The National Interest Foundation Newsletter, Issue 236

The National Interest Foundation Newsletter

Issue 236, May 10, 2024

Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. This week, we examine how Israel has shut down Al Jazeera in a blatant attack on press freedom and by doing so joined a group of authoritarian governments that have banned it, provide analysis regarding the potential impact of the Gaza War on the Biden-Trump 2024 U.S. presidential election, and delve into President Biden’s pledge to halt some weapons shipments to Israel if it proceeds with an assault on Rafah and the problem with some members of Congress backing a foreign government against their own president.

Israel Shuts Down Al Jazeera in a Blatant Attack on Press Freedom

The move has been condemned as a deliberate attempt to try and silence coverage of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. (Photo from Reuters)

Israel Shuts Down Al Jazeera in a Blatant Attack on Press Freedom

During this past week, the Israeli government initiated a move to close the local operations of media outlet Al Jazeera, a decision that was universally denounced by rights groups and international officials. Israeli authorities raided the offices of the news network in Jerusalem and confiscated equipment on Sunday. The action was claimed to have been taken under the guise of “alleviating security concerns,” a sham that was dismissed by fair-minded observers who instead outlined how it was motivated by a desire to stifle growing evidence and outrage regarding egregious Israeli human rights abuses in Gaza. In addition to being a blatant attack on press freedom amid the destructive War on Gaza, the move sees Israel join a group of authoritarian regimes in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain that have also hindered Al Jazeera. For many analysts, the Netanyahu government in Israel’s latest undermining of independent reporting only serves to further damage its global image, at a time when it is already drawing increasing criticism in the court of public opinion.

The shutting down of Al Jazeera in Israel is especially concerning given that it is one of the few international media outlets that has remained in Gaza throughout the course of the conflict there. The network has provided important first-hand and on-the-ground coverage documenting Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of non-combatant infrastructure including hospitals, schools, and cultural sites. This has elicited the ire of Israeli officials, who have long sought to slander and obstruct it. An alarming number of Al Jazeera journalists and their family members have themselves been killed by the unlawful Israeli bombardments, and all told, more than 100 journalists in total have been murdered by Israeli forces – in what rights watchdog organizations say are often intentional targetings. Since the onset of the War on Gaza, the Israeli government has also instituted regulations aimed at closing media outlets that it deems a threat to its interests, labeling networks like Al Jazeera with defamatory accusations for merely reporting the facts of what has transpired in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

As commentators have pointed out, Israel’s recent move is the type of action that repressive governments frequently take in order to silence dissent and hamper freedom of the press. In their criticism of the decision, officials from the International Federation of Journalists stated that “sadly, it is part of a long set of actions that the Israeli government has taken to try and thwart free reporting” of the War on Gaza. Others similarly highlighted how it is clearly aimed at preventing people from knowing the truth about what is really taking place there, and the scale of war crimes and human rights violations being perpetrated by Israeli military forces. The banning of Al Jazeera is an act which denies the basic right to access information, and is as one observer put it, “a move straight from a despot’s playbook.” It also just adds to the flagrant crackdown on press freedom, as Israel has already banned waves of foreign reporters from Gaza and censored its war coverage. Ironically, the move to shut down the media outlet came just two days after World Press Freedom Day. Furthermore, Israel’s own domestic association for civil rights debunked Netanyahu’s claim that it was initiated as a legitimate response to security concerns, commenting that rather it was meant to “serve a more politically motivated agenda, aimed at silencing critical voices.”

Ultimately, Israel’s glaring anti-democratic decision to shut down a major media outlet demonstrates an acknowledgement from the Netanyahu government that public attitudes towards the War on Gaza have become increasingly critical. By implementing this course of action, Israel joins the undesirable ranks of authoritarian regimes that enact measures to try and suppress journalists, human rights defenders, and the truth at-large – a tactic that is deployed to cover up evidence of abusive behavior.

Potential Impact of the Gaza War on the Biden-Trump 2024 U.S. Presidential Election

Voter perception towards the handling of the Gaza War could play a significant role, particularly in several key battleground states. (Photo from AP)

Potential Impact of the Gaza War on the Biden-Trump 2024 U.S. Presidential Election

With incumbent President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump having become the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential nominees respectively back in mid-March, analysts are anticipating a tight race in the upcoming November 2024 U.S. presidential election. Due to the expected close nature, there are some factors which could undoubtedly play a determinant role in the outcome of the race. One of these is voter perception regarding the handling of the Gaza War, something that may prove to be especially relevant in several important battleground states where the margin of victory is likely to be extremely small. During the course of the presidential primary process, we have seen a notable level of dissatisfaction with the Biden administration’s handling of the Gaza War via protest votes in numerous places including what have historically been swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. In both of the aforementioned states, organizers of the protest vote movements exceeded their total vote tally goals, and there were also a considerable number of ‘uncommitted’ ballots cast in Minnesota, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Colorado, among others. Since both Biden and Trump appear to be suffering from their fair share of a shortage in voter enthusiasm, a substantial drop-off in turnout for either candidate this electoral cycle would probably end up being the difference.

A recent NBC News survey found that the share of voters who say that they have a high interest in the upcoming 2024 general election has hit a nearly 20-year low at this juncture in a presidential race – with majorities holding negative views of both major party candidates. The level of interest towards the November election is particularly low among independents and voters aged 18 to 34. Thus, the outcome of the presidential election may very well come down to whether Biden or Trump turns out more supporters among these two groups. The latest presidential election polls, which also take into account the independent candidates that are running, highlight just how narrow the gap is between Biden and Trump – as all reputable ones show a slim margin ranging from 1 to 5 percentage points nationally. At the state level, election forecasters have identified seven that are of noteworthy significance in particular – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The Cook Political Report currently categorizes six of these as toss-ups for the 2024 presidential election, with North Carolina listed as a “Lean Republican” state that many still deem to be a battleground one as well.

The relevance of voter attitudes regarding the handling of the Gaza War is evident, as a large number of protest votes have been cast in the 2024 battleground state presidential primaries. In Michigan, there were more than 100,000, and in Wisconsin nearly 50,000. Additionally, in North Carolina, over 88,000 voted ‘no preference,’ and in Georgia, the combined total of ‘leave it blank’ votes and Marianne Williamson votes – more than 15,000 – exceeded Biden’s margin of victory in the state back in the 2020 general election, which was around 12,000 votes. With this suspected to be the case again in these battleground states during the upcoming 2024 general election, the outcomes may be determined by how many of these same primary voters cast ballots for an independent candidate or abstain from voting in November altogether. While some voters have voiced disapproval with Biden’s handling of the Gaza War, there is also expected to be a decline in support for Trump as well. Surveys have indicated that a portion of Republicans – especially college-educated, moderate, and suburban voters – have serious reservations about Trump due to his array of legal and criminal woes. Thus, there is a segment of the Republican electorate that may end up gravitating towards non-major party candidates or deciding not to vote at all, as there is among the Democratic electorate as well. In fact, some polls seem to suggest that Biden has slightly more support among Democratic-leaning independents than Trump does among Republican-leaning independents – a factor that could tip the scales in a close election.

On top of balancing the potential drop-offs for both Biden and Trump, it is also important to weigh the significance of foreign vs. domestic policies when it comes to the most vital issues for voters. There is certainly a sizable chunk of citizens, particularly young voters aged 18-34, that tend to be more critical of Biden’s stance on the Gaza War. However, at the same time, for a lot of others, this individual issue might not hold enough sway to influence their decision to cast a ballot for the incumbent president. In general, surveys consistently show that domestic policies tend to hold more issue salience for American voters than foreign policy considerations. Inflation, health care, housing, and immigration are often four of the most high-priority for voters, while foreign policy normally ranks a bit lower down between five and ten. In the end, the Gaza War does have the potential to play an impactful role on the overall outcome of the 2024 presidential election due to the narrow margins anticipated in battleground states which had sizable primary protest votes, and it just remains to be seen whether or not the voter drop-off is big enough to outweigh those who will still cast their ballots for one of the two major party candidates regardless.

When Members of Congress Back a Foreign Government Against Their Own President

In his remarks, Biden also publicly acknowledged that Israel has used American weapons to kill civilians in Gaza. (Photo from Reuters)

When Members of Congress Back a Foreign Government Against Their Own President

This week, President Biden declared that the United States would stop supplying Israel with bombs and other munitions if it proceeds with launching a military offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah. The decision comes as Israeli officials appear defiant to initiate an assault, despite repeated warnings not to do so from the U.S. and the international community at-large due to the fact that around 1.5 million Palestinian civilians have sought refuge there in the densely-packed city. In Biden’s interview during which he made the remarks, the president also acknowledged that U.S. weapons had been used by Israel to kill civilians in Gaza, and stated that he had told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel would not receive U.S. support if they entered the population centers in Rafah. As a result of growing criticism regarding American weapons sales to Israel, the Biden administration had recently already put a weapons shipment which included several thousand bombs on hold over concern about Israel’s plans to attack Rafah.

In the aftermath of Biden’s announcement about the potential further halt in weapons shipments, human rights activists and some lawmakers expressed their support. U.S. Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) tweeted “No offensive weapons in Rafah. Good!” while pointing to the fact that the decision could save tens of thousands of innocent civilian lives. U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) commented that the move “makes clear that the United States will not be complicit in this suffering and follows through on repeated warnings to the Netanyahu government” and U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) called the decision “wise” adding that “weapons that are likely to lead to more civilian casualties are something it’s time to pause.”

Meanwhile, on the other hand, various Republicans and pro-Israel Democrats criticized Biden’s pledge. All of this despite the fact that humanitarian officials, lawyers, and other impartial experts have continued to document how Israel has used the weapons to commit egregious war crimes and human rights abuses in Gaza. It is especially disheartening and upsetting that these staunch Israel defenders try to label anyone who justifiably criticizes the Israeli government’s actions as “terrorist sympathizers” or “antisemitic” for merely seeking to draw attention to overwhelming evidence of these humanitarian violations which should logically warrant a suspension of weapons shipments. Additionally, some were quick to point out the hypocrisy and unfairness of the criticism from many GOP lawmakers, since Biden is not the first U.S. president to cut off weapons to Israel. In the 1980s, President Reagan also used the leverage of American arms multiple times by delaying or withholding in an effort to influence Israeli war policy. Yet despite this, several Republican senators held a press conference yesterday accusing Biden of “abandoning Israel” with U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) even going as far as to say that withholding the weapons would “be grounds for impeachment.” Other senators in attendance called Biden the “greatest friend” to terrorists and a “useful pawn” for them. The group of GOP senators failed to acknowledge the aforementioned historical precedent for such a move, and the fact that the decision was made on the basis of a mass of gathered evidence outlining the disturbing scale of Israeli war crimes and human rights violations in Gaza. In light of this, as an article from The New York Times alluded to, “If it was reasonable for the Republican presidential icon to limit arms to impose his will on Israel, (supporters of Biden’s decision argue that) it should be acceptable for the current Democratic president to do the same.” It is bad enough to recklessly ignore independently-verified evidence of war crimes, and now on top of this, the reaction from these GOP lawmakers to Biden’s pledge is the height of hypocrisy and a clear double standard.

Due to the abundance of evidence that Israel is committing gross human rights abuses and war crimes in Gaza, for months many have been urging the United States to abide by its own Leahy Law – a federal statute which is intended to prohibit military assistance to actors engaged in these types of serious violations. The idea behind this is to prevent U.S. weapons from being used to commit these abuses. Thus, both the Biden administration’s recent weapons shipment hold and the president’s pledge to halt additional ones to Israel if it proceeds with an assault on Rafah have been welcomed as positive developments in this regard. Observers have pointed out that for U.S. officials, the major concern which has prompted these actions seems to be how the munitions could be used to inflict mass destruction in dense civilian areas of Rafah – hence the hinging of certain weapons shipments on Israel’s military operation there.

The Biden administration’s decision to pause a weapons shipment and the pledge to potentially halt further ones are both noteworthy. Not only do they demonstrate an acknowledgement of the growing criticism towards U.S. weapons transfers to Israel because of substantive documented evidence of egregious human rights violations, they also indicate that the United States is attempting to positively exert its leverage over Israel in a manner in which it has not previously done before. Former U.S. State Department officials and experts have consistently expressed that weapons sales to Israel violate legal limits as they are in breach of the United States’ own binding mechanisms for ensuring that these are not used in an unlawful or abusive manner. While Israeli officials seem to still be defiant despite the recent Biden remarks regarding Rafah, at least the U.S. is doing more to try and deter what entities across the board say would be a catastrophic military assault there.

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