Divisions over US support for Israel deepen at State Department

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Israel’s war against Hamas is deepening divisions among nonpartisan American government officials, who are raising alarm that the Biden administration’s ironclad commitment to Israel is failing to take into account key issues of concern. 

Letters and memos of dissent are circulating among State Department staff. The documents are described as being led by early and mid-career officials staking out a position that puts them at odds with senior leaders. 

President Biden has rallied behind Israel’s right to defend itself following the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, that killed 1,400 people, the majority of them civilians. More than 240 other people were kidnapped by Hamas and taken back to Gaza as hostages.

But the exorbitant death toll in Gaza, where an estimated 10,000 people have been killed, combined with the fast-track shipment of U.S. weapons to Israel are weighing heavily on U.S. diplomats. 

Josh Paul resigned on Oct. 18 from his position at the State Department, where he worked on arms transfers to Israel. He said others at State have reached out to him since his resignation.

“I’m hearing essentially two strands of argument, or of concern,” Paul said in a call with The Hill. “One is, what you might call a moral stand – where people joined government to do good and they don’t like facilitating the massive death of civilians, and they don’t like when there is no space for policy debate about these basic human rights issues.”

The other argument Paul said he’s hearing is concern that the Biden administration’s approach towards Israel is isolating the U.S. in the region and undermining America’s position on the global stage. 

“The current policy approach is having massively negative consequences for the U.S. foreign policy, both in terms of our relationships in the Middle East and more broadly in terms of our strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China,” he said.

The president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the union representing the State Department’s Foreign Service members, said employees are caught in a difficult situation. 

“We know it’s a fraught issue, we know there’s a lot of emotions involved. No one can be unmoved seeing those images every night on the evening news, and we know that,” said Tom Yazdgerdi, the AFSA president.  

These diplomats are tasked with weighing the hard choices of what is necessary for U.S. national security versus what, if any, potential collateral damage may occur.  

Yazdgerdi said that State Department leadership, and separately AFSA have met with employee organizations to make sure “they’re being supported” and heard.  

“Arab Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies, American Muslims and Friends at State, Jewish Americans in Diplomacy, these are all employee organizations that we have met with or will meet to make sure they’re being supported because obviously what’s happening in Israel and Gaza has domestic implications here. People feel unsafe, they feel maybe that they’re not being listened to,” he said.  

“Of course, we endorse the opportunity for these groups to be heard. From what we’ve gathered, they’ve had meetings with senior leadership, including the Secretary, which is a positive development, he said.

The Biden administration has been walking a fine line, calling for humanitarian or tactical pauses that they hope will preserve Israel’s ability to carry out its military targeting of Hamas and allow an avenue to try and protect civilians. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, following a trip to Israel, said Wednesday: “We believe there are additional steps that can and should be taken to try to minimize civilian casualties.”

Hundreds of staff in the U.S. Agency for International Development anonymously signed an open letter to Biden calling for an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, Foreign Policy reported. 

And some State Department staff are pushing for the Biden administration to support a ceasefire and strike a more forceful tone with the Israelis in public, including criticism of Israeli military tactics and treatment of Palestinians, according to at least one draft dissent memo obtained by Politico.   

Dissent channel memos are considered sacrosanct in the State Department and are supposed to remain private. The channel allows staff at any level to raise concerns to senior officials, in particular the Secretary of State, on opposing views to administration policy.

It’s always controversial if such memos become public, as their release, some say, can have a chilling effect on staff feeling comfortable to raise opposition to administration policy for fear of retribution.

Ben Fishman, who served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said the criticisms he’s hearing from State Department staff about the administration’s policy is “a general concern that the administration is not sufficiently addressing Palestinian, specifically civilian Gazan’s concerns.”

Fishman, now a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he didn’t view the recommendations in the leaked dissent memo as representing a mutiny among State Department staff.  

“The truth is, most people I think are reasonable and they understand the basis of this administration’s policy. And maybe they’re disappointed,” he said. 

“The bottom line is that the uglier the war gets — it will most likely be ugly not better — you’ll probably see more voices like this. Hopefully we’ll see a change in the direction of the war, but that’s not my expectation.”

While the U.S. position towards Israel is generally shared by Western and democratic governments, Arab and Gulf nations are challenging the U.S. to push Israel to accept a ceasefire and are accusing Israel of war crimes.

The United Nations General Assembly late last month passed a resolution calling for a “humanitarian truce” between Israel and Hamas. The U.S. and 13 other nations voted against the resolution for failing to condemn Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7. Forty-five countries abstained. 

In Paul’s resignation letter, he cited opposition to the surge in military support to Israel, criticizing the administration and lawmakers in Congress as acting on “an impulsive reaction built on confirmation bias, political convenience, intellectual bankruptcy, and bureaucratic inertia.”

Paul’s position in the State Department was to review and sign off on weapons transfers in line with administration policy, a process he said filtered through 20,000 arms transfer requests per year and that could be boiled down to a “no; yes; or yes, but.”

What prompted his resignation, Paul said, was that “there was no debate” on the weapons transfers to Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. 

The administration has not identified what specifically it has sent to Israel, saying it is at least air defense supplies, munitions, armor and rifles. 

Biden officials say they expect Israel to carry out its strikes within the bounds of international humanitarian law and there’s a legal debate surrounding how justified military actions are in neutralizing threats compared to the potential for civilian casualties. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), in a briefing with reporters on Oct. 26, said he was not “ready to acknowledge that there is a misuse of weapons” on the part of Israel, and criticized Hamas as using civilians as human shields.  

“We know they’re doing everything they possibly can to make it more difficult for Israel to accomplish its military objectives by putting innocent civilians in harm’s way. That’s their objective.”

But there’s growing divisions among Biden’s most ardent supporters in the Senate.

A group of 26 Democratic senators on Wednesday sent a letter to the president asking for more information on how Israel is working to mitigate civilian casualties.

“We respectfully ask your team to provide us with information relative to these two clear U.S. priorities: supporting an Israeli strategy that will effectively degrade and defeat the threat from Hamas and taking all possible measures to protect civilians in Gaza,” the senators wrote. 

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