Talking Israel/Palestine on The Ezra Klein Show

PLUS: the Pentagon sees "a prospect for much more significant escalation," while the King of Jordan has a message about U.S. leadership in light of Gaza. 

Talking Israel/Palestine on The Ezra Klein Show
The Wounded Angel by Hugo Simberg (1903)

Edited by Sam Thielman

MY FRIEND EZRA KLEIN had me on his New York Times podcast to talk about the Israeli devastation of Gaza alongside my former boss/current friend Peter Beinart. We are very aware that we're three Jews talking, from the safety of America, about matters primarily pertaining to the Palestinian experience, and Ezra says in the intro to the show that he intends to host Palestinian guests for subsequent episodes. Also, we recorded this on Thursday, which feels a little bit like a lifetime ago—since, for an estimated 1302 Palestinians between when we recorded and when I'm drafting this, it was. 

During our conversation, I took some time to detail the four conceivable outcomes for the Gaza invasion, which IDF chief of staff Gen. Herzi Halevi says is pretty much ready to go. I don't know if that point made the final cut, but those outcomes are: (1) Israel again occupies Gaza, something it had no constituency for even amongst its most rabidly anti-Palestine government ever; (2) Israel installs the Palestinian Authority to rule Gaza, a place where it has not operated for 16 years after losing an election; (3) Israel accepts continued Hamas rule over Gaza, which seems politically unthinkable post-Oct. 7; or (4) ethnic cleansing. After 9/11, no one paid any attention to end-states, since the point was vengeance. It worked out horrifically for all involved. 

I'm not going to have time to listen to the episode before sending this edition out. I've spent the predawn mornings between Thursday and today worried about how I phrased this-or-that point, but there's nothing I can do about it now. I hope I spoke the truth and did so without euphemism. You can listen to the episode here and judge for yourself.

SINCE MY PIECE ON FRIDAY about the U.S. getting pulled into the war's rip current, the Pentagon announced significant deployments and reallocations of military assets in the Mideast. For all the speculation over the past week concerning a subtle shift in Biden administration rhetoric toward restraining Israel, the placement of the hardware tells a different story: attempting to deter Iran while Israel continues to bomb and eventually invade Gaza. 

The USS Eisenhower carrier strike group apparently has yet to reach the eastern Mediterranean, where it was supposed to be going before the weekend, but now it's going instead to a Middle Eastern waterway the Pentagon won't specify but is likely the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Additionally, a THAAD missile battery and multiple Patriot missile battalions will bolster troop defenses at U.S.-operated bases that, beginning last week, have come under attack in Iraq and Syria. On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed "an attempted drone attack at Al-Tanf in Syria," which U.S. forces apparently shot down with base anti-aircraft systems without casualties. Meanwhile, the State Department is developing plans for the evacuation of Americans from the entire region.

"We see a prospect for much more significant escalation against U.S. forces and personnel in the near term," a senior Defense Department official said during a Monday background briefing for reporters, "and let's be clear about it: The road leads back to Iran." 

I wrote on Friday that Iran, through the client militias that launched drone and rocket attacks on U.S. positions in the Mideast, is speaking to the American metropole rather than the Israeli periphery. This represents the U.S. speaking to the Iranian metropole rather than the Iraqi/Syrian/Houthi/Hezbollah periphery. 

But they also underscored that continued attacks from those proxies can be met with American reprisals. "What you've seen from the posture announcements and all these [statements] from officials, is that we are preparing for this escalation, both in terms of defending our forces and in terms of being prepared to respond decisively," the senior Pentagon official said. "We always reserve the right to defend ourselves and will never hesitate to take action when needed to protect our forces and our interest overseas. Any response will come at a time and manner of our choosing." 

That line about responding in a time and manner of our choosing is, on the one hand, Pentagon boilerplate, but on the other, it took me back to the worst days of the 2003-11 Iraq occupation. It's been a while since I heard a Pentagon official say that in the context of a bolstered Mideast force posture where "significant escalation" is a credible risk. 

There has been much speculation about the recent undercurrent of rhetoric from the Biden administration emphasizing the difference between civilians and combatants. But during Monday’s briefing, Pentagon officials were crystal clear that the administration continues to affirm Israel's right to "defend itself," which sounds like it means fighting Hamas combatants but in practice means flattening Gaza. The official said that civilians "should not be deliberately targeted." It was hard not to hear the word deliberately as load-bearing, given that Israel routinely bombs civilian infrastructure under the pretext that Hamas operates from it. 

You can see in this Times report that despite its angle of Pentagon nervousness about an Israeli campaign without "achievable military objectives"—and listen to Ezra's podcast for what I have to say about that; the objective is to punish Gaza for Hamas—the Pentagon itself takes the position that it supports the invasion. During Monday's briefing, the senior Pentagon official said gingerly that U.S. defense officials are in frequent contact with their Israeli counterparts about presenting "best practices" for urban warfare operations that mitigate civilian harm, and the integration of hostage recovery into campaign plans. If that sounds delicately phrased, rather than a full-throated call for restraint, that's because it was. 

The actual value of that U.S. military advice to the IDF is called into question by, for instance, the Palestine Red Crescent reporting Israeli attacks near the al-Quds hospital in Gaza. Those strikes are displayed on video the Wall Street Journal published, part of what Israel says is some 320 strikes in Gaza taken during the 24 hours from Sunday to Monday. The broader context is very clearly collective punishment—only now the Biden administration is attempting to distance itself from what it has already licensed and continues to materially support. More on that in the next section. 

For all its own concerns about escalation, the Pentagon officials conducting Monday's briefings said they were not urging Israel to delay the invasion until the additional U.S. assets to deter a wider war were on scene. 

OVER THE WEEKEND, at a peace summit in Cairo, one of the U.S.' most reliable regional allies, King Abdullah of Jordan, gave a short and scathing speech in English against the "war crime" Israel is pursuing in Gaza. 

Abdullah is the furthest thing from a Hamas apologist. It was striking when he refused last week to meet with Biden. His prime message at Saturday's summit was to rail against the impunity that the U.S. and its allies provide to Israel. "Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity, and basic necessities would be condemned," Abdullah said, since efforts at accountability for such crimes have occurred "in another context." 

He's talking about Russia's attack on Ukraine. I neglected to mention in my Friday piece that Biden equated Israel with the Ukrainian resistance to Russia, despite its far clearer parallel with the Russian invader. But you can rest assured Abdullah did not miss it. And Jordan was one of the few non-European countries to vote the U.S.' way on Ukraine in the United Nations last year. 

No one should confuse a king with a tribune of the people. But it was hard not to recall Fiona Hill's recent acknowledgement that a great deal of the world is uninterested in the West's narrative on Ukraine given how frequently it reserves for itself the right to violate international law without consequence. So much of the world is infuriated by Israel's pitiless collective punishment of Gaza, and they recognize that the United States sponsors it, to the point where Washington will not permit so much as a pause in the bombing. The Biden administration seems, after meeting with the Israeli war cabinet, to understand the scale of Palestinian civilian suffering will be far worse tomorrow than it already is today, when 5,000 Palestinians are dead and 15,000 are injured. There is a reason I kept using words like apartheid on Ezra's show. Biden is sending an unmistakable signal, clear even to America's most sympathetic regional allies, about what U.S. global leadership accomplishes.

READ THE ACCOUNT of Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85-year old grandmother whom Hamas beat and dragged from the Nir Oz kibbutz into the Gaza tunnels, where Palestinians then treated her humanely. It's a complicated, often-horrifying story of simultaneous terror and humanity, and it is appropriately destabilizing to read. After Hamas released Yocheved and 79-year old Nurit Cooper, Yocheved's son Arnon was quoted as saying, "If everyone there is in the same situation, there is room for optimism."

The only way forward is an immediate ceasefire, an end to the siege of Gaza, the release of the Israeli hostages, and an arduous-as-it-has-ever-been return to negotiations for the freedom of Palestine. Y.L. Sheikh and Abe Silberstein, writing jointly in Dissent over the weekend, reminded us to hold true to the only path that can save both Israelis and Palestinians:

Our long-term objective, liberation, will come only through the end of the occupation and the establishment of a free, democratic, and equal Israel/Palestine that values Palestinian and Jewish lives alike. There are important debates to be had about the exact political and sovereign configurations of such a new reality, matters which divide the left in the United States and in the region. To the extent these controversies may hinder us in the immediate mission of saving lives, they must be set aside for now. How can we imagine the details of a better future while any possibility for its realization smolders before our eyes?

Do we have to wait for more dead Palestinian children, more dead Israeli children, more kidnapped Israeli grandparents? Do we have to wait for a wider war that offers only regional destruction?