The U.S. and Israel have a ‘main credibility downside’


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In a testy exchange earlier this month, a senior U.S. official warned Israeli counterparts of the reputational “damage” as a result of the ongoing war in Gaza. The internal memo of the exchange involving Assistant Secretary of State Bill Russo, obtained by NPR correspondent Daniel Estrin, offered yet another illustration of the rift between the Biden administration and Israel, driven largely by growing American horror at the humanitarian toll of the conflict and Israel’s role in making it worse — even as the United States shields Israel in international forums and helps replenish its war machine.

According to NPR, Russo said in his March 13 call that Israel — and the United States, as Israel’s security guarantor and close ally — face a “major credibility problem” because of the war, the astonishing Palestinian death toll (now more than 32,000 people), the man-made famine gripping ravaged areas of the Gaza Strip, and growing global frustration with Israel’s insistence on prolonging the war to fully eradicate militant group Hamas.

“The Israelis seemed oblivious to the fact that they are facing major, possibly generational damage to their reputation not just in the region but elsewhere in the world,” the memo said. “We are concerned that the Israelis are missing the forest for the trees and are making a major strategic error in writing off their reputation damage.”

Russo’s Israeli interlocutor scoffed at the claim, suggesting anger at Israel is more prevalent online and on social media platforms such as TikTok than in the real world, according to the memo. That view is consistent with current Israeli rejections of outside criticism, including recent assertions that it’s not contravening international law by restricting the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

On Saturday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres spoke to reporters at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. “People around the world are outraged about the horrors we are all witnessing in real time,” he said of the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, the bulk of whom have been displaced from their homes and are now going hungry. “I carry the voices of the vast majority of the world: We have seen enough. We have heard enough.”

Israeli officials remain unmoved. On the same day, as his U.N. counterparts reiterated calls for an immediate cease-fire and the deeper goal of a two-state solution, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the body, spoke instead of the need to impose a vague program of “deradicalization” on the entire Palestinian population. He said the majority of Palestinians don’t want peace and likened them to Germans coming out of the Third Reich.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres visited Egypt’s border with Gaza on March 23 as Israel pledges to send forces near the border. (Video: Egyptian Government via Reuters)

His remarks came as the U.N. Security Council failed yet again to agree on a resolution calling for some form of truce in the conflict. This time, after a series of U.S. vetoes, the Biden administration put forward its own draft resolution that stopped short of actually demanding a cease-fire but invoked the “imperative” of achieving one. Russia and China vetoed the attempt, which was supported by 11 countries in the 15-member state body.

“It tacitly allows for continued civilian casualties and lacks safeguards to prevent further escalation,” declared the U.N. envoy from Algeria, which also voted against the U.S.-proposed resolution. “It is a laissez-passer to continue killing Palestinian civilians.”

U.S. officials find themselves in an uncomfortable bind. They are carrying water on the world stage for an increasingly isolated, unpopular Israeli government, while fitfully trying behind the scenes to cajole right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down a different path, close to half a year after Hamas launched its Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel. Netanyahu has dug in his heels and recently rebuffed requests from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to reconsider a looming military offensive on Rafah.

All the while, world leaders elsewhere, even allies, are scolding the United States for its complicity in the ongoing crisis. “When I travel the world, leaders often ask me why the Irish have so much empathy for the Palestinian people,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said at a joint appearance at the White House with President Biden on St. Patrick’s Day. “The answer is simple: We see our history in their eyes. A story of displacement and dispossession, a national identity questioned and denied, forced emigration, discrimination and now hunger.”

“The administration has sought to pressure Israel to work toward a weeks-long cease-fire, enabling a massive surge in aid, without going so far as to halt weapons deliveries for it to continue its war against Hamas,” my colleagues reported last week. The contradiction is becoming untenable and leading to more pronounced divisions within the Biden administration.

“The humanitarian situation is literally intolerable — it’s a blight on the consciousness of humanity. This kind of thing can’t happen in the modern day and age,” one White House adviser told my colleagues. “It’s the humanitarian situation that has tipped us over the line into open confrontation with the Israelis.”

In Washington, a group of 17 Democratic senators attempted to ratchet up the pressure on Israel, calling on the Biden administration to reject Israeli claims that it is not violating international law by restricting humanitarian aid. Their intervention came at a moment of growing debate within some circles in Washington about suspending arms transfers to the Israeli government.

“I don’t see how anybody could possibly determine the situation within Gaza right now suggests there is an acceptable humanitarian delivery system and it’s pretty clear that the restrictions that have been imposed by the Netanyahu government are the main contributor to the humanitarian crisis there,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told my colleagues.

Separately, human rights groups Oxfam and Human Rights Watch issued a joint report last week documenting alleged Israeli transgressions in impeding the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. They called on the Biden administration to adhere to U.S. law and suspend arms transfers on grounds that Israeli assurances that they are not contravening international law cannot be taken seriously.

“There are good reasons why U.S. law prohibits arms support for governments that block life-saving aid or violate international law with U.S. weapons,” Sarah Yager, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Given ongoing hostilities in Gaza, the Israeli government’s assurances to the Biden administration that it is meeting U.S. legal requirements are not credible.”

For now, though, Israel’s credibility problem is also that of the United States.





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