Ro Khanna is the Negotiator on a Gaza Ceasefire?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks during a news conference to discuss legislation that would temporarily halt U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia at the U.S. Capitol on October 12, 2022 in Washing... WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks during a news conference to discuss legislation that would temporarily halt U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia at the U.S. Capitol on October 12, 2022 in Washington, DC. Blumenthal and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said the legislation is a reaction to Saudi Arabia agreeing with other OPEC countries to cut production of oil, which they say will help Russia in its war with Ukraine and make allies like the U.S. suffer at the gas pump. "Saudi Arabia has broken trust with America and it needs to come to its senses," Blumenthal said. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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One TPM Reader sent me this new article on Rep. Ro Khanna jumping into the complex and perilous situation for Democrats in Michigan. The primary there is this week. But this is really about the general election. The article is fuzzy on a number of points but the gist is that Khanna seems to have taken on the role of mediator between disaffected groups in Michigan and the Biden White House. And after a series of meetings in the state Khanna says that absent a dramatic change of policy — by which he means a permanent ceasefire — Biden cannot win Michigan. That’s the gist of the article.

A few things come to mind to me about this article and this message.

The first is that the article refers to Khanna as a “Biden ally.” I would say that is at least a bit of a stretch. He’s a Democrat. And I wouldn’t call him a Biden opponent. But ally isn’t an adjective I would use. It’s also unclear whether he’s doing this with any kind of tacit blessing from the White House. Based on what I know of the overall situation — and without knowing how much he’s just doing this on his own — I’m not sure I really trust him or what he’s doing.

On the other hand, if we assume that he’s operating in good faith and at least not in opposition to the White House, he wouldn’t be able to play such a role if he’s presenting himself as a Biden loyalist or kind of aggressively making the case for Biden or his policies. He would have to create some distance and make some kind of stark statements along the lines of the one he’s issuing here.

So it’s possible to see this in one of two ways and distinguishing between the two requires information we don’t currently have.

Khanna says that after a change of policy there can be a period of “healing.”

The global problem here, as always, is that the Democratic Party is a very big and diverse coalition of different groups. Some want a decisive change in policy and others clearly do not. So it’s really not just a matter of shift policy and everyone will be happy again. That’s a challenge Democrats always face across a range of issues. Republicans do not to anything near the same degree because they’re not a coalition party in the same way.

In other words, what is often the assumption in these conversations — that the solution to the political problem is straightforward if Biden would only take it — just isn’t right.

It’s also the case that the situation on the ground has changed fairly dramatically over the last month. There’s certainly no ceasefire. But the large scale fighting has diminished dramatically and Israel has been in a kind of holding pattern over attacking Hamas’ last stronghold in Rafah. But the Israeli government has been adamant that it will eventually launch that attack. Just today I noticed this article in Haaretz by Amos Harel with the subhed: “Positive signs from Hamas on the progress of the hostage negotiations may indicate effects of Israel’s military pressure, as well as that a deal could lead to the end of the war” Whether or not that proves to be the case, the situation on the ground is a rapidly changing one. It’s not static.

Does a permanent ceasefire mean the complete release of hostages too? What about the role of Hamas in Gaza after the conflict? Since the beginning of the conflict, the language of “permanent ceasefire” has been used in an intentionally expansive and vague way, on the one hand meaning an end to the fighting (which lots of people want in some sense) and in others mostly meaning a ceasefire that only applies to Israel. That’s allowed lots of different groups to use the same or similar language. To actually make a policy out of it you need to get really specific.

Also, is the policy change calling for a ceasefire or forcing one? Those are two very different things.

One general point before getting into more specific ones. A lot of this debate has operated on the premise that this is somehow Biden’s war or that Biden has adopted a policy that is meaningfully different from what any other President might have done. That’s really not true at all. It’s all but inconceivable that any U.S. administration would have reacted to these events in a meaningfully different way. That doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. But that’s a fact. For communities seeing relatives, extended family or simply groups with whom they have a deep ethnic or religious affinity being killed and experiencing all the pain and outrage that goes with that I don’t expect that to count for much. That makes perfect sense. But it’s pretty critical context.

The real levers Biden has are several, though each is limited in important ways.

One is the transfer and sale of more military equipment. Israel has a powerful army and it’s a rich country. The U.S. doesn’t really have to be sending Israel any more military aid for this war, especially not without real concessions for things the U.S. and the Biden administration want. Netanyahu, true to form, hasn’t been willing to give much of any.

A second big one, deeply related, is going public about the White House’s big conflicts with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s far-right coalition. The Biden administration hasn’t done this nearly enough, trying to keep disagreements private as much as possible. Over time that’s become a bigger and bigger mistake, though that is difficult with any close U.S. ally. This is a tough thing to manage, both internationally and within the context of U.S. domestic politics. But the White House needs to do a lot more of it.

A third is for the U.S. to withdraw some of the shield it’s providing at the UN, something the U.S. is always leery of doing.

A fourth, which I’ve been confused the administration hasn’t done more of, is taking the initiative on the supply of food and humanitarian supplies into Gaza. The U.S. owns the skies and could be air dropping vast amounts of supplies into Gaza. I have little doubt the Gulf states would be open to footing all or most of the bill. So why not do this now?

The legitimate reason it’s slow getting relief into Gaza is because it’s a notorious pathway for smuggling arms. So the trucks need to be closely inspected. UNRWA is notoriously shot through not just with Hamas sympathizers but Palestinians who, naturally, oppose the occupation and support resistance to it in various ways. It would be shocking if that weren’t the case. UNRWA is billed as a UN organization but that’s really a misnomer. It’s an extraterritorial Palestinian quasi-state operating under a regional UN franchise. In any case, the relevant point here is that supply from the air cuts through all of that. Israel can’t have any legitimate concern that military or dual use materials are going to be smuggled through a U.S. military supply chain. Doing this now would not only address a critical and grave humanitarian need on the ground, it would do the U.S. no end of good from the standpoint of public diplomacy on the global stage.

Would that be a really big effort? Yes, of course, but this is a pretty big problem for the U.S. both domestically and internationally. Big efforts are called for when you have a big problem.

What it all comes down to is that a permanent ceasefire is fine as a demand but actually getting one or something like it requires addressing a whole list of policy questions, most especially what happens after the fighting stuff, who runs Gaza and so forth. It also requires using that mix of levers above. It’s also the case that even though the U.S. is increasingly isolated on Gaza, it can’t allow itself to be seen either domestically or internationally changing its policy willy-nilly to try to get to a healing moment with a small subset of the population in one critical swing state.

It’s complicated. But quite apart from people angry in Michigan, the U.S. has a big, big interest in bringing the fighting to a close and taking a muscular and aggressive approach to redeeming some progress toward a global solution to the occupation and to all the death and dying that has happened since October.

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