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Former U.S. diplomat argues for stronger tactics on Israel


When it comes to America's relationships in the world, there are certain things that are almost never questioned - the special relationship with Great Britain, that the U.S. will be there in times of need for its allies and its support for the state of Israel. But more and more, as Israel fights against Hamas in Gaza, both Americans and people around the world are questioning the wisdom of that commitment. The questioning intensified this week after Israeli bombs killed seven humanitarian workers from the World Central Kitchen aid agency. Israel's military called it a mistake. World Central Kitchen's founder, the famed chef Jose Andres, told Reuters his group's convoy was intentionally attacked.


JOSE ANDRES: They were targeted systematically, car by car. What I know is that we were targeted deliberately nonstop until everybody was dead in this convoy.

KELLY: Could this moment mark an inflection point in the war and in U.S.-Israeli relations? Let's bring in Richard Haass to consider that. He's a veteran diplomat and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome back, Richard Haass.

RICHARD HAASS: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Let me set the stage just a little further. Today President Biden spoke with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House says Biden called for specific and concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm but did not say what actions the U.S. might take if those steps were not carried out. Do you hear any shift here in the U.S. position?

HAASS: I hear some shift in the tone, but to be perfectly honest, for six months now, the administration has been trying to persuade Israel to act otherwise, you know, when it comes to allowing your aid in or on how it is prepared to use military force. And for the most part, this advice has been rejected out of hand. So the real question is to what extent, if any, are the Israelis prepared to adjust their behavior and whether that will satisfy the administration. And if not, what exactly, then, is the Biden administration prepared to do?

KELLY: I gather you believe the Biden administration should be considering American sanctions on Israel. What kind of sanctions?

HAASS: Well, I would be prepared to limit the availability of American arms and ammunition, depending upon how they are used, essentially to avoid civilian casualties. I would be looking to, you know, press the Israelis to allow much more humanitarian aid in. If they were refusing to, I would look for more independent international actions to do it. I would also put a lot of pressure on the Israelis not to expand settlement activity or taking more land that would allow that, which they did just the other day, and also be articulating a much more independent path for what ought to happen politically.

KELLY: I just want to make sure I understand this scenario. In this scenario, at the same time that the U.S., in your view, should be sanctioning Israel, it would continue to provide weapons to Israel to carry out this war.

HAASS: I think the United States has to continue to provide Israel with weapons because Israel faces multiple threats - from Iran, potentially from other Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah acting out of Lebanon. The real question is what - is how Israel uses these arms. And the real disagreement the United States has with Israel is that it's using these arms in a way that is not taking sufficient efforts to minimize civilian casualties. And essentially, we have to lay down some ground rules. And if those are not met, then I would stop providing certain kinds of weaponry or look for other penalties.

KELLY: Would that be enough to persuade Netanyahu to change course, you think?

HAASS: It's a really good question. Historically, Israeli prime ministers have paid a price if they were seen domestically to mismanage its relationship - Israel's relationship with the United States, its most important benefactor. Whether Bibi Netanyahu would back down or whether he would try to represent himself as the one person in Israel ready and able to stand up to American pressure - that remains to be seen.

KELLY: How big of a reversal of U.S. policy would that represent?

HAASS: Well, it would be quite a big one. We've had other moments. If you think about Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, he threatened economic sanctions against Israel. President Bush 41, George Herbert Walker Bush, introduced certain limited sanctions. Ronald Reagan had real differences with Menachem Begin over the war in Lebanon. But something like this now would be big, given in particular the trauma that was October 7.

KELLY: You mentioned George H.W. Bush. You served in his White House, right?

HAASS: Exactly.

KELLY: How big a leap, how big a reversal does this represent for you to be calling potentially for U.S. sanctions on Israel?

HAASS: I'm uncomfortable with it on one level, but I think it's important to distinguish, Mary Louise, between support for Israel and support for Israeli government policy. I describe myself - I define myself as an ardent supporter of Israel. But the United States has to remain distant, has to be prepared to do the sorts of things we're talking about when we believe Israeli government policy is not in the interests of the United States and, I would argue, in the interests of this relationship or even Israel itself.

KELLY: Yeah. I know that you're in contact with people in the current administration. When you float these views, what do you get back?

HAASS: I believe there's quite a lot of sympathy for what I'm saying. It's a struggle. The administration is trying to balance support for Israel with its disagreements with Israeli policy. I think the president in particular feels an emotional bond to Israel. It might be a generational thing. He - you know, he came of age when Israel was much more David than Goliath. I think for younger people in the administration, it's less difficult to distance themselves from Israel when they disagree with its policy.

KELLY: Yeah. Last question - did you ever think you'd see a day when the U.S. commitment to Israel would be so widely, so intensely questioned?

HAASS: I did not, and it's a sad day. And I wish Israeli leaders took it more seriously. In the long run, Israel needs a strong bond with the United States, and I worry when future generations are going to come into positions of power in this country. If they don't have instinctive sympathy for Israel, I think that's bad for both countries.

KELLY: Richard Haass is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations - always good to talk to you. Thank you.

HAASS: Thanks for having me. 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.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.