US foreign policy institutions increasingly divided over Gaza

US foreign policy institutions increasingly divided over Gaza

The decision by hundreds of people serving in the government to speak out represents a massive change in US political culture
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President Joe Biden and the US Congress have remained staunchly pro-Israel in the face of the Hamas attack in October and the devastation in Gaza. However, many younger staff members in various branches of government are challenging the traditional policy of unconditional support for Israel and the norms that have long stood against those who might disagree.

In the last few weeks, staff at the State Department, the US Agency for International Development and Congress have used a range of means to criticize unconditional US backing for Israel. They have strongly condemned the horrific Hamas attack, while also calling for better protection for Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The specific critiques vary, but generally they reflect concern that US policy is too heavily tipped in favor of Israel.

The decision by hundreds of people serving in the US government to speak out on this issue represents a massive change in US political culture. It reflects a growing generational and partisan gap in perspectives toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Polling has shown that younger Americans are more likely to sympathize with Palestinians than older Americans; younger Americans are also more likely to oppose sending more US weapons to Israel. The growing movement within the government to change policy comes largely from younger and mid-level staffers.

There also is a growing partisan gap. For decades, support for Israel was very strong among Democrats and Republicans, but that has shifted in recent years. In March, a Gallup poll showed that, for the first time, more Democrats said they sympathized more with Palestinians (49 percent) than Israelis (38 percent). A recent NPR poll found that 56 percent of Democrats now think that Israel has gone too far in its response to the Hamas attack, compared to 14 percent of Republicans.

The growing movement within the government to change policy comes largely from younger and mid-level staffers

Kerry Boyd Anderson

As the death toll in Gaza has climbed, more government staffers have been speaking out. On Capitol Hill, a growing number of congressional aides to Democratic members of Congress have publicly voiced disagreement with their bosses’ staunch support for Israel. Congressional aides are often young and Democratic congressional aides particularly draw from the cohort of Americans who are most likely to sympathize with the Palestinians.

Through open letters and a recent protest outside the Capitol, they have condemned the Hamas attack, called for the release of hostages, demanded a ceasefire and called on members of Congress to use their influence with Israel to insist on protections for Palestinian civilians.

Most of the congressional aides who have expressed these views have done so anonymously. A few have gone on the record and one has publicly resigned over the issue, but most have remained anonymous due to concerns that they could lose their jobs and face violent threats if they spoke out publicly. A strong norm against criticizing Israel dominates much of Congress, as well as a norm against openly disagreeing with the senator or representative for whom an aide works. Nonetheless, observers with experience covering Congress have noted the unprecedented nature and scale of dissent among aides over the Gaza war.

The environment for staff at the State Department is different. Civil servants in the department are expected to be less partisan than on Capitol Hill. While congressional aides tend to be young, State Department staff come from multiple generations. They are professional foreign policy practitioners with careers and often families to support. The stakes for them are, in many ways, higher.

However, the State Department also has a dissent channel that is designed to allow officials to express disagreements with policy in a constructive way. Officials who use the channel are supposed to be protected from retaliation. The channel is intended to be confidential within the State Department, allowing space for officials to raise concerns that senior leadership can consider. Sometimes, messages from the dissent channel are leaked to the press.

One long-serving official, Josh Paul, resigned in opposition to sending more weapons to Israel

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Media outlets have reported that at least three dissent cables regarding US policy toward Israel were sent to department leadership in recent weeks. Publicly available information about the dissent channel cables is incomplete, but reports suggest that at least dozens of State Department employees signed them. Concerns among staff include moral issues and a professional warning that unconditional support for Israel is damaging US diplomacy and interests. They have requested that Washington do more to fairly balance its policy and public statements regarding Israel and the Palestinians. One long-serving official, Josh Paul, resigned in opposition to sending more weapons to Israel.

Furthermore, more than 1,000 USAID employees have signed a letter calling for an immediate ceasefire and expressing concern over “the numerous violations of international law,” according to The Washington Post.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has tried to reassure State Department officials that he is listening and there has been a slight shift in his rhetoric. In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post on Saturday, Biden expressed heartbreak over Palestinian suffering as well as Israeli suffering.

However, a mild shift in tone will be too little to address the concerns that State Department and USAID employees and congressional aides are raising. The older generation that still dominates US foreign policy has a different perspective than the younger generation that must implement that policy. The dominance of staunchly pro-Israel views among senior foreign policy leadership and members of Congress means that substantive changes in policy are unlikely in the short term.

Yet, as a younger generation demonstrates its willingness to openly question traditional assumptions, there is likely to be growing friction over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and perhaps the Middle East more broadly within the foreign policymaking and policy-implementing parts of the US government.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. X: @KBAresearch
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