The National Interest Foundation Newsletter, Issue 233

The National Interest Foundation Newsletter

Issue 233, April 19, 2024

Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. This week, we examine how Israel’s reckless attack on Iran could cause a regional war, delve into U.S. House Speaker Johnson seeking to push through aid to Israel despite concerns over war crimes in Gaza, and analyze reports that shed light on inconsistencies in U.S. policy regarding Palestinian statehood and Israeli human rights abuses.

Israel’s Reckless Attack on Iran Could Cause a Regional War

The retaliatory Iranian strikes against Israel were carried out this past weekend. (Photo from Reuters)

Israel’s Reckless Attack on Iran Could Cause a Regional War

A recent Iranian retaliatory launch of more than 300 missiles against Israel has marked a significant escalation in tensions, and raised fears of a potential wider regional conflict. Military experts have weighed in, and it is believed that Iran may have calculated their strikes to display a show of force but prevent a serious confrontation with Israel. While observers pointed out that Iran’s actions did not help the situation and could have triggered a broader conflict in the region, it is also important to note that the strikes were not unprovoked. The launch of Iranian missiles was in response to an Israeli attack against an Iranian consulate in Damascus which killed two senior Iranian generals, including a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Analysts have argued that Israel’s decision to attack the compound back in early April blew past a red line by attacking a diplomatic mission and a consulate, which is akin to an attack on Iranian soil and is in breach of the Vienna Convention. In response to the attack, Iran’s foreign minister declared, “We consider this aggression to have violated all diplomatic norms and international treaties,” pointing toward the seriousness of the strikes and warning of the consequences ahead.

Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria itself was the initial belligerent aggression and act of escalation. Some have speculated that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu carried out the strikes on Damascus in a deliberate attempt to illicit a response from Iran and create a wider conflict, thus diverting attention away from growing international condemnation towards Israeli human rights violations in Gaza while also prolonging regional conflict and delaying impending domestic challenges. They also contend that Israel may be trying to drag the United States into its potential direct conflict with Iran. There is certainly motivation for Netanyahu’s government to provoke Iran, cuff the United States to the Middle East, and perpetuate conflict in the region. The effort to bring down the onslaught of Iranian drones and missiles received international support from Israel, Jordan, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who all aided in repelling it – with reports indicating that the United States, not Israel, shot down most of the drones and missiles. The aforementioned countries are part of a network providing a dome over Israel and regional bases. Regrettably, it seems that geopolitics and countering Iranian ambitions are more important to these actors than halting Israeli human rights violations and war crimes in Gaza, as they have not enacted the same measures to stop the onslaught of Israeli attacks that have killed a disturbing number of Palestinian civilians and decimated the besieged enclave. These countries should be providing the same level of safeguarding and support to innocent civilians in Gaza no matter the geopolitics involved, as the protection of human life should trump any other considerations.

Several Israeli officials declared their intent to respond to Iran’s attack. General Herzi Halevi, Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, stated that “Israel is considering next steps” and that “the launch of so many missiles and drones to Israeli territory will be answered with a retaliation.” Then, early on Friday, Israel carried out a strike on an air base near the central Iranian city of Isfahan, which activated Iranian air defenses. However, Iran seemed to downplay the incident in the aftermath of it, and officials appeared to indicate that there were no plans for further retaliation. Previously, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had said that while Iran does not want further escalation, if Israel pushes back Iran’s next response will be “immediate, stronger, and more extensive.”

World leaders such as the United States have been urging for a quelling of tensions and escalations. In a statement targeted at Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken advised that “strength and wisdom must be the two sides of the same coin.” The State Department is seeking a diplomatic response to the Iranian retaliatory strikes that will slow any possible further escalation. President Biden had also expressed that the United States will not support another Israeli attack against Iran, fearing that the U.S. could get dragged into an unwanted conflict in the region. However, some observers have argued that the conflict has already spilled over into other countries like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen, with the early April Israeli attack, Iranian retaliation, and latest Israeli strike only serving to exacerbate regional tensions. Still, the United States purports that the conflict has not spread past Gaza in an attempt to conceal the extent of U.S. military involvement, as well as prevent the possibility of wider U.S. involvement in the region. To this end, the United States had made efforts to try and mediate the Israeli response to the retaliatory strikes, but has not always been able to dictate Israeli action. Netanyahu defiantly stated that Israel will make its “own decisions” on responding to Iran’s aerial strikes – par for the course. In a situation where the parties involved have engaged in reckless behavior, it is important for measures to be taken to de-escalate any potential further spiraling.

Speaker Johnson Seeks to Push Through Aid to Israel Despite Concerns Over War Crimes in Gaza

Securing more humanitarian aid to Gaza should be the top priority for Congress. (Photo from Reuters)

Speaker Johnson Seeks to Push Through Aid to Israel Despite Concerns Over War Crimes in Gaza

This week, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Mike Johnson (R-LA) is seeking action on a military aid package to Israel, unveiling a plan to break assistance for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan into separate votes in an attempt to push them through individually. Speaker Johnson released the text for the Israel aid bill and others, and expressed that he expects a vote on them to take place on Saturday evening. All of this comes as Johnson faces an ouster threat from fellow Republican House members Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). Providing further aid to Israel would be problematic for a number of important reasons. Firstly, doing so disregards and brushes aside serious concerns regarding the ongoing Israeli war crimes being committed in Gaza. Additionally, it sends a message to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government that its early April attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus – which prompted Iran to launch retaliatory strikes against Israel this past weekend – was being rewarded. Many countries and international organizations rightly condemned Israel for escalating hostilities and instigating regional actors with the attack; and instead of punishing Israel for both this and the increasing global outrage over its human rights violations in Gaza, the reinvigorated push to pass aid provides the notion that belligerent behavior can be used as a means of distracting attention away from other abuses. What should be focused on above all, in light of growing evidence of Israeli war crimes and human rights violations in Gaza, is humanitarian assistance for the besieged enclave – which is regrettably not being prioritized in the same manner as military aid to Israel.

For many analysts, it is clear that U.S. House Speaker Johnson is trying to separate the aid packages because he understands that a significant number of Republicans may not support it for Ukraine, while a bulk of Democrats have become increasingly troubled over Israel’s military actions in Gaza. Several of these U.S. lawmakers, as well as human rights advocates, have been trying to draw attention to the fact that the United States should abide by its own laws which prohibit military aid and weapons transfers to entities engaged in international humanitarian law violations. A number of U.S. Congressmembers, including U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), have been urging the Biden administration to halt military aid and transfers to Israel in light of justifiable concern regarding war crimes being committed in Gaza. It has also been pointed out that the withholding of U.S. aid to Israel would be an effective form of leveraging the latter’s behavior, and could be used to both pressure Israel into allowing more urgently-needed humanitarian assistance into Gaza and protecting civilians who are being killed at an alarming rate.

On top of spurring renewed efforts to push for aid to Israel, the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria and Iran’s recent retaliatory strikes have elicited fears of a potential larger-scale regional conflict. In the aftermath of the latter, U.S. President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the United States would not support a further Israeli attack on Iran. Some issue experts are particularly concerned regarding the possibility of additional Israeli aggression due to the fact that Netanyahu is facing domestic discontent, and therefore, he is driven to try and retain power by continuing to prolong the conflict. They have argued that for Netanyahu, there is a motive to incite hostilities and thus the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus which prompted Iran’s recent retaliatory strikes may very well have been a strategic attempt to trigger new escalations and distract from growing international condemnation towards Israel’s human rights violations in Gaza. For Netanyahu, an end to the ongoing conflict could leave him vulnerable to face impending domestic criminal and political challenges. U.S. President Biden himself is reported to have privately expressed concern to close aides that Netanyahu was trying to drag the United States into a broader regional conflict.

The situation between Israel and Iran has altered the narrative, and sadly shifted the focus away from Israeli human rights violations in Gaza and the dire humanitarian crisis there that has emerged as a result. As one commentator put it, the conversation has moved from rightly talking about the alarming aspects of starving children and Israeli attacks against humanitarian workers in Gaza, and has instead become preoccupied with increasingly contentious military aid. The primary concern related to Israel for Congress and the Biden administration should be striving to put an end to civilian suffering in Gaza and Israel’s destructive military offensive, not pushing for something to contribute further to this.

Reports Shed Light on Inconsistencies in U.S. Policy Regarding Palestinian Statehood and Israeli Human Rights Abuses

Reports reveal that U.S. Secretary of State Blinken has been sitting on piles of evidence of serious human rights abuses committed by Israeli military and police forces. (Photo from Getty Images)

Reports Shed Light on Inconsistencies in U.S. Policy Regarding Palestinian Statehood and Israeli Human Rights Abuses

It was recently revealed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been sitting on multiple detailed reports documenting egregious human rights abuses committed by Israeli military and police forces. A special State Department committee, known as the Leahy Vetting Forum, had recommended months ago that these groups be disqualified from receiving U.S. aid, but this failed to be acted upon by Blinken. The panel is comprised of Middle East and human rights experts. Most of the incidents under review happened before the October 7th Hamas attacks on Israel’s southern border, meaning these violations took place even before Israel’s increasingly criticized military operations in Gaza. The reports detail the inhumane treatment of Palestinians including extrajudicial killings, torture, and sexual violence. Continuing to send military assistance to these entities, in light of their human rights violations, is a flagrant breach of the U.S. Leahy Law – which would require the United States to disqualify sending aid to them.

Critics have voiced that Secretary Blinken’s silence on these human rights abuses sends a signal to Israel that they can continue to commit rights violations without fearing the loss of American support. This undermines the rhetoric from President Biden and others which publicly criticizes Israel’s behavior, while failing to take concrete measures against it. Former Director of the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Josh Paul commented that “If we had been applying Leahy effectively in Israel like we do in other countries, maybe you wouldn’t have the IDF filming TikToks of their war crimes now because we have contributed to a culture of impunity,” highlighting the effects of inconsistencies in U.S. policy between rhetoric stated in public and actual actions behind the scenes. The Biden administration’s failure to hold Israel accountable means that it is effectively putting up a front, saying one thing and then doing another.

An additional inconsistency was found in the administration’s alleged support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Publicly, the Biden administration has promoted the idea of a two-state solution that would give Palestinians statehood. However, behind closed doors, the U.S. has taken a different stance. Two weeks ago, the Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations requested full membership in the UN. In leaked diplomatic cables between the White House and the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador, Secretary of State Blinken detailed talking points opposing the UN resolution that would grant Palestine membership status within the global organization. The cables also revealed the U.S.-Ecuador plan to lobby other countries to not support the resolution. Having membership status would amount to the UN officially recognizing Palestine as a state, but first has to pass through the UN Security Council with a two-thirds majority vote. U.S. and Israeli officials had previously said that the Biden administration was attempting to prevent the vote from reaching the two-thirds mark so that it doesn’t have to use its veto and risk potential international and domestic criticism. Then, however, news broke last night that the United States vetoed the widely-backed UN resolution. The vote in the 15-member UN Security Council was 12 in favor, the U.S. opposing, and two abstentions. The resolution would have passed had it not been vetoed by the U.S. – one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – as it had more than the nine votes in favor required to do so. Ironically, the Biden administration had claimed that if Palestine is admitted, U.S. law would have compelled it to veto the resolution or defund the UN. It is hypocritical that the administration can blatantly disregard some laws such as the Leahy Law, but then try and reference others to suit certain objectives.

Both of these aforementioned revelations raise a serious issue with the consistency of U.S. foreign policy that must be called out. U.S. leadership needs to not only “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk” with their diplomatic efforts. It is not enough to merely proclaim support of human rights and equity, while at the same time, failing to enact policies that align with these ideals. We should honor the values that we preach, and steer away from wishy-washy and inconsistent diplomacy that ultimately undermines our credibility as a leader on the global stage.

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