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Are U.S. interests served by the country supporting Israel's war on Hamas?


As the new year begins, Israel's war in Gaza is nearing its three-month mark. President Biden's request for an aid package - that includes some $14 billion for Israel - is stalled in Congress. The administration has now twice bypassed Congress to approve emergency weapons sales to Israel. My colleague Michel Martin asked two guests on different sides of the issue whether, or how, America's support for Israel's war serves U.S. interests. They are Yousef Munayyer, head of the Palestine/Israel program at the Arab Center think tank, and Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. That's a think tank founded after 9/11 that focuses on threats to U.S. national security. Here's Schanzer.

JONATHAN SCHANZER: The first thing to remember here is that Hamas is part of a network of Iran-backed terrorist organizations. So that includes Hezbollah. It includes the Houthis, the Shiite militias that are based in Iraq and Syria that have attacked U.S. forces more than 100 times since October 17. And if our goal ultimately is to weaken this Iranian axis that they have built up over time and to weaken Iran's influence on the Middle East, Hamas is actually a good place to start.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Mr. Munayyer, what about you? Do you think that this serves U.S. interests?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: When it comes to the continued support for this war on Gaza, it's very clear that it doesn't serve U.S. interests. The United States has had to move military assets into the region, which of course comes at a cost, increases the cost to the U.S. taxpayer, which is paying for all of this military maneuvering on the American side and also paying for a lot of the support to Israel. Also, there's the disruption in shipping in the Red Sea, which has a bigger impact on the global economy. On the diplomatic front, the United States is isolated when it comes to its allies, who at this point have all called for a cease-fire. Basically, all NATO allies are there already. The United States is not.

MARTIN: Is there a way that the U.S. could be supporting Israel without supporting the way this war is being conducted right now?

MUNAYYER: U.S. support for Israel does serve certain American interests, particularly when it comes to extending American power throughout the region. Of course, there are also costs associated with this.

MARTIN: OK, so, Mr. Schanzer, can you take up that point?

SCHANZER: Look, I think the real way that the United States can solve all of this, and remarkably, it's just not been discussed, is to be leaning on Hamas' patrons to force a surrender of this terrorist organization to force it to lay down its arms and to leave the Gaza Strip. And here I'm talking about the primary patron of Iran, but also countries like Qatar, Turkey, even Malaysia, Algeria. I don't think anyone wants to see this war continue. Why the U.S. has not used that leverage up until now is really shocking to me.

MARTIN: Why do you think they haven't?

SCHANZER: I think that the U.S. is fearful of a broader clash with Iran. Number two, I think we are dealing with two other primary patrons. The Qataris have our largest airbase in the Middle East, and they have been patrons of Hamas. The same with the Turks. These are NATO allies with a major base in central Turkey. And we now have this challenge of trying to confront them. I don't see this as a question of whether to support Israel. This is a question of whether we should be continuing to have these very inconvenient relationships with what I would call frenemies, countries that purport to be American allies while also supporting terrorist groups around the region.

MARTIN: What about Mr. Munayyer's point about what seems to be the U.S.' growing isolation, even among NATO allies?

SCHANZER: Hamas carried out a massacre of 1,200 people. It raped women. It killed children. It kidnapped 240 people. The Israelis have every right to respond. They do not want to see civilian casualties. They don't want to see IDF casualties. But this is, after all, a war. It's a war that no one in Israel wants to continue. They want Hamas gone so that they can go back to quiet. And I think that is lost on many in America. I think it's lost on many in Europe.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Munayyer, your thoughts about how this is affecting the way America is seen around the world?

MUNAYYER: For many, it's just further confirming something that they have long thought about the United States. And that's that when it talks about things like values and democracy and human rights, that these are empty words. You know, this isn't just about people responding to protests in the street. This is about people being fundamentally disturbed and horrified by the reality that they're seeing on the ground.

MARTIN: If you had the ear of the administration, what would you advise them to do at this point?

MUNAYYER: Well, we need to bring an immediate end to this war, not just because of what it is doing to the civilian population on the ground who had nothing to do with October 7, but also because it is completely counterproductive to the idea of peace. And if the options that are presented to Palestinians are perpetual apartheid, which has been the policies of this government in Israel, supported by the United States, or even worse, genocide or armed resistance, they're going to continue to support the latter. So if the idea is to try to get rid of Hamas, the way that Israel is going about it is doing the exact opposite thing.

MARTIN: Both of you who have worked in this area for such a long time, both of you have, you know, relationships with people in in the region, do you mind if I just ask each of you, how are you sitting with this? And what do you see as your role at a time like this?

SCHANZER: Well, it's been exhausting, you know, mentally, physically. It's been horrific to watch. And the challenge that I have been really just - I've had a hard time getting my head wrapped around is the disconnect between the way in which Israelis are processing this, Palestinians are processing this, folks in the Arab world are trying to process this, and then, of course, those here in the United States. There are very, very different narratives. And trying to align them right now seems to be the greatest challenge and, I think, really requires the most amount of effort from me and from others that are trying to look for constructive exits from this war.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Munayyer?

MUNAYYER: It's extremely difficult and exhausting, and at the same time, on a personal level with many family connections in Gaza, it's a terrifying time. We know several people who have been killed and many others who are starving now.

MARTIN: That's Yousef Munayyer. He's head of the Palestine/Israel program at the Arab Center. And Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Thank you both so much for talking about this.

SCHANZER: Thank you.

MUNAYYER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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