Middle East policy expert Trita Parsi says President Biden’s reluctance to press Israel for a ceasefire in Gaza has the potential to drag the U.S. into a war with Iran and its allies in the region. On Monday, Israel reportedly killed a Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon, just days after an airstrike killed a senior Hamas leader in the capital Beirut. Meanwhile, the U.S. has exchanged fire with Yemen’s Houthi forces, who have attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea to pressure Israel to stop its war. “The Biden administration clearly do not want an escalation,” says Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. But the longer Israel’s war on Gaza continues with full U.S. support, the less likely regional actors are to continue showing restraint, he says. “This is not going to work in the long run.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back in the Middle East to meet with leaders across the region. During a stop in Qatar, Blinken warned the war in Gaza could, quote, “easily metastasize into a regional war.” While Blinken is publicly calling for deescalation, the Biden administration continues to face criticism for sending more weapons to Israel while carrying out its own attacks in Iraq and Syria, as well as targeting Houthi forces in Yemen. This comes as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has entered its fourth month, as the U.N. top humanitarian official warns the relentless assault has left Gaza “uninhabitable.” According to Palestinian health officials, the death toll in Gaza is nearing 23,000, including almost 10,000 children.
Israel’s attacks continue to take a devastating toll on Palestinian journalists. By one count, at least 100 Palestinian journalists have been killed so far since October 7th. On Sunday, an Israeli airstrike in southern Gaza killed two journalists: Mustafa Thuraya of Agence France-Presse and Hamza al-Dahdouh of Al Jazeera. Hamza was the eldest son of Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh, who had already lost his wife, daughter, another son and a grandson in an Israeli airstrike in October, and then was wounded in another strike that killed his cameraman, Samer Abudaqa. On Sunday, the BBC’s Julian Marshall interviewed Israeli spokesperson Eylon Levy.
JULIAN MARSHALL: Are Al Jazeera operating in Gaza legitimate journalists, as far as Israel is concerned?
EYLON LEVY: I’m not sure what standard we’re using to measure legitimate journalists. We have intense criticism of Al Jazeera in the way that they have been fueling a lot of violence in this conflict with their incorrect reporting.
JULIAN MARSHALL: OK. So, Israel, the Israeli government —
EYLON LEVY: But this is not a relevant question.
JULIAN MARSHALL: The Israeli government is not a fan of Al Jazeera. Is that what you’re saying to me?
EYLON LEVY: Correct.
JULIAN MARSHALL: Right.
EYLON LEVY: We are not big fans of Al Jazeera, that is correct. We much prefer the BBC.
JULIAN MARSHALL: Right. But so, you would possibly prefer Al Jazeera not to have a presence in Gaza?
EYLON LEVY: We’d prefer for Hamas not to have a presence in Gaza, and that is what we’re talking about now.
JULIAN MARSHALL: Well, I’m talking about — I’m talking about Al Jazeera. You would prefer Al Jazeera not to have a presence in Gaza?
EYLON LEVY: We would prefer that all media reporting about this conflict be accurate and not spread lies and disinformation in the way that Al Jazeera has been doing.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His piece for The Nation is headlined “Will Israel Drag the US Into Another Ruinous War?”
Trita, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, we’re talking to you —
TRITA PARSI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — on the Blinken trip through the Middle East, something like the fifth time he’ll be going back to Israel and the West Bank. And when he was in Qatar this weekend and held a news conference the day he arrived in Qatar, Al Jazeera’s reporter Hamza al-Dahdouh, the son of the Gaza bureau chief of Al Jazeera, Wael al-Dahdouh, was killed in a U.S. airstrike on a car that also killed an AFP reporter. Can you talk about the significance of this?
TRITA PARSI: Well, this is the conflict in which we have seen more journalists being killed than in any other recent conflict. And it increasingly appears as if those are not accidents but actually targeted, particularly in the case of this journalist. As you mentioned in your program, his family has been targeted, he has been targeted, and now his son has been killed, as well. It increasingly looks as if Israel is desiring to make sure that Al Jazeera no longer can operate in Gaza. And it is largely thanks to Al Jazeera that we know so much about what has been happening in Gaza, because they had a presence there from before the war began, so they were already there once the war started. This is a tremendous danger, because with what the South Africans are accusing Israel of when it comes to genocide, not having eyes and ears on the ground there completely changes the pictures in terms of what the Israelis can and cannot do.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what this means in terms of an escalation — not a deescalation, although Tony Blinken keeps talking about deescalation — of a wider war in the Middle East, why he’s in the Middle East, having gone from Turkey and Greece to Qatar — he’s going to Saudi Arabia today — to Israel and to the West Bank and beyond.
TRITA PARSI: I think the Biden administration clearly do not want an escalation. They do not want to see a widening of the war. But the approach that they have pursued is one in which they’re trying to maximize Israel’s ability to continue to bomb Gaza, while putting pressure on other actors in the region for them not to escalate, while the administration itself admits that there is no desire in Hezbollah, in Iran for a wider war. So, it’s not as if they want that war, when it comes to Hezbollah, yet the pressure is supposed to be on them, while not putting pressure on the Israelis. This is not going to work in the long run. We’ve already seen that day by day we’re getting closer and closer towards a military confrontation that is much larger than just Gaza. Unless the Biden administration is willing to also put material support on Israel, we will most likely move further into that escalation.
And this is what is so perplexing about the Biden administration’s position. The fastest and easiest way to actually get a deescalation is most likely a ceasefire in Gaza. The groups such as Iraqi militias, the Houthis have made it clear that if there is a ceasefire, they will cease their attacks. Now, we have evidence of that, as well, because when there was a ceasefire in the end of November of last year for six days, there were no attacks whatsoever from the Iraqi militias. They completely stopped their attacks. There were six attacks the day before the ceasefire. But once there was a ceasefire, they were completely stopped. When it comes to the Houthis, there’s only one attack during that period that we can attribute to them, instead of daily attacks. So we have some clear evidence that if there is a ceasefire, there will be a deescalation. Yet that is the option that the Biden administration is unwilling to pursue. Instead, it is going around the region asking other countries to put more pressure on Iran, no Hezbollah, on other actors. Some of that pressure is probably quite needed. But in the absence of a ceasefire, it will probably not be effective.
AMY GOODMAN: As Tony Blinken, as President Biden calls for a deescalation, they continue to provide weapons, circumventing Congress twice, providing artillery shells for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. You quote in your Nation piece retired Israeli Major General Yitzhak Brick, who conceded in November, “All of our missiles, the ammunition, the precision-guided bombs, all the airplanes and bombs, it’s all from the U.S.” Can you talk further about this, this contradiction between what the U.S. is saying and actually how much power it has? Give us a history lesson in the past, going back to President Reagan and Lebanon, when the U.S. says, “Stop.”
TRITA PARSI: The Biden administration, I think, has been pushing a narrative that essentially says that Biden doesn’t have the leverage, the U.S. doesn’t have the leverage to be able to stop this. It doesn’t seem to be compatible with reality, because, as you pointed out, the Israeli major general himself admits that all of these weapons are coming from the United States, and if the U.S. were to put a stop to these shipments, then the Israelis would not be able to continue this fight for much longer.
So, a question is not whether the U.S. has leverage — it clearly does. The question is whether Biden is willing to use it. And so far he has not been willing to use it, because he’s actually buying into supporting the Israeli objective of completely defeating Hamas. He seems to want to see Israel do to Hamas what the U.S. couldn’t do to the Taliban.
But we have historical examples. In 1982, when Israel went into Lebanon, and the Reagan administration started to become increasingly concerned about this and viewed it as being detrimental to U.S. interests, eventually Ronald Reagan, both publicly and a private conversation with Menachem Begin, essentially told him, “You have to stop; otherwise, I’m going to freeze the shipments of F-16 airplanes to Israel.” Within 20 minutes, Menachem Begin called back and ordered a retreat of the Israelis out of Lebanon. We have clear examples in the past in which pressure, particularly public pressure, actually has been effective. The reason why Biden is not using it is because he’s bought into the Israeli objective.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, all the polls in the United States show the overwhelming number of young voters are opposed to his position right now when it comes to Israel and the West Bank — people of color, as well. Can you explain, as a person who understands a lot about what goes on inside the Beltway, why Biden is refusing to, in any way, stand up, not just signal on the outside calling for deescalation, but actually making those calls, since he’s had, to say the least, so many with Netanyahu?
TRITA PARSI: I think the Biden administration made a huge miscalculation from the outset. They did not think that there would be this type of a backlash amongst the American public, including his own supporters, against the Israeli campaign. Now when it has happened, it appears that the conclusion in the White House is that they have already lost these votes, they will not be able to gain them back if they shift their position, but if they shift their position, they will likely lose some of the voters that are in support of Israel’s campaign. That calculation, however, seems to leave out a very important component, which is that there’s also another bloc of voters, a bloc of voters that have not yet given up on Biden, but if this war continues, as it now appears that it will, and particularly if it enlargens and drags the U.S. into it, then Biden also risks losing that bloc. And if that bloc is larger than the bloc of voters who support Israel’s campaign, then Biden is compounding his initial miscalculation by further undermining his own ability to get reelected.
AMY GOODMAN: The Iraqi government is blasting the United States after a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed a top commander in an Iran-backed militia in Iraq. On Friday, the Iraqi government announced plans to expel U.S.-led forces from Iraq. Can you talk about the significance of this, Trita?
TRITA PARSI: This is very important, because this is highly problematic for the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government has tried to walk a fine balancing act. They wanted to keep a certain degree of a U.S. military presence in Iraq, at least for the next few years, while at the same time balancing that against the pressure from Iraqi militias and others who want to see the U.S. leave.
Once the U.S. is now actually assassinating leaders of those militias inside of Iraq — in the previous weeks, those attacks were taking place in Syria. Now they’ve also started to take place in Iraq itself. This is highly problematic. It’s a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, according to the Iraqi government, and it further increases the pressure on the Iraqi government to ask the U.S. to leave, which I believe will happen relatively — you know, in the next years or so, it will happen. It’s not sustainable to have the U.S. troops there.
Ultimately, from a U.S. perspective, I think that’s actually a good thing. Those troops in Iraq are essentially sitting ducks, and they’re targets of these Iraqi militias. You take those troops out, and the Iraqi militias don’t have targets to shoot at — and as a result, a tripwire for the U.S. to get dragged into war. At least that one will be removed.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, as we wrap up: A suspected Israeli strike in southern Lebanon has killed a senior commander in an elite unit of Hezbollah earlier today in a move that further escalates tension in the region; the significance of this, from Iraq to southern Lebanon, Trita?
TRITA PARSI: So, you have three major fronts in which the risk of escalation is significant. Of course, you have the Red Sea, with the Houthis attacking ships. You have the Iraqi militias and Syrian militias targeting U.S. troops. And then you have the desire of the Israelis to expand the war into Lebanon and try to take out Hezbollah, as well. The last one is getting really heated up right now. The attack this morning is yet another one. There has already been a bit of a shooting war, but it’s at lower level, between Israel and Hezbollah ever since the start of the war after October 7th, but it is escalating, and it’s getting deeper into both Israeli and Lebanese territory.
One of the things that I think is highly problematic in the way that the mainstream media has covered this is that it talks about how Biden is grappling with how to avoid an escalation of this war. And I genuinely believe that the Biden administration doesn’t want that. But these reports don’t seem to mention that the demand of some of these groups is a ceasefire. And if there is a ceasefire, they would also then deescalate their attacks on U.S. troops, etc. Now, the reporting doesn’t have to say that this is what is going to happen. It should be scrutinizing these statements by the Houthis and the Iraqi militias. But at a minimum, it needs to mention that that is their demand, so that the American public is aware that there appears to exist an option for deescalation through a ceasefire. The fact that it is not mentioned in most mainstream media is highly problematic, because it leaves the public with the wrong impression, that the only way Biden can deescalate is by further escalating the situation by increasing the deterrence and attacking, whether it’s the Houthis or the Iraqi militias. The option of actually going for a ceasefire to deescalate doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the mainstream media, and that’s a major mistake, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, we want to thank you for being with us, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. We’ll link to your piece in The Nation, “Will Israel Drag the US Into Another Ruinous War?”
We were just talking about Lebanon. The Reuters reporter Issam Abdallah was also killed there. Reuters did an investigation saying it was an Israeli artillery strike that killed him. More than 100 Palestinian journalists have died since October 7th.
Coming up, we’ll go to the occupied West Bank to speak with the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate. Stay with us.
It takes longer to read this sentence than it does to support our work.
We have 2 days to raise the $30,000 needed to meet Truthout‘s basic publishing costs this month. Will you take a few seconds to donate and give us a much-needed boost?
We know you are deeply committed to the issues that matter, and you count on us to bring you trustworthy reporting and comprehensive analysis on the real issues facing our country and the world. And as a nonprofit newsroom supported by reader donations, we’re counting on you too. If you believe in the importance of an independent, free media, please make a tax-deductible donation today!