President, Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP)
Aaron David Miller
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Professor of Government and Politics and Director of the Critical Issues Poll, University of Maryland; Member of the Academic Advisory Board, Arab Center Washington DC
Head of Palestine/Israel Program and Senior Fellow
Arab Center Washington DC
About the Webinar
The war on Gaza is having devastating consequences for Palestinians, Israel, the region, and the world. Perhaps more than any other crisis in recent years, this moment has reverberations across the globe. How has the United States responded to this moment? How can we assess the responses from the White House, the US Congress, and US public opinion? What do these different responses tell us about the United States and its ability to pursue its stated objectives of peace and stability in the region and beyond? What are the consequences of this moment for American foreign policy?
Aaron David Miller focused on the White House and President Joe Biden’s position on the war on Gaza, saying that the president combined personal and political considerations in his decision to send an unmistakable signal to Israel that the United States is fully behind it. He said that “Biden was sensitive to the reality, the fact, that … he did not want to give the Republican Party any additional ammunition to accuse him of being weak on Israel.” He said the administration tried to micromanage the situation on three important issues: how to conduct the war to eradicate Hamas without causing casualties among non-combatants, how to get humanitarian aid flowing unimpeded, and what the ultimate objective is from the war itself. Miller added that the administration was very concerned about assuring deterrence; thus, sending two aircraft carrier groups to the region. Assessing the administration’s position, Miller said that “clearly the administration is in a bind. They tethered themselves to the Israeli war aims, which seem to revolve around the eradication of Hamas, and they are now looking for ways to deescalate, perhaps even to look for some sort of exit ramp.” He finished his presentation by discussing the administration’s attempt to assess the postwar phase, making sure to send signals that Israel should not do in the south of Gaza what it did in the north, that it cannot attack military targets in civilian areas, and that humanitarian aid must surge into Gaza instead of trickling in.
Lara Friedman focused her presentation on how Congress has dealt with the war, saying that congresspeople always look to ways of earning political capital instead of losing it. On the Israel issue, she said, Congress is always looking for ways to issue supporting declarations and propose friendly legislation. In fact, this time around, there was a frenzy of legislation, some of it superfluous, that reemphasized a complete bias toward Israel. Of course, this was contrasted with a complete sidelining of progressive voices. She said that “What we have seen since October 7 is a deluge of bills for binding laws…The fundamental messages behind these bills … are ‘We love Israel, we support Israel’.” Friedman said that this was accompanied by another message from Congress that basically equated pro-Palestinian sentiments with terrorism. On that, she said that for congresspeople being pro-Israel is simply being anti-Palestinian and all pro-Palestinian sentiments is anti-Semitism. Friedman pointed out that another point of action in the US Congress is to “to exploit current conditions to once and for all bring a hammer down on all criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism, particularly in universities. I think it is important to note that this does not come from nowhere…this has been a battle that has been going on for years.” Friedman said that the only encouraging thing about this today is that the new generation in the United States is expressing its opinion in opposition to current policy and the young people are increasing pressures on members of Congress.
Shibley Telhami focused on public opinion and how it may influence President Biden’s thinking about this issue. But he started by criticizing the president’s initial response to the October 7 attack by first expressing full support for Israel’s so-called right to self defense and agreeing to Israeli politicians’ view of that defense. He also sent the US military to the region without much consultation with American military leaders. He also visited with Israel’s war cabinet that is responsible for how things turned out in Gaza. Telhami said that “in this particular case, it is not just about ‘do we support Israel or do we not support Israel.’ He is the President of the United States of America. His first objective is to defend the interest of the United States of America.” His decisions could lead the United States to a war no one wants or needs. Telhami said that Biden cannot measure his position from a personal point of view of supporting Israel, but from what is in the interest of the United States. Speaking of public opinion according to polls he conducted, Telhami said that during the first two weeks of the war, there was an increase of support for Israel, but that decreased in the following two weeks. The decline was specifically among Democrats, especially the youth. The majority of Americans wants the United States to be even-handed toward the Israel-Palestine issue. Importantly, the political ramifications are potentially huge. Twenty-one percent of young Democrats say they will not vote for Biden. They will not vote for Trump, but Biden may have lost them, which is worrisome. He said that “with young Democrats, this has become a litmus test of who Biden is for them, because I think the whole initial inclination to be more sympathetic with the Palestinians with Democrats has been value based…social justice, human rights, international law, the rules-based international order.”
Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Anas Mohammed