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October 20, 2023 Heather Cox Richardson

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Last night, President Joe Biden spoke to the nation from the Oval Office to shore up U.S. support for Ukraine and Israel. “[H]istory has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction.  They keep going, and the cost and the threats to America and to the world keep rising,” he said. 

“[I]f we walk away and let Putin erase Ukraine’s independence, would-be aggressors around the world would be emboldened to try the same,” he said. “The risk of conflict and chaos could spread in other parts of the world—in the Indo-Pacific… [and] especially in the Middle East.” 

Biden noted that Russian president Vladimir Putin has suggested he might like to take part of Poland, while one of his top advisors has called three other NATO allies, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Russia’s “Baltic provinces.” Russian aggression there would draw the U.S. into war. 

Iran is supporting Russia in Ukraine, he noted, and “it’s supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups” in the Middle East. 

“The United States and our partners across the region are working to build a better future for the Middle East, one where the Middle East is more stable, better connected to its neighbors, and—through innovative projects like the India–Middle East–Europe rail corridor that I announced this year at the summit of the world’s biggest economies—more predictable markets, more employment, less rage, less grievances, less war when connected. It…would benefit the people of the Middle East, and it would benefit us.”

Biden explained that he was sending to Congress “an urgent budget request to fund America’s national security needs, to support our critical partners, including Israel and Ukraine. It’s a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations, help us keep American troops out of harm’s way, help us build a world that is safer, more peaceful, and more prosperous for our children and grandchildren,” he said. 

That money, he said, would harden the Iron Dome that protects Israel’s skies after the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas that took more than 1,300 lives. But he also said that the U.S. “remains committed to the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and to self-determination. The actions of Hamas terrorists don’t take that right away” 

He explained that he had discussed with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “the critical need for Israel to operate by the laws of war. That means protecting civilians in combat as best as they can. The people of Gaza urgently need food, water, and medicine.” Biden secured an agreement for such relief when he visited Israel on Wednesday, but so far the route from Egypt has not opened, at least in part because Israel and Egypt can’t agree on a way to inspect the trucks to make sure they are not carrying weapons. 

Ethan Bronner and Henry Meyer of Bloomberg reported yesterday that President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have pressured Israel more deeply than any recent administration, demanding they adjust their planned ground assault on Gaza to minimize civilian casualties and think about what happens when the assault is over. U.S. officials are worried that Israel’s response to the October 7 attack could prompt Hezbollah to join the war, scuttling the administration’s attempt to stabilize the region and drawing the U.S. further into the conflict. 

But Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners who have backed further settlements in the West Bank are eager to exact revenge on the Palestinians there, killing at least seven in the last week. U.S. officials told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times that “the representatives of those settlers in the cabinet are withholding tax money owed the Palestinian Authority [that exercises authority over the West Bank], making it harder for it to keep the West Bank as under control as it has been since the start of the Hamas war.” Netanyahu, who has been charged with corruption and fraud, needs those partners in order to remain prime minister and thus stay out of jail.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is worsening as Israel has launched extensive airstrikes, killing what U.N. observers estimate to be more than 2,800 Palestinians, including several relatives of former representative Justin Amash (Libertarian-Michigan) who had been sheltering in a church. It has also driven about a million people of the 2.3 million in Gaza from their homes. Hospitals are closed, and food and water are scarce. 

Foreign policy journalist Laura Rozen of Diplomatic gave Biden credit for his attempt to calm the region, support Israel, and protect Palestinian civilians but was, she said, “very worried” that the conflict would drag out and “inflame & destabilize [the] region & spark blowback & it will be very very ugly.” The U.S. had not been able to get “a single truck of aid into Gaza, much less set up a quasi-safe zone…five days after it thought it had a deal to do so.” It is not helping that X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, is amplifying disinformation about the crisis. 

The U.S. and governments in Europe have pressured Israel not to go into Gaza while diplomats in Qatar try to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas. Today, Hamas released two dual U.S. citizens who had been held hostage in Gaza. 

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Roger Marshall (R-KS) took a different tack, noting that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (believed to be the group responsible for the hospital explosion in Gaza) received more than $130 million in cryptocurrency in the past two years, and researchers believe this is just a fraction of the total. Cryptocurrency funds crime and terror, they wrote: more than $20 billion in illicit transactions last year “that we know of.”

Those exchanges are currently unregulated, and Warren and Marshall have introduced the bipartisan Digital Asset Anti–Money Laundering Act to bring digital assets under the same rules that regulate traditional payment systems.

Today the administration asked Congress for a little over $105 billion in funding for national security. The package would devote $61.4 billion to support Ukraine (some of it to replenish U.S. stockpiles after sending weapons to Ukraine); $14.3 billion to Israel for air and missile defense systems; $9.15 billion for humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Gaza, and other places; $7.4 billion for initiatives in the Indo-Pacific; and $14 billion for more agents at the southwestern border, new machines to detect fentanyl, and more courts to process asylum cases. 

But Congress is currently unable to act. Seventeen days after the extremists in the House Republican conference ousted then-speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Republican civil war continues to paralyze the House. After key Trump ally Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) lost a second round of balloting on Wednesday, his allies apparently spent Thursday threatening the colleagues who didn’t vote for him. 

Representative Ken Buck (R-CO) explained: “So far I’ve had four death threats. I’ve been evicted from my office in Colorado…because the landlord is mad with my voting record on the Speaker issue. And everybody in the conference is getting this…. Family members have been approached and threatened, all kinds of things are going on….”

The threats simply hardened Jordan’s opposition. He lost a third ballot today, with 25 Republicans voting against him, and in a secret ballot the Republicans took privately over whether to keep him as their nominee for speaker, only 86 voted for Jordan, with 112 against. The House recessed for the weekend, despite the mounting crises that need to be addressed.

Having a key lieutenant in the House speaker’s chair, where he could, among other things, smear Biden by pushing to impeach him in the months before the election, would have been a huge boost for Trump. That Republicans refused to get behind Jordan even when he forced them into a public vote and then threatened them, much as Trump threatened them to line up behind him in the past, suggests they are starting to fear Trump less than they have for years.

Three plea deals in the past two days have intensified Trump’s legal troubles. Two of his own lawyers, Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, have pleaded guilty to some of the charges brought by Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney Fani Willis in the racketeering case against Trump and 17 others.

Yesterday, Powell pleaded guilty to trying to tamper with voting machines. In exchange for a lenient sentence, she will have to testify against others. As she was the person Trump considered tapping as a special counsel to investigate alleged voter fraud, she was at a key meeting with Trump allies Rudy Giuliani, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and former Overstock chief executive officer Patrick Byrne.

Powell’s unexpected jump to the prosecution side—she was lying about the election just this week—put pressure on others, and today Chesebro also flipped. He was allegedly the one who designed the false electors scheme, although he has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to file false documents. In exchange for a lenient sentence, he has to turn over any evidence he has and testify truthfully against others in the case, including Trump. 

In Michigan, a Republican man charged with participating in the false-elector plot also entered into a cooperation agreement yesterday, meaning he will talk to investigators and, if necessary, testify. 

Finally, today, Judge Arthur Engoron, who is overseeing the fraud case against Trump and the Trump Organization, fined Trump $5,000 for violating the gag order he had imposed on October 3. Trump told Engoron that day he had taken down a social media post disparaging one of Engoron’s law clerks, but it remained up on his campaign website.

Engoron warned Trump that “future violations, whether intentional or unintentional, will subject the violator to far more severe sanctions, which may include, but are not limited to, steeper financial penalties, holding Donald Trump in contempt of court, and possibly imprisoning him pursuant to New York Judiciary Law.”

Notes:

https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/18/politics/jim-jordan-speaker-bid/index.html

https://www.wsj.com/articles/cryptocurrency-feeds-hamass-terrorism-e0db54f5

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-10-20/us-pressing-israel-to-delay-gaza-invasion-to-win-hostage-release

https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/briefing-room/2023/10/20/letter-regarding-critical-national-security-funding-needs-for-fy-2024/

https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-ukraine-israel-budget-3762a0bdf00653e3c8a38175d3c3d3cb

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/10/20/gaza-aid-egypt-rafah-crossing/

https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/un-says-4-200-people-killed-in-israel-gaza-conflict-in-10-days/3023038

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/10/18/jim-jordan-maga-intimidation-threats/

https://www.meidastouch.com/news/rep-miller-meeks-receives-death-threat-after-voting-against-jim-jordan

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-10-19/biden-s-influence-has-israel-adjusting-plan-for-gaza-ground-war

https://apnews.com/article/israel-netanyahu-corruption-trial-courts-4e18ed8f34e65707bd47e37696da4705

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/19/opinion/biden-speech-israel-gaza.html

​​https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/19/politics/sidney-powell-plea-takeaways/index.html

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/oct/20/kenneth-chesebro-plea-deal-fulton-county-racketeering-case

https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/michigan-republican-charged-false-elector-plot-agrees-cooperation-104147896

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/10/20/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-unites-states-response-to-hamass-terrorist-attacks-against-israel-and-russias-ongoing-brutal-war-against-ukraine/

https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/7-accounts-warp-israel-hamas-war-news-x-musk-rcna121465

https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/fbem/DocumentDisplayServlet?documentId=jHhVNANx9_PLUS_/cjyUwT3y0zw==&system=prod

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-co-defendant-in-georgia-2020-election-case-kenneth-chesebro-pleads-guilty/

https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3557211/readout-of-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iiis-visit-to-israel/.

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Iran Comes Out of the Shadows Bari Weiss

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Iranians celebrate Iran’s attack against Israel in downtown Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Over the past 24 hours, the war that has raged in the Middle East since October 7 took on a new dimension.

In a historic first, Iran directly attacked Israel from its own territory—launching more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel.

As Free Press columnist Matti Friedman writes today from Jerusalem: “Like a flash going off in a dark room, the attack has finally given the world something valuable: a glimpse of the real war in the Middle East.”

Tehran’s strike on Israel—who thankfully had defensive help from the U.S., Britain, France, Jordan, and reportedly Saudi Arabia—should make clear, for those still in doubt, that this war is not about Gaza, or even about Israel and a single Iranian proxy in Hamas. It is about Iran.

“The importance of last night’s barrage was that for the first time, the full Iranian alliance gave us a practical demonstration of its scope, orchestration, and intentions,” Matti writes. “If you’d been watching from space, you probably could have seen the lines of this new Middle East etched in orange and red across the map of the region.”

READ MATTI FRIEDMAN HERE.

Some Americans understand that clearly—and aren’t condemning it, but cheering it on. Our Olivia Reingold found herself at a conference of anti-war activists in Chicago on Saturday. Activists were taught how to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi. Watch:

And, when news of the attack broke, the crowd cheered and burst into chants of “Hands off Iran.” 

READ OLIVIA’S DISPATCH HERE.

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April 13, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Michael Oren: How Did the War Begin? With Iran’s Appeasers in Washington Michael Oren

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Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As Iranian provocations have mounted, the Biden administration has refrained from holding Tehran accountable. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Historians writing years from now about the Middle East conflagration of 2024 will undoubtedly ask, “When did it all begin?” Some will point to the Bush administration which, demoralized by its inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rejected Israel’s entreaties to take out Iran’s then-inchoate nuclear program in 2008.

Others might cite Israel’s willingness to play by the mullahs’ rules, retaliating against their Hezbollah and Hamas proxies rather than against Iran itself, enabling it to emerge from each round of fighting utterly unscathed. 

But the bulk of the blame, fair historians will likely agree, will have to fall on the policies of those in Washington who sought to appease Iran at almost any price and ignore its serial aggressions.

Those policies began in the week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In one of the forty-fourth president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy, Obama sent an offer of reconciliation to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That June, in his historic Cairo speech, Obama became the first president to refer to Tehran’s regime as the Islamic Republic of Iran—legitimizing the oppressive theocracy—and stood aside while that republic’s thugs beat and shot hundreds of Iranian citizens protesting for their freedom.

Over the next four years, the White House ignored a relentless spate of Iranian aggressions—attacks against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf; backing for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dedicated to America’s destruction; and barely disguised efforts to undermine pro-Western Middle Eastern governments.

At the same time, Iran supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s mass slaughter—often with poison gas—of his own countrymen. Obama had declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” on America’s involvement in the war. It didn’t.

In Washington, the administration overlooked an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors (including me) and ended a federal investigation of a billion-dollar Hezbollah drug and arms trafficking ring in the United States. Most egregiously, Iran constructed secret underground nuclear facilities and developed an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system that threatened the entire Middle East and much of Europe.

Why would any White House, even one devoted to rebuilding America’s relationship with the Islamic world, seek rapprochement with such a regime? 

At the time, there were multiple reasons. First, there was the desire of the United States, tired of Middle Eastern wars and no longer dependent on Arab oil, to withdraw from the region and focus on the Far East. Next, there was the belief that the U.S. had traditionally relied on its Sunni and Israeli allies only to discover that Sunnis perpetrated 9/11 and Israelis defied American policy in the West Bank. The Iranians, stronger, modern, and open to the West—so many American policymakers concluded—offered a better alternative if only their leadership were assuaged. Lastly, and ultimately most decisively, was the Iranian nuclear program, a burgeoning strategic threat that the White House refused to interdict by military means.

The nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran—euphemistically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—had three major objectives: to block Iran’s path to the bomb, ensure that Iran became what Obama called “a responsible regional power,” and, failing that, to kick the “nuclear can” down the road. The first two goals proved illusory. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adjusts his eyeglasses after casting his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Rather than block Iran’s path to the bomb, the agreement solidly paved it by allowing Iran to retain most of its nuclear infrastructure and to continue producing ever more advanced centrifuges capable of reducing Iran’s breakout time to mere weeks. The deal put no meaningful restrictions on Iran’s missile delivery systems or its clandestine weapons programs. And even then, the largely cosmetic limitations were set to expire in less than a decade. Well before that time, though, Iran harnessed the deal’s financial and strategic rewards to expand its sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. So much for the responsible regional power.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, reinstated punishing sanctions on Iran, and retaliated for Iranian attacks against Americans, indicating a different approach to the issue, but that policy proved short-lived. A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2019 presidential campaign was his pledge to restore America’s adherence to the JCPOA. No sooner had the Democrats regained the White House than the Iranians began to violate the agreement on a massive scale, gradually achieving military nuclear threshold capacity.

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Obama’s singular foreign policy achievement.

As the Iranian centrifuges spun, the Biden administration entered into intense negotiations to renew the JCPOA. The talks were headed by Robert Malley, who was evicted from the Obama campaign in 2008 for meeting with Hamas. Under Biden, Malley became America’s special envoy to Iran, but he was recently ousted for mishandling sensitive information. Though the initiative to reinstate the deal eventually failed, the U.S. still provided Iran with at least $10 billion in funds that had been frozen, and reportedly much more than that in quiet sanction relief. 

Meanwhile, the Iranian provocations mounted. An ally of Russia, Iran provided thousands of offensive drones and long-range missiles used to kill America’s allies in Ukraine. Since the start of the war against Hamas, Iranian proxies have launched more than 170 attacks against U.S. military bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and all but blocked international shipping through the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait. 

Still, the U.S. refrained from retaliating against Iran directly, or even holding it publicly responsible. When, in January, three American soldiers were killed by a drone strike by an Iranian-backed militia, the U.S. struck back at the militia and not at the country—or even the factory—that produced the bomb. 

Then, on Sunday, a historic first: Tehran directly attacked Israel from its territory with hundreds of drones and missiles.

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran to repeatedly assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one. 

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. Press reports about President Biden’s refusal to support an Israeli counterattack against Iran indicate, sadly, that nothing substantial in the U.S. position has changed. He has reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see the coordinated response to the attack as a “win.”

The Iranians, though, will not see things that way. Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity. If Israel follows Biden’s advice it will send one message to the ayatollahs: “You can launch another 350 missiles and drones at Israel or try to kill Israelis by other means. Either way, the United States won’t stop you.” 

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

The story of America can end only one of two ways: either it stands up boldly against Iran and joins Israel in deterring it, or Iran emerges from this conflict once again unpunished, undiminished, and ready to inflict yet more devastating damage.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset member, and deputy minister for diplomacy in the Israeli prime minister’s office, is the author of the Substack publication Clarity.

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