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Middle East Expert Lara Friedman: If Netanyahu Cared About Hostages, Why Did He Launch Ground Invasion?

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We look at the reluctance in Congress to censure Israel despite growing grassroots pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza. “The narrative on both sides of the aisle is mostly about the right of Israel to defend itself,” says Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “Congress has bought, completely, the framing which says that any Palestinian that dies in Gaza … that’s all on Hamas.” Friedman explains how the normalization of the racist Kahanist movement by Israel and the U.S. helped lead to today’s crisis, and lays out Israel’s approach to the ongoing hostage situation in Gaza.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, former Foreign Service officer who served in Jerusalem, Tunis and Beirut, has worked on Israel-Palestine and the broader region for over 30 years, former director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, Americans for Shalom Achshav.

It’s great to have you with us, Lara. Can you talk about what’s happening in the Congress now, and if you feel movement, a change in Biden’s position from the beginning of the — after October 7th?

LARA FRIEDMAN: Sure. And thanks for having me.

I do think that we’re seeing, and in the piece that you had before we came on here, we’re seeing real movement in the grassroots. There’s really a surge in energy and a surge in support for Palestinian rights that we haven’t — I think has never been seen before.

I think it still remains to be seen how that’s going to be reflected in Congress. If we just go by the statements that are being made by members of Congress, which, except for a small number — and Congresswoman Ramirez is among them — except for a small number, are, at best, very, very cautious about saying anything that would validate the humanity and the rights of the Palestinian people. The narrative on both sides of the aisle is mostly about the rights of Israel to defend itself, and that is — to defend itself is defined basically to mean Israel can do and should do whatever it wants to do, and it bears no responsibility, has no agency, with respect to the results when it comes to human casualties. Congress has bought, completely, the framing which says that any Palestinian that dies in Gaza from an Israeli bomb or who gets sick or starves or dehydrated or ill or dies in a hospital, that’s all on Hamas. That is not Israel’s fault. Everything is Hamas’s fault, which suggests a new ethos of war that really opens the door for everyone to target civilians.

There’s also the framing of human shields, which basically says, you know, it’s Hamas’s fault that we’re killing your civilians, that we’re killing your children, which, I mean, there is truth to the argument that Hamas has placed itself behind human beings. It raises the question: You know, if bad guys invaded a school, would the United States say, “Ah, for the sake of killing the bad guys, we need to bomb the school. We’re going to kill all the children in the school, because we have to, and it’s the bad guys’ fault”? The inhumanity of it is stunning.

But what we’ve seen, really, since the beginning, since October 7th — and I follow — I do a report every Friday covering every single thing that happens in Congress related to the Middle East and Israel-Palestine — is a deluge of new legislation, of resolutions and of letters, which, by and large, either ignore or diminish the humanity of Palestinians, which directly conflate criticism of what Israel is doing in Gaza or assertions that there is any context, that there is history before October 7th, conflate it with antisemitism, conflate it with support for Hamas and terror. And we’ve seen that with the attacks on the members of Congress, like Congresswoman Ramirez, who have dared to do something like call for a ceasefire, with really despicable language used by members of Congress against their own colleagues on both sides of the aisle. This is coming at them, suggesting that daring to talk about ceasefire is a betrayal of support for Israel and is a form of antisemitism and support for terror.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, you tweeted, quote, “Reminder: 6 mos before Israeli elex that made Kahanists arguably most powerful political force in Israel, the Biden Admin decided to do its part in normalizing Kahanism by removing Kahanist groups from US list of foreign terrorist orgs, where they’d been listed for decades.” For those who don’t understand who Kahanists are, explain the significance of this tweet.

LARA FRIEDMAN: Well, I mean, whole books have been written about the Kahanists. The Kahanists — Rabbi Meir Kahane was an American citizen rabbi from the New York area. He wrote many, many books. His basic philosophy was, you know, all of the land of Israel — and that extends far beyond Israel’s current borders — belongs to the Jews, because it was given to the Jews by God. And he made clear that — I mean, you have to give him credit for honesty — that this wasn’t — that this is not a conflict that was going to be resolved in a way that would address everybody’s rights or needs, that this was going to be a war and that the Arabs were going to have to lose, and this meant removing Arabs. And he was very, very clear. It’s a worldview that is openly racist, openly Islamophobic, almost proudly so, and, in effect, suggests that people who think that there’s some other solution are naive.

That strand of thinking was much, I would say, maligned and disrespected for a very long time. The Kahanist party was outlawed in Israel as a racist party during Rabbi Kahane’s lifetime. He was eventually assassinated. But what’s happened since then is the mainstreaming of his worldview in Israel and, I would say, in the United States amongst many supporters of Israel — a lot of the financing for his work and his thoughts comes from the United States still — and to the point where today you have very powerful people in the Israeli government, very powerful political strands in Israel, which are largely identical, whose worldview is largely identical to that of the Kahanists. The fact that the Biden administration elected to remove the Kahanist parties from the terrorist list — and they were on the terrorist list because of acts of terror committed by acolytes of this movement against American citizens, you know, not in recent years, but it was — I don’t know why they chose that moment to remove them, but it certainly speaks to the mainstreaming and normalizing of this approach to the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Lara Friedman, can you talk about the hostage negotiations? You have Qatar and Egypt involved in those negotiations, mainly Qatar right now. You have the hostage families, who are a powerful force. We hear their stories repeatedly in the U.S. media, as we should. They should be a model for also the coverage there should be of Palestinian suffering. But those families are calling for this exchange of the hostages — it’s believed there’s more than 220 or 230 of them that are being held by Hamas and other groups in Gaza — and Palestinian political prisoners, Palestinian prisoners, of which I think there are more than 6,600. I think they’re calling it “everybody for everybody.” Can you talk about this?

LARA FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, look, the taking of hostages, the taking of civilian hostages by Hamas — I mean, the October 7th attack was heinous in every aspect. The aspect of taking the hostages brought this home to Israelis in a way that is just — I don’t think anyone who has not spent time in a small country where everyone is — you know, there’s one degree of separation. This is incredibly real and incredibly personal for everyone in Israel.

What is notable is, in past experiences where there have been hostages taken, Israel has sort of turned over every rock possible, done everything possible to get them back. You have negotiations. You have contacts. You have — think of Gilad Shalit. I mean, the entire country mobilizes to get the hostage back — “hostage,” singular, “hostages,” plural. In this context, after October 7th, the issue of hostages is raised constantly by the Israeli government as a reason for why it has to do what it’s doing in Gaza, notwithstanding the fact that carpet bombing Gaza, using deep, deep penetrating bombs that are trying to get at the tunnels, seems like a very likely way to kill your own hostages. There has been a clear signal given — and if you listen to the — if you look at the Israeli media, the contacts that the families of hostages have had with the Netanyahu government, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there isn’t actually a lot of desire on the part of the Israeli government to get the hostages back.

There have been numerous — and it’s been public — from other governments, from negotiators, there have been numerous offers by Hamas to exchange hostages, to release hostages in certain circumstances. There was, you know, a 24 — for a brief ceasefire. And so far, the argument seems to be, from the Israeli side, “We won’t do that, because anything we do would be a victory for Hamas. And that is — that we can’t let that happen, so releasing the hostages is simply not a priority.”

But talking about the hostages and accusing anyone who talks about ceasefire as not caring about the hostages is a wonderful tactic. All of us who are speaking out on this in social media, on media like this, are accused constantly of, “Well, you don’t care about the hostages.” The answer is, no, I care very much about the hostages. I don’t understand why the Israeli government doesn’t care more about the hostages. I would suggest that the Israeli government’s approach to the hostages makes clear that their objectives in this war are not about freeing the hostages. And that, I think, requires further thought.

AMY GOODMAN: Lara Friedman, I want to thank you for being with us, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and Congressmember Delia Ramirez of Chicago for being with us, as well.

Next up, as the death toll in Gaza tops more than 8,000, as Israel intensifies its ground and aerial attack, we’ll speak with a doctor in Cairo who’s been trying for two weeks to get back into Gaza. Stay with us.

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