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February 20, 2024

Panel Recap: The War in Gaza and the Prospect of Regional War

The War in Gaza and the Prospect of Regional War

Criminally negligent is the word,” said James Zogby, Founder and President of the Arab American Institute, when asked to describe the Biden administration’s approach toward Israel and Palestine and the broader Middle East in the lead-up to Hamas’ October 7th attack against Israelis. Zogby was speaking on a panel hosted by the National Iranian American Council on February 15, 2024, focusing on the ongoing war in Gaza and risks of spillover to regional war. NIAC President Jamal Abdi – the panel’s moderator – kicked the discussion off with a pointed question to Zogby on what he thought of efforts by the Biden administration toward the Middle East, with many reports indicating that there were strict orders to keep the Middle East “off the President’s desk.”

Zogby continued, “They did their best to put it off the agenda, to not take it seriously. They’re not the first administration to do that, but no one has ever done it with such “zesto,” to simply try to ignore the fact that it was there and hope that it might go away.” Zogby added that hubris and efforts to ignore the problems of the Middle East have plagued many of his predecessors: “Bush got undone by 9/11 and then his foolish adventures into Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama went to Cairo, made huge promises and pledges, didn’t fulfill them, and then ended up blaming the Arabs for the lack of fulfillment. Trump’s deal of the century and breaking the Iran deal. These are issues that, I think, come to haunt different presidencies. And Biden is no exception here.” 

Lara Friedman, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace was then asked about the President’s response to October 7th and whether he had an alternative to the “bear hug” approach toward Israel. Friedman argued that it was “correct, after October 7th, for the U.S. to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, with Israelis, in the face of this horrific atrocity, the atrocities that happened on October 7th – the taking of hostages, the killings, everything else – and calling clearly for accountability and saying “we stand with Israel” in achieving accountability.” However, what Biden failed to do, she said, was lay out some clear red lines about what it meant to stand with Israel and how Israel was going to prosecute its coming military campaign. The U.S. could have played a significant role in leading negotiations for the release of hostages from the get-go, in ensuring proportionate and targeted strikes, and in utilizing its regional allies more proactively. Instead, according to Friedman, the U.S. “abdicated the role of being the sober partner, the sober ally.

Friedman continued, “I don’t think there’s any serious person out there who imagines that after October 7th, Israel would not feel obliged to and have every right to engage in some retaliative strikes. I think the U.S. could have played a role there in ensuring that those strikes are proportional and targeted at Hamas, and not forms of collective punishment, not using massive munitions, not displacing thousands of people, not killing thousands of civilians, and were limited in scope and in time. I think the U.S. could have played a really powerful role in helping Israel do what, normally, Israel or another country would have done in a hostage situation, which is negotiate to get the hostages back.” 

Daniel Levy, President of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former peace negotiator for past Israeli governments, described how the Biden administration is – instead of pushing for a ceasefire – “centering around this kind of strange bank shot, this multi-layered play, that has a lot to do with geopolitics and a lot to do with refreezing the status quo ante of October 6th that has, I think, accurately, legally been defined as an apartheid reality.” Levy’s comments refer to reporting by the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman and others concerning a U.S. approach that would leverage a Saudi normalization with Israel to secure a Palestinian quasi-state. “So rather than doing the thing that is urgent and necessary and doing it directly via a ceasefire, you place a series of high stakes gambles on something which, let’s be clear, is not about the future of a Palestinian statehood.

Levy asserted that the U.S. has enormous leverage with Israel, such as Israel’s dependence on U.S. munitions, which the Biden administration has refused to utilize.

Levy also argued that the recent International Court of Justice ruling indicating that the crimes committed by Israel could be in contravention of the genocide convention was an opportunity for the Biden administration to shift course. However, instead, the U.S. chose to ignore it and – worse still – to cut off funding for the largest humanitarian organization operating in Gaza. “Instead, pretty much on the same day (as the ICJ ruling)– and it’s no coincidence of course, this happened in parallel – the U.S. decided to withdraw its funding, to freeze its funding to the only organization, UNRWA, that is capable of providing some services which may ameliorate and alleviate, although not that much while the war still goes on, but nonetheless absolutely crucial and necessary when it comes to humanitarian assistance,” said Levy.

Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, spoke to the issue of escalating tensions in the region since the events of October 7th, including the killing of three servicemembers stationed in Jordan in late January in a drone attack conducted by a militia with links to Iran. “This is another reason why we need a ceasefire. We needed one a month ago, two months ago. The longer this goes on, the more we see the danger of the conflict spreading and spreading,” said Slavin.

She further broke down the current dynamic wherein Iran and its various militia groups have been exercising “some relative restraint” in order to indicate that they do not want a direct war with the United States, just as the United States has made it clear that it does not seek a direct war with Iran.

Slavin, in contrast to other remarks from the panelists, expressed some tempered optimism regarding efforts to push beyond the present crisis toward a negotiated peace. “I do think that there is serious thinking going on about how to salvage something from this catastrophe, and I think we should be supportive of those efforts. Obviously the ceasefire has to come first, but I dont think all of those efforts at providing a new political horizon are complete B.S.,” she said.

On the subject of the American electoral and political landscape ahead of the upcoming presidential election, Zogby asserted that activism can matter and have a difference in elections. He cited the Chicago City Council’s recent passage of a ceasefire resolution, making it the largest city to make this statement, which has set a progressive new standard that other cities are beginning to follow. 

Zogby also addressed the point of intersectionality, highlighting how “the same coalition that has come together around Palestine today is the same coalition that has been spontaneously erupting for the last more than a decade…the fact is that there are connections here and it is the same people, the same coalition coming together on all these issues. And it can be decisive in elections,” he further stated.

The full video from the panel can be found below:

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