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How U.S. alignment with Israel in Gaza could be undermining American interests

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Middle East is back in war mode after what was always billed as a temporary cease-fire did indeed break down last Friday. Israel and Hamas have resumed fighting in the Gaza Strip. Gaza health officials say Israeli attacks killed hundreds of Palestinians over the weekend. And Israeli troops are now closing in on southern Gaza, where 2 million people are crowded. Meanwhile, senior U.S. officials are delivering their strongest warnings yet that Israel should avoid civilian deaths. In a moment, we'll hear how their boss, President Biden, is steering the U.S. response. But first, NPR's Fatma Tanis looks at how that response is posing challenges for American goals in the region.

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FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: The bombing was relentless in southern Gaza last night. Here's James Elder, the global spokesman for UNICEF, in Gaza this morning.

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JAMES ELDER: I don't think there was more than a five- or 10-minute period throughout the course of the night - and I really didn't sleep - where something wasn't flying overhead or the sky being lit up.

TANIS: The toll has been high. Israeli attacks have killed more than 15,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials. And those who blame Israel also blame the U.S. The White House hasn't drawn red lines for Israel and says Israel can't be expected to live with the threat Hamas poses. But criticism for U.S. policy is growing. Mairav Zonszein is the senior Israel analyst for the International Crisis Group. She's based in Tel Aviv.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: The U.S., up until now, allowed Israel to kill a lot of people and target all kinds of civilian infrastructure. You know, it knowingly stood by Israel while it's continued with this operation.

TANIS: The White House has requested $14 billion in new aid to Israel, in addition to the 3 billion in annual aid, and has not called for a cease-fire. Supporters of the U.S. policy say Hamas is to blame. Bradley Bowman is the senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank.

BRADLEY BOWMAN: Have there been a lot of casualties in Gaza? Absolutely. None of them would have happened if Hamas hadn't done what they had done on October 7. And the casualty totals would be a lot, lot lower if Hamas wasn't employing human shields the way that they are in a very cowardly manner.

TANIS: But analysts say Israel's stated endgame - the eradication of Hamas - can't be realized without a whole-scale destruction of Gaza itself. That seems to run counter to U.S. goals. President Biden says he wants to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the administration wants Israel to be secure in the region, have relations with neighboring Arab countries, and it wants to avoid a regional war. There is a risk that the U.S. could get dragged into a wider conflict. Iran's proxies in the region have stepped up attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria and the Red Sea, with some analysts noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the U.S. to take on Iran more openly in the past.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The prime minister of Israel has been known to want American presidents to engage in war with Iran, which both Obama and Trump had resisted.

TANIS: That's Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. Arab states that recently made agreements with Israel have not pulled out, and Saudi Arabia hasn't taken a potential deal with Israel off the table. Hamas isn't popular among their leaders. But in the long run, Telhami says, the images of dead Palestinian children in the media make it more difficult for Arab nations to build on their relations with Israel because of the impact on public opinion.

TELHAMI: What is at stake is a possible blowback because in the Arab and Muslim world, the U.S. is seen to be the principal enabler, if not part of the war. It is probably impacting the opinion of an entire generation that is likely to last.

TANIS: And while supporters of U.S. policy say Biden's backing of Israel and appearances with its leader give him more influence over events, Netanyahu has opposed the two-state solution that Biden calls for. Analyst Mairav Zonszein says at the core of it, this conflict is a political one that can't be solved militarily.

ZONSZEIN: When you think about the children and the people and the generations of Palestinians who have only known occupation and siege and now only know aerial bombardments, that's just not going to breed anything that would provide, I think, stability or security for Israelis.

TANIS: In recent days, two months into the war, some around Biden have signaled a slightly new tone.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: As Israel defends itself, it matters how.

LLOYD AUSTIN: That protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.

TANIS: That was Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. But Telhami says the outcome won't change unless the president himself matches the tone and acts on it.

TELHAMI: I don't see anything in this president's resume in relation to this issue that suggests that he's capable of reaping the benefit of this embrace of Israel to restrain Israeli behavior.

TANIS: But he says there are growing signs that Biden's open support for Israeli military action in Gaza could be nearing its limit. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: December 7, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
This story mistakenly referred to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as a "conservative think tank." FDD is a nonpartisan and nonprofit research institute.
Fatma Tanis