October 9, 2023
The crisis in the Middle East has continued to escalate. Since I last wrote on Saturday, October 7, the contours of the attack on Israel by Hamas have become clearer. More than 900 Israelis have been killed in the fighting, and dozens more have been taken hostage and are now being held in Gaza, with Hamas threatening to execute them if Israelis target civilians without warning. At least 11 U.S. citizens were killed in the attack.
In retaliation, Israel has struck the Gaza Strip from the air and restricted food, electricity, and fuel. Around 680 people have been killed in Gaza, and more than 187,500 have been displaced. Thousands more have been wounded on both sides.
Rumors are flying about how deeply Iran backed the attack by Hamas, and whether Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew ahead of time about the attack, but there is little analysis yet that is verified. At the same time, the volume of disinformation spreading suggests that the crisis is being used to destabilize the U.S. by increasing the already strong feelings about the conflicts between Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East.
And, over all, the conflict is deeply steeped in centuries of history both in the region and elsewhere as well as in longstanding cultural antisemitism, which had been on the rise and which is now, in some countries, at fever pitch.
For my part, while I am willing to try to keep people abreast of key players and events in the present crisis, I am trying to be cautious and not speculate in areas about which, as a scholar of the United States, I am not versed. The volume of hate mail about last Saturday’s letter, pretty evenly divided between those accusing me of backing one side and those accusing me of backing the other, is about the highest I’ve ever received, but I was trying simply to present the verified events of Saturday alone, with a focus on how they affected the United States.
While I can’t say much about the internal meaning of events in the Middle East, I can reflect on what is happening, on a day-to-day basis, in the U.S. in response to the crisis.
President Joe Biden has been in touch with Prime Minister Netanyahu throughout the last few days, and this morning met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer, Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall, and White House chief of staff Jeff Zientz about the situation, directing them to act with their Israeli counterparts on all parts of the crisis but focusing primarily on the missing hostages.
This afternoon, Biden called the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom to coordinate support for Israel. After the call, the leaders issued a rare joint statement, expressing “our steadfast and united support to the State of Israel, and our unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and its appalling acts of terrorism.” They reiterated that “the terrorist actions of Hamas have no justification, no legitimacy, and must be universally condemned. There is never any justification for terrorism. In recent days, the world has watched in horror as Hamas terrorists massacred families in their homes, slaughtered over 200 young people enjoying a music festival, and kidnapped elderly women, children, and entire families, who are now being held as hostages.”
They emphasized that their countries would support Israel against such atrocities, and again warned other countries against trying to exploit the chaos after the attack to gain an advantage.
At the same time, the statement continued, “All of us recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, and support equal measures of justice and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians alike. But make no mistake: Hamas does not represent those aspirations, and it offers nothing for the Palestinian people other than more terror and bloodshed.”
The U.S. is facing this crisis with a weakened diplomatic corps, a weakened military, and a weakened government.
Because of holds Republican senators have put on the nomination process, the U.S. does not have a Senate-confirmed ambassador to Israel or Egypt, the two countries that border the Gaza Strip. The nominees for U.S. ambassador to Oman and Kuwait are similarly waiting for confirmation, as is the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has held up several of the Middle East nominations, claiming that the “nominees keep lying to Congress and the American people, testifying publicly that they are committed to countering Iran and deepening the U.S.-Israel relationship then implementing the opposite policies in secret once confirmed.”
The military is also down critical leaders, as Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) is refusing to lift his hold on more than 300 uncontroversial military promotions, a hold he says is to protest Pentagon policy of permitting military personnel time off to obtain abortion care.
And the House of Representatives is without a speaker, making it unclear what, if any, business other than electing a new speaker it can conduct. The two candidates in the race for speaker—Representatives Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Jim Jordan (R-OH)—apparently hope to be elected from within the Republican conference, but neither has shown any sign of being able to find the necessary votes.
Scalise is saddled with his own declaration years ago that he was like Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke “without the baggage,” and—in addition to old accusations of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of the Ohio State University wrestlers on the team of which he was the assistant coach between 1987 and 1995—Jordan is closely associated with the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Republicans from more moderate districts are likely to be reluctant to back either of them.
Today, former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) suggested he would be willing to return to the speaker’s chair and noted that he had more votes than any other current Republican candidate when the extremists ousted him last week.
This evening, House Republicans met in private to discuss the speakership. They are expected to hold a candidate forum tomorrow and a private vote on a nominee Wednesday. They then hope to have a candidate to take forward for a floor vote.