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Dissent Grows Inside Biden Administration over Gaza Policy as Blinken Holds Talks in Middle East

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Image Credit: X/@SecBlinken (right)

Secretary of State Tony Blinken is on his fifth trip to the Middle East since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, reportedly pushing for a pause to Israel’s assault on Gaza and for Hamas to release all remaining hostages. Blinken’s trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank comes in the wake of U.S. strikes in Syria, Iraq and Yemen against militant groups across the region. “There’s not a lot of goodwill or faith right now for the U.S.,” says Akbar Shahid Ahmed, senior diplomatic correspondent for HuffPost, who lays out where diplomatic negotiations stand today in the Middle East. “The longer there’s a delay here, the more it seems that this deal isn’t achieving what the Palestinians or Hamas might really want.” Ahmed also reports on the different position of Arab states on Palestine, the “culture of impunity” Washington grants Israel, and why the Biden administration is insulated from growing U.S. dissent on Gaza.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Nermeen Shaikh, joined by Amy Goodman. Hi, Amy!

AMY GOODMAN: Hi, Nermeen. And welcome to all our listeners and our viewers around the country and around the world. Well, I’m not a NOVID anymore. For four years I somehow avoided getting COVID, but I ended up getting it. Asymptomatic. I’m at the tail end of it. I just have to go from positive to negative. It’s not exactly in my nature to go negative, but I’m really working on it. Until then, Nermeen is there, and I am here. And most importantly, on with the show.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We look forward to having you back, Amy.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken is heading to Qatar and then to Israel and the West Bank, after holding talks in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This comes as Israel threatens to launch a ground invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where over half of all residents of Gaza have sought refuge. Palestinian health officials say Israeli attacks killed 107 Palestinians over the past day, bringing the Palestinian death toll to over 27,500, including over 11,500 children.

This is Blinken’s fifth trip to the Middle East since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th. The State Department says Blinken is pushing for a pause to Israel’s assault and for Hamas to release all remaining hostages seized nearly four months ago.

On Monday, Blinken met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, where they discussed a potential deal involving Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for Israel agreeing to a pathway for a Palestinian state. Saudi Arabia is also seeking a new military pact with the United States and U.S. assistance with its nuclear program. This comes as Hamas is reportedly reviewing a truce and hostage deal negotiated in part by mediators from Egypt and Qatar.

Blinken’s trip comes just days after the United States bombed 85 targets in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for a recent drone strike by Iran-backed militants on a base in Jordan that killed three U.S. troops. The U.S. has also repeatedly bombed Yemen over the past two weeks, targeting sites controlled by Houthi forces who have been targeting ships linked to Israel and the United States to protest Israel’s assault on Gaza.

We begin today’s show with Akbar Shahid Ahmed, senior diplomatic correspondent for HuffPost based in Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Akbar. We are very happy to have you here. If you could first respond — tell us what’s most important about the meetings that Blinken had already with the crown prince and his meetings today in Egypt. What’s at stake?

AKBAR SHAHID AHMED: Thanks for having me, Nermeen.

Secretary Blinken is hoping that Arab officials will finally believe the U.S. is serious about an end to the carnage in Gaza. It’s a hard ask, because a lot of Arab diplomats, a lot of regional diplomats who are worried about the spiraling conflict feel the Biden administration has no real interest in pressuring Israel to stop. And you’ve got repeated comments from Israeli officials, most recently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just yesterday, saying, “We want to see Hamas leaders killed. We want to see months more of war, if not a year,” and ideas for a resettlement of Gaza — extremely controversial proposals.

So, Blinken, on the one hand, is dealing with Israelis who are not saying what Arab diplomats and the U.S. want to hear, he’s representing a president who has a policy of near-total support for Israel, and he’s getting flak from Arab diplomats. Blinken is, of course, a skilled foreign policy official, a skilled mediator, but it’s a very hard task for him, Nermeen, because there’s not a lot of goodwill or faith right now for the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Akbar, if you can talk more about what you think took place before the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and Blinken, and the significance of what exactly Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel are proposing? The Hamas attack on October 7th took place just around the time that Saudi Arabia was going to normalize relations with Israel. Talk about what that would mean and exactly what these proposals are and how possible you think they are.

AKBAR SHAHID AHMED: Absolutely, Amy. So, prior to the October 7th attack, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel were talking about this kind of tripartite deal that would involve the Saudis giving Israel recognition from Saudi Arabia, which is a huge win for Israel, right? After many years of conflict, feeling threatened by its Arab neighbors, this would be the biggest, most important Muslim-majority country in the world, essentially, saying, “We recognize Israel,” and, importantly, without Israel having to make significant concessions on the Palestinian file.

So, that’s where this whole process, while it’s been beneficial for the U.S., for Saudi, for Israel, the Palestinians and their advocates have been saying, “Where are we in this conversation?” So, prior to October 7th, there was already huge anxiety about these talks. There was dissatisfaction. And then the attacks happened. And, you know, no one less than President Biden has said they see that U.S.-Israel-Saudi process as part of the reason for the October 7th attacks, right? It was a way, in part, for Palestinians to kind of bring this issue back on the negotiating table. However, since then, what we’ve seen, four months into this war, is that rather than considering, “Well, maybe this approach got us to conflict,” the Biden administration has doubled down on the U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal. So they’ve taken the Gaza war, and they’ve tied it to what they were doing before the Gaza war.

Their new proposal is we’ll rebuild Gaza using Saudi money. This will be part of the whole package that will get the Israelis to make some significant concessions to Palestinians. It’ll get the Saudis to have the American commitments they want. But in terms of feasibility, it’s quite, I would say, at best, contentious, right? The U.S. officials I talked to within the government, one described this as, quote, “delusionally optimistic.” You’ve got so many parties involved. You do not have a serious commitment from the U.S. to get Palestine anything major — right? — beyond economic guarantees or the reconstruction of Gaza. And then you’ve got what you referenced earlier, Nermeen, the strikes by Iran-backed militias. There are a lot of what’s called spoilers, a lot of other forces around the region who don’t like this deal, who certainly see the deal, especially between Saudi, Israel and the U.S., opponents of Iran, as very risky for Iran and its network.

So, in terms of the actual feasibility of something being approved, I’m skeptical. And it’s important to remember there’s a very short runway now prior to the election. And if the Biden administration wants to get a security treaty with Saudi Arabia through the Senate while they still have control of the Senate, I mean, they’ve only got six months to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, can you talk about what’s happening today with Tony Blinken in Cairo and Qatar before going to Israel and then the occupied West Bank?

AKBAR SHAHID AHMED: Absolutely. So, the Egyptians and the Qataris are critical mediators, because the U.S. does not speak directly to Hamas, which the U.S. lists as a terror organization. So any messages from the U.S. have to go through Qatar and Egypt. And Israel also doesn’t really like directly dealing with Hamas. So, Blinken is in Cairo, and he was in Doha, kind of hoping to get those governments to pressure Hamas.

Now the “yes” is on Hamas’s side. Israel has kind of tacitly agreed to a truce and hostage release. But the longer there’s a delay here, the more it seems that this deal isn’t achieving what the Palestinians or Hamas might really want, right? So, you’ve seen Prime Minister Netanyahu come out and say, “I want to kill Hamas leadership.” That raises the stakes for Hamas, if they’re saying, “Why would we agree to a two-week deal if, after that, you’re just going to come back, invade Rafah, kill our leadership?” So, I think there’s — the prospects of a deal, to me, seem low right now.

Some of the other important sticking points are, of course, there’s broad agreement that the hostages, particularly civilians, particularly older people and children, should be released. That’s kind of generally agreed upon. But the question is: How many Palestinian political prisoners is Israel willing to release in return? There’s a certain Palestinian leader called Marwan Barghouti, really seen as a unifying Palestinian figure, and Hamas has said they want him out of jail. Now, for a lot of Israelis who don’t want to see a kind of unified Palestinian movement, that’s a no-go.

So there are a lot of sticking points here. And it’s up to Secretary Blinken to kind of push everyone towards a median. I think the Qataris can certainly play a very helpful role here with Hamas, but any indication of U.S. seriousness is what’s needed, and we haven’t yet had that, certainly not from President Biden.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Akbar, I mean, as you said, the issue of the release of Palestinian prisoners is something that Netanyahu, at least, has ruled out, as well as the creation of a Palestinian state. So it’s unclear how, you know, these positions can be reconciled, because there’s no incentive for Hamas to go along with this. But I wanted to ask: I mean, Saudi Arabia is also pushing minimally for the minimal condition of the creation of a Palestinian state, but where do other Arab states stand, including Egypt and Qatar, who are the negotiators, as you said, the mediators? Where else do Arab states stand on this? And is it important at all?

AKBAR SHAHID AHMED: You know, it’s critical. I love how you phrase it, Nermeen, because the Saudis certainly want us to think they are pushing for the creation of a Palestinian state, but the language is sort of shifting, right? Sometimes they say “creating a Palestinian state.” Sometimes they say “a pathway towards a Palestinian state” or “irreversible steps.” So, that goalpost is shifting all the time. And I think for the Saudis, in particular, who have, especially under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, really expressed disdain for the Palestinian cause in recent years and the sense that it’s been a burden for the Arab world, and a deep enthusiasm for relations with Israel, for the Saudis, I’d say, kind of limited Palestinian concessions would be acceptable, if they can get some kind of Palestinian window dressing of approval. And I’ve heard from my sources that there are quite conversations going on between the Saudis and maybe some friendly Palestinians who might be willing to bless whatever the Saudis can get.

In terms of other states, Qatar is one of the firmest in terms of wanting to see a resolution here. I think for a lot of states that maybe were not taking the strongest position earlier — so, think about the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Arab countries that have made deals with Israel — I think, after this war and after the spiraling tensions — right? — the risk of a huge Middle East war, those countries are feeling more and more we need a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is meaningful.

For Egypt, I think that desire is there, particularly because, because of the strikes you mentioned by the Houthi movement in Yemen, shipping is not going through the Suez Canal as much, and for Egypt, that’s an economic lifeline, right? So they want the war over so the Houthis stop attacking shipping. At the same time, it’s really critical to remember Egypt helped Israel with its blockade of Gaza — right? — for the last 16 years. Egypt has not, for years, wanted to see a strong, independent Palestinian presence. So I think they’ll be weighing that quite cautiously, and they won’t necessarily be such firm advocates for serious Palestinian statehood.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Akbar, you’ve written extensively — at the moment, we see Netanyahu being, you know, singled out as the person who is responsible for the present situation. He certainly hasn’t made it any easier and, arguably, of course, much more brutal. Although as you point out, it’s important to look at the long-term context in Israel and, in particular, U.S. support for Israeli policies, whatever form they’ve taken. So, if you could elaborate on that and what distinctions you see between Netanyahu and his predecessors on the question of Gaza?

AKBAR SHAHID AHMED: Absolutely. So, Netanyahu is an easy bogeyman from a U.S. political standpoint. You’re already seeing Democrats who are kind of struggling, scrambling to defend President Biden’s policy here. They’re saying, “Well, it’s not really about Biden. It’s about Netanyahu.” And given that Netanyahu was so close to former President Trump, opposed President Barack Obama so vocally, for Democratic voters, yes, Netanyahu is an easy bogeyman.

But, absolutely, we have to look at the context. And for the first three years of the Biden administration, two of those years they did not have a Prime Minister Netanyahu. They had a different Israeli government, slightly more moderate, certainly including non-Netanyahu figures. And in that moment, the U.S. did not, Nermeen, try to pursue any kind of progress, right? President Biden didn’t even reverse policies that President Trump had imposed that were anti-Palestinian and pro-Israeli.

So, to me, the thing that needs to be questioned in this moment, certainly, Netanyahu, personally corrupt, attempting to hold onto power for as long as he can, but as one Israeli analyst put it, there’s a, quote, “culture of impunity” — right? — in U.S.-Israel relations. And that’s what really needs to be analyzed right now.

So, if you think about the broader Israeli political establishment, the person who would take over, if Netanyahu were to be unseated in weeks, months, later this year, is someone called Benny Gantz. He’s a former Israeli general. The military is understood to be a bit more pragmatic on the Palestinian issue, just from a strategic and security standpoint, than politicians are. All that said, even a Prime Minister Benny Gantz might not be willing to accept statehood — right? — might not be willing to give Palestinians security control in Gaza.

So, the actual culture of the U.S. and Israel, unfortunately, over decades, has become one in which even these small steps towards progress are so difficult. It’s like pulling teeth. And I just draw people back to the last few examples of effective U.S. leverage over Israel. Interestingly, they’ve been under Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, to some extent. But we haven’t seen that in the last 10 or 15 years, and certainly not under Presidents Biden or, really, Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: Akbar, I wanted to talk about the level of dissent in this country and in other countries that are supporting Israel right now. You just wrote a piece about over 800 government officials in the United States and Europe that have anonymously signed a statement that their own governments’ support for Israel is in violation of their values. If you can talk more about that, and also the level at the grassroots in the United States, right up into the White House and the State Department? In fact, let me play a clip. We interviewed Josh Paul, a high-level State Department official, when he quit. You were the one who broke the story about Josh Paul.

AMY GOODMAN: I just have to ask before we go, Josh Paul. We spoke to you soon after you resigned from the State Department in October. This was, of course, in the midst of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which came after the October 7th surprise attack on Israel that killed 1,200. Can you talk about the response of your colleagues at the State Department? Have others resigned in other parts of the government?

JOSH PAUL: So, we have seen, certainly from the U.N., a U.N. senior official, Craig Mokhiber, resign. We have not seen, to my knowledge, significant resignations within the U.S. government. But I have heard, and continue to hear, from many of my former colleagues who are really trying to find what mechanisms they can use to slow this down, to change the policy. I fear that their efforts at this point continue to be in vain. I think we need to see a policy change from the top. But I know a lot of good people are continuing to make the argument.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Josh Paul, who quit the State Department. And he is not the only one. And I wanted to get a sense from you how aware is President Biden of the enormous, as our guest yesterday said, Matt Duss, “incandescent” kind of rage in the Democratic base, but also in high levels of the government. We just — Nermeen just read headlines. In Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, over a hundred people, led by Jewish Voice for Peace, were arrested, demanding a ceasefire and much more. Talk about all these levels of dissent in the United States and outside and what effect it’s having. Is Biden fearful that his very reelection is in jeopardy?

AKBAR SHAHID AHMED: Absolutely, Amy. I’ll start with the letter you mentioned, because it’s a fascinating statement, more than 800 officials in the U.S., in European institutions, in the Netherlands, France, Britain. I just heard from another European official yesterday who just signed the letter. So, the numbers on that letter are just going to keep growing. It’s not closed yet.

I’d say the dissent is — it’s striking because, given the initial attack, there was such deep sympathy for Israel, which is a close U.S. partner. There was such a sense of “We want to do something to help.” But I think it became so clear, within three or four days, to people that President Biden’s approach to helping Israel was not going to be measured or strategic or involve planning, consultation, all of that. It was just, full tilt, whatever they want, whatever the consequences. And I think that’s where you see a lot of dissent come from. It comes from moral reasons, certainly, for some folks within government, from people in the Democratic base, also from strategic considerations — right? — also from a sense of is the U.S. tearing up goodwill and shoving away the good work that we have done over years and decades, particularly after former President Trump, to reestablish America’s reputation in the world, right? Is that all moot now? And I think that’s only grown since October, because President Biden has not been willing to shift in any tangible way.

In terms of his own awareness of that, what’s so striking about this moment, too, is there is a huge national security establishment here in Washington, as I know you both know, so many layers — counterterror, State Department, Treasury. But this policy is being controlled in a group of, I would say, 20 to 30 close officials around the president, right? So, what’s really important to remember there is there is a real filtering of information. And it’s indisputable, of course, President Biden is going to campaign rallies and events, and he’s seeing the protesters. But to what extent is he aware that many of the actual foreign policy and national security experts within his government, who are nonpartisan, are opposed to this policy, I think that’s a little questionable, right? Because advisers around him have their own priorities. A gentleman called Brett McGurk, the top White House Middle East official, who I’ve reported on extensively, is really pushing that U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal, and President Biden has been going along with that.

I think there’s very heated debates in the president’s close circle, but because especially the State Department has been so frozen out at this moment — and the way I’ve heard it from State Department officials is they’ve literally been told, “We understand your concern. Why don’t you try to work on another part of the world? You know, why don’t you look sort of the Pacific or Latin America? Just apply your skills there.” I think that kind of dismissal of this really reasoned dissent, and response to it of listening sessions and town halls and “we feel your pain” — people don’t want their pain to be felt. They want to see a shift. So I think you’ll see even more pushback from within government, certainly from within the party base.

I think one of the important things — and maybe this is how the message will get through to the president — is not necessarily from his White House national security team of Jake Sullivan, Brett McGurk, Tony Blinken, but maybe through his political contacts. Right? You’ve seen multiple Democratic senators, Chris Van Hollen, importantly, of Maryland, but many others, Chris Coons even, of Delaware, who’s personally close to the president, they’ve publicly started to say, “OK, we need to see a shift from Israel.” So, once those lawmakers, once governors, once others who are actually elected officials start standing up, you might see a shift from the president. But right now there’s still a wariness even on those fronts. I reported yesterday that this new bipartisan border package that was unveiled had Democratic senators agreeing to defund the U.N. agency for Palestinians. That’s a reversal from the Biden administration’s own policy, a reversal from Democrats, a triumph from Republicans. So, I think as soon as elected Democrats kind of find that assertiveness, that’s when you might start to see a shift from the president.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, we’ll just be speaking to a doctor who’s recently returned from Gaza, where we’ll discuss what’s happening with UNRWA in Gaza. Thank you so much, Akbar Shahid Ahmed, senior diplomatic correspondent for HuffPost, based in Washington, D.C.

Next, we speak to an American doctor recently returned from Gaza, pediatrician Dr. Seema Jilani with the International Rescue Committee. Back in a minute.

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