Biden’s Israel-Gaza Approach Sidelines State Department, And Officials Fear The Worst

Nearly one month into Israel’s U.S.-backed military assault on the Gaza Strip, some State Department officials say their agency is being sidelined in a way that risks hurting American foreign policy, demoralizing valuable personnel and worsening the humanitarian toll of the war.

Many diplomats are alarmed by Washington’s largely unrestricted approval of Israel’s conduct in the war against Hamas, which began on Oct. 7 after the Gaza-based militant group launched a brutal shock attack. So far, more than 9,000 Gazans and more than 1,400 Israelis have been killed, according to officials.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the broad discontent within his department in a message to staff on Oct. 19, and some of his lieutenants have since held listening sessions and town hall meetings to discuss the war with department officials at both State’s headquarters in Washington and its facilities worldwide.

But during some of those conversations, managers have told staffers they should not expect to influence U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine regardless of their national security chops, according to five current and one recently departed State Department officials who talked to HuffPost.

At a meeting on Oct. 26 for the 1,000-plus department employees focused on human rights, for example, leaders of the branch said they were unsure if even they were having any impact and offered no details on how the branch’s work affected U.S. policy, two attendees said. One recalled a top official advising staff to shift their focus away from Israel-Palestine and seek to make a difference in other parts of the world.

The outreach has done little to allay the chief concern of many U.S. officials at State and other internationally focused branches of the government: that expertise and standard decision-making processes are being treated as largely irrelevant to President Joe Biden’s strategy on the war, which prioritizes support for Israel.

‘Clear Change Of Center Of Gravity’

A task force on preventing atrocities ― which includes staff from State, the Pentagon and other agencies and usually meets regularly during major global crises ― did not hold its first session on the renewed Israel-Palestine fighting until Oct. 20, two weeks into the war, a U.S. official told HuffPost. Nearly 4,000 people, including more than 1,500 children, had been killed in Gaza by then and Israel had cut off the territory from water, food, fuel and electricity in a move United Nations officials described as “collective punishment.”

The U.S. official said the task force meeting occurred only after staff at other agencies repeatedly pushed the National Security Council to convene the group, adding that NSC officials initially claimed that calling meetings would distract from higher-level work on shielding civilians, without providing details on that work.

The State Department established a task force on the Gaza war that has dedicated slots for staff from many offices, from Diplomatic Security and its Middle East bureau to the teams handling legislative and business affairs to its Europe bureau. But according to an email viewed by HuffPost, it does not have such seats for the agency’s bureau focused on rights issues ― the Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor bureau ― or its Population, Refugees and Migration bureau, which handles the U.S. relationship with the U.N. agency responsible for much of Gaza’s economy. Population, Refugees and Migration is State’s chief humanitarian bureau and the rights office is responsible for tracking matters like violations of international law.

For those offices to be excluded from the team that, among other responsibilities, is tasked with drafting and circulating internal updates on Israel-Palestine across the department means State could be missing “the full story of how Israel’s bombardment and siege of Gaza and accelerating destruction of the West Bank are decimating civilian life and causing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions,” a State Department official said.

And to influential partners working with the U.S. government on the issue, it’s clear the State Department has little influence compared to its role in other major dilemmas. An official at an aid agency told HuffPost: “Over 3 weeks, I think I’ve had one substantive conversation with somebody at State and I’ve asked” for meetings. Normally, they said, the outbreak of a conflict would mean they were in “regular back-and-forth” and would have frequent substantive conversations with officials at State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is under State’s purview.

“Meanwhile I’ve probably had six or seven conversations plus email exchanges plus two very high-level meetings at the White House. It’s a very clear change of center of gravity,” said the official, who requested anonymity to protect professional relationships.

The small team around national security advisor Jake Sullivan seems uninterested in advice on Israel-Palestine from subject matters across the government, particularly at the State Department, some officials say.
The small team around national security advisor Jake Sullivan seems uninterested in advice on Israel-Palestine from subject matters across the government, particularly at the State Department, some officials say.

Drew Angerer via Getty Images

A spokesperson for the National Security Council told HuffPost the White House began holding meetings of a separate task force focused on the humanitarian situation in Gaza the week before the atrocity prevention group met and so wanted to avoid duplicating work.

The spokesperson disputed that NSC staff had discouraged holding a meeting of the atrocity prevention task force and said the White House is not seeking to stifle any voices across national security agencies.

A spokesperson for the State Department declined to comment on the task forces or concerns about Blinken’s outreach.

Frustrated State Department officials describe disillusionment and a sense of powerlessness as they watch the U.S. pursue policies they believe will cause immense suffering in the near term and painful blowback in the future.

“It feels like we are advocates on the outside or civil society banging on the doors of government and that’s not our role,” one department official said.

Another blasted a “moment of silence and reflection” that State asked employees to observe on Oct. 30 to, in the department’s words, “mourn the innocent lives lost in current conflicts and stand united against terrorism and all forms of hate ― around the world and in the United States.”

“These hollow moves fail to acknowledge the complicity of our decisions and policy in the relentless suffering of Gazans,” the official said. The gesture “ignores the fact that we still aren’t pushing for a cease-fire, still not asking Israel to control itself.”

While Biden, Blinken and others have said they expect Israel to abide by the laws of war in its offensive, American officials have not made any suggestion the U.S. would withhold assistance over worrying actions by the Israelis. On Wednesday, Biden endorsed a pause in fighting rather than a full cease-fire.

Last month, HuffPost revealed that officials were drafting a formal dissent to Blinken through State’s storied “dissent channel.” At least two dissents have now been submitted to his staff, two State Department officials said. Blinken welcomes opposing views and the use of the channel, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Oct. 19. The secretary’s team is mandated to prepare responses to dissents.

One official said more dissent cables and memos are in the works from a diverse array of officials who want to express concern about the Israel policy for particular reasons, like their knowledge of regional affairs or their experience in combat zones.

“They’re framing this as emotionally affecting Arabs and Jews but it’s affecting everybody with any conscience,” another State Department official said, noting as an example of disturbing ramifications a recent comment from FBI Director Christopher Wray that the war could spark violence in the U.S.

“There’s no discussion of what the U.S. interest is in all of this ― it doesn’t seem like it’s the priority,” the official continued.

‘It’s Hush-Hush’

Career civil servants and lower-ranking officials are used to decisions about the most sensitive global affairs matters being made way above their paygrades. But even in fast-paced situations, they are accustomed to intensive deliberations in which subject matter experts help craft the recommendations and choices presented to leaders like the president and the secretary of state, and are encouraged to use their skills to shape effective policy.

Two officials drew a contrast between the current handling of Israel-Palestine and how State Department officials helped tackle a previous high-profile dilemma facing Biden: the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Biden’s decision to quickly pull out troops also upset some State staffers who felt it was unwise given the country’s condition ― 23 officials in Kabul signed a dissent cable at the time ― but they felt able to debate it and its implementation.

“Everyone was involved in the evacuation effort and there was room to hear from staff on how to improve processes even if the policy is set,” one official said. “But there isn’t even room here to provide expertise on improving processes, for example on getting humanitarian aid out there more expeditiously.”

Josh Paul, a veteran State Department official who last month resigned over the Gaza policy in a development first reported by HuffPost, described a similar divergence.

“I was deeply involved in a lot of the Afghan evacuation and people certainly felt very passionately about that ― and remain of the sense that things were badly mishandled there,” Paul said in a recent interview. “I didn’t hear the same sort of desperation and lack of empowerment.”

A current official called the lack of consultation “fundamentally different” from their recent experiences working on the invasion of Ukraine and unrest in Sudan.

Some officials said State’s town halls are leaving them even more exasperated as they learn about the apparent impotence of their managers.

“They’re saying discussions are happening at the highest levels, aka there’s no room for inputs,” said the first current official, who has attended multiple listening sessions. “It’s diplomatically clouded language. They’re not sharing what they’re saying at those [high-level] meetings either: It’s hush-hush.”

The second described particular concern about the town hall for the department’s branch on human rights. Managers, who described the branch as “State’s conscience,” indicated that they aren’t sure if they are getting through to more senior officials.

“This group of people is supposed to be pushing for a cease-fire and humanitarian concerns and are doing so in every other context … but when people asked senior folks, they said, ‘We are pushing but we have no idea what is happening to any of that information,’” the official said.

The narrative from powerful State Department figures is sending a depressing signal, said another official who attended the rights branch session as well as four other meetings.

“We are getting the message that we shouldn’t quit because we can make a difference from the inside… while it’s also clear that not only are working-level staff excluded from these discussions, even senior leaders at State are excluded from shaping the U.S. government response to the conflict,” the official said.

While Blinken remains central to the Biden administration’s Israel-Gaza policy ― he will again travel to the region this week ― there is a broad perception he is taking little advice from his own lieutenants and rank and file. Some U.S. officials and outside observers say that is making America’s approach shortsighted and preventing Washington from considering a different tack that could be less costly and more likely to encourage long-term stability.

The aid official said one clear indication of State’s limited role is that one of its highest-profile actions since the war was deploying a new appointed special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues, David Satterfield. The former ambassador has traveled to Israel and is focused on getting aid and civilians through Gaza’s only exit point to another country, Egypt. But his work is limited in its scope.

It seems like all of the humanitarian and diplomatic brainpower at State is being sucked up into operational discussions and not into policy discussions, which I think tracks with the output we’re seeing: an administration that’s deeply focused on the operations aspects of humanitarian access and not sufficiently focused on the policy challenges,” the official said.

“The output is insufficient and myopic ― potentially myopic by design,” they continued, pointing to the U.S.’s focus on measures like how many trucks enter Gaza or how many liters of water the territory has, rather than whether Washington should challenge Israel’s siege and ground invasion of the region.

“It has become clear to me that many senior leaders not only fully understand how Israel is currently using U.S.-provided arms in Gaza, but are even, behind closed doors, willing to acknowledge that these actions include ‘war crimes.’”

– Josh Paul, former State Department official

Inside State, officials worry the work they are doing related to Israel-Palestine is being driven by the White House focus on messaging rather than producing the strongest impact for the U.S.

Last week, Biden sparked global outrage by publicly saying he does not trust the death toll reported by the Hamas-linked authorities in Gaza. HuffPost revealed that the State Department regularly referenced that toll internally without caveats, and documents viewed by HuffPost since suggest the department is still doing so, in keeping with most analysts and humanitarian organizations.

But on Friday, two days after Biden’s comments, State’s Israel-Gaza task force privately asked colleagues at the department to seek out alternative sources it can cite in discussing Gazan casualties.

A State Department spokesperson told HuffPost last week: “Unfortunately, given the limited ability of outside parties to verify figures provided by Hamas, it remains difficult to determine the total number of civilian casualties in Gaza, and no other alternatives exist at this time to the metrics provided by the Hamas-run Ministry of Health. The Department of State will continue to include data from a variety of sources for its internal reporting — this is not indicative of how accurate we assess those data points to be.”

Officials also described frustration in being told to stick to National Security Council talking points on Gaza rather than draw on their own vantage point while preparing for State’s ongoing broader work, like meetings with foreign counterparts.

“The theory is you develop the best product,” the official said, by incorporating analysis from a range of officials and offices.

Many governments globally are incensed over the ongoing calamity in Gaza and see the U.S. as covering for Israel with unconvincing rhetoric. Multiple officials said State officials are finding it hard to represent their government with wooden language amid that skepticism. HuffPost previously revealed that senior Biden administration officials discouraged the use of specific phrases, including “de-escalation.”

Focusing on being on-message can make it hard for officials across the administration to fully grapple with their choices at a critical moment.

“Over the past weeks, as I have heard from numerous officials across both the executive and legislative branches, it has become clear to me that many senior leaders not only fully understand how Israel is currently using U.S.-provided arms in Gaza, but are even, behind closed doors, willing to acknowledge that these actions include ‘war crimes,’” Paul said.

“The fact that none are willing to do so publicly not only points to a deep moral rot in our system, but reflects a lack of frank debate that is ultimately most harmful to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests,” he continued.

‘You’ll Be Blacklisted’

The discord at State is stirring a reckoning that many compare to the period around the invasion of Iraq.

Amid the anxiety of feeling implicated in a policy with a brutal current impact and horrifying potential long-term consequences, officials say they are also afraid of repercussions if they advocate a change in approach.

Attendees at some listening sessions responded to colleagues bringing up Palestinian rights by trying to change the subject to the danger of antisemitism, one official said. “It feels like the Trump era again,” they said, noting that some staff, particularly Muslims, are censoring themselves and being subjected to attacks on social media and in right-wing outlets.

Messages from some managers also indicate some views could get diplomats into trouble. Per another official, at a staff check-in at a U.S. embassy in the Persian Gulf recently, a leader said: “This is who we are: strong allies with Israel, no apologies.”

Paul’s resignation spurred talk of others following in his footsteps. But, officials noted, quitting is often challenging financially and can cause reputational harm that makes it tough, if not impossible, to work in foreign policy again.

The alarm is especially acute among more junior personnel, who, like many younger Americans, are more sympathetic to Palestinians than older generations.

“Younger members of the department … have been particularly afraid of speaking in meetings that they would normally feel comfortable in speaking in or of voicing their opinion to senior leaders or mentors who we assume we can share our perspective with in any other conflict or crisis situation,” an official said.

Considering alternative careers is challenging, they added: “There’s a real fear that if you leave because these are not the politics of a lot of Gen Z that it will be obvious why you left in this time period, that people will not vouch for you ― you’ll be blacklisted.”

They described many in their cohort as being inspired and now disillusioned with Biden’s contested pledge to promote diversity at national security agencies.

Some of those State personnel “joined the administration because of the administration’s push for new voices in the government, particularly on really sensitive foreign policy issues,” the State Department official continued. “We have generally found that to be the culture ― and it has shifted really, really remarkably into a culture of silence in the past few weeks. I think that’s a disservice to policy.”

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