Original post