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“Empty Words”: Kenneth Roth on Biden’s Criticism of Israel While U.S. Keeps Weapons Flowing

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Lawyers representing Germany at the International Court of Justice delivered their concluding remarks at The Hague today in a case brought by Nicaragua, which has accused Germany of facilitating the commission of genocide in Gaza by providing military and financial aid to Israel. Germany is Israel’s second-largest arms supplier, and Nicaragua has asked the United Nations’ top court for emergency measures to halt its material support to Israel. While the United States is the leading arms supplier to Israel, it “has a much more limited acceptance” of the ICJ’s jurisdiction, according to our guest Kenneth Roth. A visiting professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and formerly the longtime executive director of Human Rights Watch, Roth details Nicaragua’s case against Germany, as well as the U.S. government’s stance toward Israel. Despite President Biden’s public condemnation of the recent World Central Kitchen aid convoy attack and the “huge leverage” of ongoing U.S. military assistance, the administration’s warnings to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are “empty words,” says Roth. “Joe Biden never backs them up with consequences,” and his reelection campaign is taking progressive voters for granted as domestic dissent grows in the lead-up to the 2024 election, Roth adds.

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Web ExclusiveMay 24, 2024International Court of Justice Orders Israel to Immediately Halt Military Offensive in Rafah
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As we continue on Gaza, lawyers representing Germany at the International Court of Justice delivered their concluding remarks at The Hague today in a case brought by Nicaragua, which has accused Germany of facilitating the commission of genocide in Gaza by providing military and financial aid to Israel. Nicaragua has asked the U.N.'s top court for emergency measures ordering the German government to halt its support to Israel. Germany is Israel's second-largest arms supplier after the U.S. In 2023, Germany approved arms exports to Israel valued at over $353 million, roughly 10 times the sum approved the previous year.

For more, we’re joined by Kenneth Roth, visiting professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, served for nearly 30 years as the executive director of Human Rights Watch. He’s joining us now in New York.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ken. It’s great to have you with us. Can you explain why Nicaragua is simply taking on Germany, and the significance of this case, another case being brought to the U.N.’s top court?

KENNETH ROTH: Obviously, the United States would have been the ideal target. The U.S. is the principal armer of the Israeli military. But the U.S. has a much more limited acceptance of the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. It basically has to consent to every suit. And it was not going to consent to this suit. Germany has a much more open-ended acceptance of the jurisdiction, so Germany being the second-largest armer of the Israeli military, it was the target.

Now, in terms of the significance, the court has already found that this is a plausible case of genocide. And Nicaragua is saying, “Germany, you are arming potential genocide.” They also have added that Germany is arming actual war crimes, violations of international humanitarian law, which it clearly is. Now, there is a precedent for this. If you remember back to Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, he was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, and is actually currently serving a 50-year prison term in Britain for that crime. So, the International Court of Justice is a civil court. It’s not a criminal court. But Nicaragua is basically pursuing the same theory, saying, you know, “This is at least war crimes. It’s plausible genocide. You’re arming it. That’s aiding and abetting. You should stop.” That’s the essence of the case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, Kenneth — there were 40 Democratic members of Congress, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who have written to President Biden, urging him to halt new arms transfers to Israel in the wake of the killing of the World Central Kitchen aid workers. What’s your sense of the prospects for possibly halting or at least significantly reducing U.S. arms shipments to Israel?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, you know, Juan, that has been the line that Joe Biden has been unwilling to cross. He has spoken, at this point quite eloquently, pushing Israel to stop bombing civilians, to allow more food and humanitarian aid into Gaza. But these, from Netanyahu’s perspective, are just empty words, because Joe Biden never backs them up with consequences. And the obvious consequence, the obvious huge leverage that the U.S. government has, is the $3.8 billion in annual military aid it gives Israel and the regular shipment of arms, you know, almost every week in the course of this conflict. And Biden has not been willing to explicitly condition those, that aid, those arms sales, on ending the bombing and starving of Palestinian civilians.

Now, we heard last week that in the private phone call with Netanyahu, Biden suggested that at some point in the future this might be conditioned, you know, that U.S. relations will depend on how Israel responds. But it was all very vague. And, of course, Netanyahu responded with equal vagueness. He says, “OK, at some point I’ll open up the new crossing into northern Gaza to allow more food aid in, but that will take a few weeks, and I’m not saying anything about whether I’ll impose the same kind of obstructions in the north as I’ve imposed in the south. And I won’t say anything about Israel’s shooting at Palestinian police officers so that there’s chaos when you try to distribute the food. You know, none of that is on the table.”

So, in essence, Biden is not using this huge leverage, despite the pleas of an increasing number of lawmakers in Washington, you know, despite rapidly changing U.S. opinion polls saying Americans are tired of the U.S. actively supporting these war crimes, this plausible genocide in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is he doing this? I mean, it is amazing to see the split in the Democratic establishment. I’m not just talking about the protesters on the streets, who definitely are driving this split. But, you know, you have now Senator Warren of Massachusetts saying she believes Israel’s assault on Gaza meets the legal definition of genocide. You have Christopher Coons, who I consider a Biden whisperer, who is now talking about halting weapons sales to Israel. But you have Biden resisting, though he has talked about a ceasefire. Why is this so difficult for him? What do you think it would take, especially now that you have Netanyahu saying that he’s set the date certain for an invasion of Rafah?

KENNETH ROTH: He just won’t tell us what that date is, yes. Amy, that’s the big psychoanalytic question, and we just don’t know. I mean, part of it, I think, is that Joe Biden, you know, who is an older man, as we know, thinks of Israel back in 1967, when it was the David surrounded by the Goliath of all the Arab states attacking Israel. He doesn’t think of Israel today, the regional superpower, a nuclear-armed state, a state that has been occupying Palestinian territory for decades and is imposing apartheid. You know, that’s just not in his mind.

More to the point, he seems to be making a political calculation. And he’s always been focused on the movable middle, the handful of independent voters who could go either way in the six swing states. And what he seems to be discounting is the progressives. And clearly, the Michigan primary was a bit of a wake-up call, suddenly the large number of “uncommitted” votes in a swing state. And so, we’ve seen him being more attentive. But I think he still calculates that progressives have no place to go. They’re not going to vote for Trump, and abstaining is effectively a vote for Trump, so when push comes to shove in November, they’re going to have to hold their nose and vote for Biden. And that seems to be what is pushing him at this stage.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ken Roth, I want to ask you to stay with us as we continue our discussion about U.S.’s foreign policy, visiting professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, served for nearly 30 years as executive director of Human Rights Watch.

When we come back, Rwanda marks 30 years after the 1994 genocide. We’ll speak with a survivor, and we’ll look, with Ken Roth, at how the U.S., France and other nations stood by, refusing to say the word “genocide,” afraid it would trigger, force the use of the Genocide Convention. Stay with us. Back in 20 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: “The Meaning of Death” by the Rwandan gospel singer Kizito Mihigo, a survivor of the 1994 genocide. In 2020, he was found dead in his cell in Rwanda after being arrested days earlier. The song was released a decade ago, banned in Rwanda.

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