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Conditioning Aid to Israel

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Syria, as seen from the Golan Heights. Photo by author.

The New York Times gets it right.

The administration has tried many forms of pressure and admonition, including public statements, reported expressions of frustration and U.N. Security Council resolutions. None of them, so far, have proved effective with Mr. Netanyahu. Military aid is the one lever Mr. Biden has been reluctant to use, but it is a significant one he has at his disposal — perhaps the last one — to persuade Israel to open the way for urgent assistance to Gaza.

Pausing the flow of weapons to Israel would not be an easy step for Mr. Biden to take; his devotion and commitment to the Jewish state go back decades. But the war in Gaza has taken an enormous toll in human lives, with a cease-fire still out of reach and many hostages still held captive. The eroding international support for its military campaign has made Israel more insecure. Confronted with that suffering, the United States cannot remain beholden to an Israeli leader fixated on his own survival and the approval of the zealots he harbors.

The United States has had Israel’s back, diplomatically and militarily, through decades of wars and crises. Alliances are not one-way relationships, and most Israelis, including Israel’s senior military commanders, are aware of that. Yet Mr. Netanyahu has turned his back on America and its entreaties, creating a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations when Israel’s security, and the stability of the entire region, is at stake.

As far as I see it, the Biden administration should be looking at a number of “zones” of short-term conditionality: securing humanitarian aid into Gaza, tightening rules of engagement in Gaza, and reigning in settler violence on the West Bank, and bringing the treatment of detainees into line with international human rights law.

In terms of both timeframe and magnitude, the first is the most pressing. The humanitarian situation is dire, with many hundreds of thousands of noncombatants at risk. Israeli officials aren’t wrong that increasing aid will benefit Hamas. Hamas is likely to control the disbursement of much of that assistance; its leadership will skim some percentage of the assistance to reinforce their troops. But that does not excuse Israel from its most basic moral and legal obligations, and U.S. military assistance is more than sufficient “compensation” for the marginal benefits Hamas might gain from the flow of food, fuel, and medicine.

The situation in the West Bank is also pressing. Far-right Israeli settlers, armed and supported by the government, have been using the war in Gaza as a pretext to accelerate their ethnic cleansing of the West Bank. This, in turn, has triggered a lopsided cycle of violence. Just yesterday, right-wing settlers “reportedly burn[ed] houses and property in several West Bank villages” in retaliation for the murder of a fourteen year-old Israeli. “According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, three Palestinians were wounded in the village of Al-Mughayyir and five were wounded in the village of Duma, including one who is in a critical state.”

Shaul Golan, a photojournalist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, also reported of being attacked by settlers in al-Mughayyir. According to Golan, as he was taking pictures inside one of the burned houses in the village, he saw some 30 shirtless and masked individuals approaching the place.

“Some of them were in military uniforms,” he says, adding that “they ran inside screaming, grabbed and pulled me and my bag. They burned the place and took away my cameras while shouting at me: ‘You are Jewish, aren’t you ashamed?'” According to Golan, his equipment was then taken by the settlers and set on fire.Open gallery view

The overall situation in the West Bank is actually among the least ambiguous of the current ‘conflict complex.’ There is simply no legitimate moral or legal justification for the continued occupation of the West Bank, let alone the activities of right-wing, expansionist settlers (for a discussion of the differences among various settlements and settler populations, see this overview provided by a U.S. Jewish organization that favors a two-state solution).

The war against Hamas is, however prosecuted, an instance of legitimate self-defense against a genocidal military force. Hamas does, in fact, carry the majority of moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza. Its failures to respect basics laws of war—including by carrying out nearly all of its military operations while posing as noncombatants, using rescue and humanitarian vehicles as cover for moving its forces, compromising protected sites, and employing feigned surrender as an operational tactic—provide the fundamental context for Israeli operations. Yet even when we cut through the noise of anti-Israeli propaganda that currently blankets social media, we still find far too many examples of indefensible killing by Israeli forces; Hamas’s crimes do not, whatever some claim, give Israel a blank check, nor does it excuse the apparent culture of impunity in the IDF that has provides cover for individuals to commit war crimes).

Nonetheless, the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is more politically tractable—for example, it is at least in principle possible to secure greater cooperation from the current Israeli government. Given the timeframe and magnitude of crisis in the strip, it seems to me that this should be the immediate focus of conditionality.

Indeed, the NYT does not say much about implementation, but the most prudent approach is to start with a “pause” to the transfer of a specific subcategory of assistance—one that U.S. military officials identify as important to Israel but not immediately crippling—and then expand or contract the scope of the pause contingent on steps taken by Israel to allow adequate assistance into Gaza. One would hope that the “shock” of implementing more explicit conditionality over the matter of humanitarian assistance would also make the Israeli government more pliant on issues such as rules of engagement (which are much harder to monitor) and the treatment of captured Gazans.

Tackling the West Bank would be the logical next step, especially because it’s clear that an increasing number of western governments see the establishment of a Palestinian state as the “price” of NATO and EU support for Israel on Gaza. At the same time, given a number of factors—including 1) questions about legal authority, 2) the current risks of regional escalation, 3) how the good chance of a second Trump administration factors into the Israeli government’s calculation, and 4) how the possibility of a new Israeli government factors into the Biden administration’s calculations—it seems to me that attempting to use serious and substantial conditionality as a lever for “cracking” Israeli policy on the West Bank will need to wait.

ICYMI, Trump’s efforts to reap maximum political advantage from the Gaza war have taken a decidedly Christian nationalist and (even more) antisemitic turn.

Meanwhile, the House GOP is going to vote to condemn Biden for suggesting that Israel should implement a short-term humanitarian ceasefire. But MAGA love for Putin means that the Republican Speaker du jour still hasn’t advanced the one piece of legislation that will, you know, actually supply Israel with more military aid. Anyway, I’m sure a Republican presidency would be better for Palestinians because reasons.

Also of interest (but paywalled): why “Israel Has Been Defeated – a Total Defeat.”

Theoretically, we could have been in a better place. The shock of the outbreak of the war could have been a starting point for a swift, powerful, aggressive, eminently justified campaign to quickly root out Hamas wherever that was possible. It could have then been replaced by a coalition of countries with money and good intentions to carry out reconstruction, with global and Arab backing, along with the Palestinian Authority. We could have created a viable alternative to Hamas in Gaza. After six months, there already might have been the first signs of independent government there. Every day and every minute, better decisions could have been made. But that’s whom we elected – a suit with a person attached.

We can’t say it, but we’ve lost. People have an inclination to believe in the best and be optimistic, hoping that tomorrow will be okay, that we are in a process that in the end will be more successful. That’s the most fundamental failure of human thought: the notion that the direction we are taking is a good one, that we just need to get there already – that in just a little more time, with a little more effort, the hostages will be returned, Hamas will surrender and Yahya Sinwar will be killed. After all, we’re the good guys, and good will triumph.

It’s the same mentality that leads to the notion that “the Iranian regime will soon implode” and other notions that have more to do with Hollywood scripts than life itself. They’re not the truth and it relates to something that’s uncomfortable. After all, it’s uncomfortable telling the public the truth.

[…]

No cabinet minister will restore our sense of personal security. Every Iranian threat will make us tremble. Our international standing was dealt a beating. Our leadership’s weakness was revealed to the outside. For years we managed to fool them into thinking we were a strong country, a wise people and a powerful army. In truth, we’re a shtetl with an air force, and that’s on the condition that its awakened in time.

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