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The Gaza Hostage Crisis Is an American Hostage Crisis Armin Rosen

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Hamas terrorists with a hostage in Gaza. (Photo by: Abed Rahim Khatib/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

This piece was first published on Tablet

The hundreds of Hamas fighters who carried out a murderous rampage inside Israel over the weekend returned to the Gaza Strip with an invaluable new strategic asset. On Sunday, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told journalists that the Islamist group had captured “dozens” of hostages with American citizenship. If this number is even remotely accurate, the assault would be the largest mass abduction of Americans since the Tehran embassy crisis of 1979.

Hamas has likely divided those hostages across unmapped underground sites throughout Gaza, foreclosing the possibility of a single, swift rescue operation. The hostage issue threatens to inject a future source of divergence into Israeli and American objectives during the crisis. Outgoing House speaker Kevin McCarthy listed “rescue all American hostages” as the U.S.’s top priority in the unfolding war.

Israel must now weigh the survival of American hostages against neutralizing active threats against other groups of civilians, and also against the country’s stated war aim of disarming Hamas, which would likely require a massive ground operation in which most, if not all, of the hostages would be killed. Hamas, meanwhile, can parade American corpses through downtown Gaza and claim that they are victims of the Israeli assault.

“Hamas will use the hostages in two ways: as human shields and as a source of leverage over Washington,” explained Michael Doran, director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute and a former senior director on the National Security Council. “As human shields, they will prevent Israel from destroying critical infrastructure. As a source of leverage, Hamas will convince Washington to compel Israel to make concessions—on the terms of a cease-fire, the release of prisoners, relaxing economic restrictions on Gaza, delivering payments from abroad, etc. Hamas will parade American hostages before the cameras to beg Washington to bring a halt to Israeli military operations so that the hostages can gain their freedom.”

The ways in which American hostages complicate the conflict hardly ends there. The tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar served as the laundering mechanism for $6 billion in unfrozen Iranian oil money that the U.S. used to purchase the freedom of five American citizens or green-card holders that the Islamic Republic had imprisoned, a transaction announced only last month. Doha also happens to be where much of Hamas’s exiled high command lives. Qatar, Washington’s chosen middleman for hostage diplomacy with Iran—which is Hamas’s leading state sponsor—can claim it runs an existing and effective channel for negotiating the hostages’ freedom. Any apparent progress on this diplomatic track could provide the Americans with an incentive to restrain any Israeli operation in Gaza.

Jason Poblete, one of the U.S.’s leading lawyers working on behalf of American hostages, said it is likely that officials from the U.S.’s Special Operations Command are already in Israel, weighing their options and waiting for further instructions. Poblete explained that when Americans are held hostage, an entire policy infrastructure springs into action—one that includes the State Department special envoy for hostage affairs, the FBI, the military, family engagement coordinators, and the intelligence community. “There’s a whole mechanism behind the scenes that was already working” when Erdan made his vague statement about hostage numbers Sunday morning, Poblete said.

It is the impression of policymakers in Washington that Israeli security planners believe Hamas can be convinced to release children and the elderly from captivity without major preconditions, meaning there is some degree of existing Israeli buy-in for any hostage negotiations that might already be taking place. The presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier positioned offshore may suggest that the U.S. is actively weighing some sort of operation to rescue its citizens, or at least wishes to project a willingness to do so.

However, entangling the United States in a war in Gaza would go against Israel’s entire concept of its own security. “Israel has this doctrine of defending itself by itself,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It doesn’t want American boots on the ground.”

It is unclear whether Hamas made a specific effort to kidnap American citizens. But it is fortuitous, from the Islamists’ perspective, that the price of an American hostage has never been higher. The captives freed through the deal that the Biden administration struck last month fetched about $1.2 billion a head—a sum that doesn’t include an additional $10 billion that made its way to Iran through Iraq that same week. “That by itself is opening a new door to hostage-taking,” explained Nizar Zakka, who Iran held between 2015 and 2019 and who now heads the organization Hostage Aid Worldwide. “It’s become a hostage business model.”

The Iranian hostage business model has an established official counterpart within the American policy apparatus. In response to a string of ISIS abductions and executions of American citizens, the Obama and Trump administrations formulated a set of codified responsibilities, working groups, fusion cells, and protocols within the U.S. government for securing the release of kidnapped Americans. “We have a guy now who has the [informal] title of ‘hostage ambassador,’ ” Poblete pointed out.

But like anything else in the executive branch of the U.S. government, the behavior of the American hostage-policy complex is an expression of the basic outlook and objectives of a given presidential administration. “Our hostage policy will be successful or not based on how we anchor our overall policy,” Poblete said. If the policy is anchored in a series of direct quid pro quos with a terrorist group or its state sponsor, enabled through the mediation of a government with close ties to whichever extremists are holding the Americans, the machinery of U.S. policy will spring into action within that paradigm, with the possible result of billions of dollars making their way to the Hamas hostage-takers in Gaza, along with the promise, presumably, that they will still be alive to make use of the money.

Interestingly, two of Poblete’s clients were released from Iran without a reported ransom being paid. “Trump used all instruments of state power to secure the release of hostages,” Poblete explained. These instruments might have included a credible threat of force against Iran or its proxies, financial and psychological warfare, and other tools that are outside the scope of negotiations, or even of pure diplomacy.

The war against Hamas contains the possibility of a deck-clearing regional conflagration through which Israel can correct decades’ worth of strategic errors that have led to the establishment of large Iranian-backed terror armies on two of its borders. Perhaps the unfolding hostage crisis will force a similar rethink of America’s approach to hostage issues, especially when Iran is involved. “We can use this crisis to have an end to the hostage-business model. This is an industry that has to stop,” Zakka said.

Hostage-taking limits a country’s range of actions against its enemy. It is also a shortcut for baiting very powerful governments into a parody of civilized diplomacy in which they bargain with and petition people who kidnap and murder their citizens. The hostages become stand-ins for whatever evils their societies are accused of. In return, they lose all connection to the rest of the world.

What the Hamas hostages, Israeli and American, are enduring now, with the prospect of a live-broadcast execution hanging over their heads, is excruciating, even if they have not yet been physically harmed. “The hostage-takers put you in a certain mindset that you are nobody—nobody cares about you, you are nothing,” Zakka explained. “This is what is very important for the hostages to stay alive: to know that people are working, and they’re not sleeping, to get you out.”

A country can’t easily wage a full-scale war if scores of its own people and the citizens of its closest ally are being held captive. But in the sickening logic of a rapidly escalating conflict, Israel might not have any other choice. “If Israel fights this war the way that it probably should, it will probably need to assume that the hostages are already dead,” said Schanzer.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @ArminRosen.

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TGIF: WWIII May Come Tomorrow, But. . . Nellie Bowles

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Google employees protesting at the office. They were later fired. (Via X)

Welcome back. World War III watch over here continues. The Axis of Resistance seemed ready to kick off a major war, but then our Ayatollah stood down. The Houthi Youth at Columbia University camped out in solidarity, but the rebellion was short. Then, at press time, Israel struck back against Iran, so World War Watch resumed. You know what helps my stress? A good book. This one, by your faithful soldier, is out May 14.

→ Trump’s Gettysburg Address: Before Trump hit the campaign trail, I’d forgotten a little what he sounds like. In the amber of my mind, he was just “MAGA” and “Shithole countries” on a loop. Now, thanks to a campaign speech Saturday in Schnecksville, PA, we are back in the game with the craziest American orator who’s ever been in the game. The topic was Gettysburg. And our former president gave an impromptu slam poetry interpretation that left me snapping. 

Gettysburg, what an unbelievable battle that was. I mean, it was so much and so interesting and so vicious and horrible and so beautiful in so many different ways. It represented such a big portion of the success of this country. Gettysburg, wow. I go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to look and to watch. And the statement of Robert E. Lee—who’s no longer in favor—did you ever notice that? He’s no longer in favor. “Never fight uphill, me boys, never fight uphill.” They were fighting uphill. He said, “Wow, that was a big mistake.” He lost his great general. They were fighting, “Never fight uphill, me boys,” but it was too late.

Vicious and horrible and beautiful. And the sun that blazes over the October sky. Who will watch the watcher? Who will sing the song of the lonely? Check out my self-published novel in the back, Trump says. 

→ Biden continues paying off successful young voters: Sorry, I mean “forgiving student debt.” Biden this week paid off another $7.4 billion in student loans, making his total student loan cancellation something like $153 billion. And by cancellation, I mean tax dollars were used to make the ledger go to zero. How much exactly? From Penn Wharton’s analysis: “We estimate that President Biden’s recently announced ‘New Plans’ to provide relief to student borrowers will cost $84 billion, in addition to the $475 billion that we previously estimated for President Biden’s SAVE plan.” But that goes to really needy people, right? Well, actually, at least 750,000 of those households are “making over $312,000 in average household income.” Meanwhile, to anyone who questions this allocation of resources, the White House answer is to shame them from official White House accounts by listing how much in pandemic loans were forgiven for House Republicans who own individual small business, which is weird because the reason businesses needed pandemic relief was because the White House banned them from operating. It’s a trap! And the only answer is to pay off every Media Studies PhD student’s loan. Colleges, for their part, are now charging up to $100,000 a year. Yes, literally. And since that’s ultimately going to be paid for by the taxpayers, why work to make it less expensive? Why cut corners when you need to remodel the cafeteria?

→ Oh, RFK’s running mate: For a flash I was thinking, Am I an RFK voter? I’m a mom who worries about plastics, and no, I don’t like how our national conversation is getting so divisive these days. And those steely blue eyes. It just felt right. But this week, my love affair hit a snag. Here’s RFK’s new vice-presidential pick, Nicole Shanahan, arguing that the Covid vaccine is not just bad, that it’s not just something she personally doesn’t want and should have the freedom to choose not to take, but that it should be banned. Over to Nicole: “Here is the devastating reality: it is not a safe vaccine, and must be recalled immediately. Many people are suffering who took it.” I guess this is really the agenda: RFK Jr. might be just asking questions, but if Nicole is chief executive, it sounds like she’s going to be executing. And that looks like legally required sound baths and astrology readings. The government understands that you want to take antibiotics, but you haven’t even tried rubbing yourself in honey yet. 

→ Wow, Kari Lake comes out as really pro-choice: Kari Lake, the Republican running for Senate in Arizona, has released a video about how she disagrees with Arizona’s total abortion ban, a ban she previously supported. I’m all for mind-changing. I actually want our politicians to put their finger to the wind every once in a while. Here’s Lake: “We as American people don’t agree on everything all of the time. But if you look at where the population is on this—a full ban on abortion is not where the people are.” 

She says, “I chose life, but I’m not every woman.” She pivots to Europe, which has all those annoyingly sensible abortion laws, and which is my exact same move: “I had the opportunity to visit Hungary, and it completely changed my view of how we should deal with this complicated, difficult issue.”

Is this Kari Lake sounding normal? In case you need to be reminded of the old Kari, here she is shaking hands with a statue. 

→ Oh no, “get out the vote” helps. . . Trump? Now that young people are for Trump and old people are for Biden, there’s another switcheroo: those who vote less or have never voted are more likely to be Trumpers. Call off the Rock the Vote campaigners! Return the blue t-shirts! The new message for Democrats to win needs to be: do not register new voters. Keep on keeping on. Stay home, save lives.


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April 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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I will not spend the rest of 2024 focusing on Trump and the chaos in the Republican Party, but today it has been impossible to look away.

In Trump’s election interference trial in Manhattan, Judge Juan Merchan this morning dismissed one of the selected jurors after she expressed concern for her anonymity and thus for her safety. All of the reporters in the courtroom have shared so much information about the jurors that they seemed at risk of being identified, but Fox News Channel host Jesse Watters not only ran a video segment about a juror, he suggested she was “concerning.” Trump shared the video on social media.

The juror told the judge that so much information about her had become public that her friends and family had begun to ask her if she was one of the jurors. Legal analyst Joyce White Vance noted jurors’ fear for their safety was a concern normally seen only “in a case involving violent organized crime.”

Nonetheless, by the end of the day, twelve people had been chosen to serve as jurors. Tomorrow the process will continue in order to find six alternate jurors. 

It is a courtesy for the two sides at a trial to share with each other the names of their next witnesses so the other team can prepare for them. Today the prosecution declined to provide the names of their first three witnesses to the defense lawyers out of concern that Trump would broadcast them on social media. “Mr. Trump has been tweeting about the witnesses. We’re not telling them who the witnesses are,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said. 

Merchan said he “can’t blame them.” Trump’s defense attorney Todd Blanche offered to “commit to the court and the [prosecution] that President Trump will not [post] about any witness” on social media. “I don’t think you can make that representation,” Merchan said, in a recognition that Trump cannot be trusted, even by his own lawyers.

An article in the New York Times today confirmed that the trial will give Trump plenty of publicity, but not the kind that he prefers. Lawyer Norman L. Eisen walked through questions about what a prison sentence for Trump could look like.

Trump’s popular image is taking a hit in other ways, as well. Zac Anderson and Erin Mansfield of USA Today reported that Trump is funneling money from his campaign fundraising directly into his businesses. According to a new report filed with the Federal Election Commission, in February and March the campaign wrote checks totaling $411,287 to Mar-a-Lago and in March a check for $62,337 to Trump National Doral Miami.

Experts say it is legal for candidates to pay their own businesses for services used by the campaign so long as they pay fair market value. At the same time, they note that since Trump appears to be desperate for money, “it looks bad.”

Astonishingly, Trump’s trial was not the biggest domestic story today. Republicans in Congress were in chaos as members of the extremist Freedom Caucus worked to derail the national security supplemental bills that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has introduced in place of the Senate bill, although they track that bill closely. 

The House Rules Committee spent the day debating the foreign aid package, which appropriates aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan separately. The Israel bill also contains $9.1 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and other countries. A fourth bill focuses on forcing the Chinese owners of TikTok to sell the company, as well as on imposing sanctions on Russia and Iran. 

At stake in the House Rules Committee was Johnson’s plan to allow the House to debate and vote on each measure separately, and then recombine them all into a single measure if they all pass. This would allow extremist Republicans to vote against aid to Ukraine, while still tying the pieces all together to send to the Senate. As Robert Jimison outlined in the New York Times, this complicated plan meant that the Rules Committee vote to allow such a maneuver was crucial to the bill’s passage.

The extremist House Republicans were adamantly opposed to the plan because of their staunch opposition to aid for Ukraine. They wrote in a memo on Wednesday: “This tactic allows Johnson to pass priorities favored by President Biden, the swamp and the Ukraine war machine with a supermajority of House members, leaving conservatives out to dry.”

Extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) vowed to throw House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) out of the speakership, but Democrats Tom Suozzi of New York and Jared Moskowitz of Florida have said they would vote to keep him in his seat, thereby defanging the attack on his leadership.

So the extremists instead tried to load the measures up with amendments prohibiting funds from being used for abortion, removing humanitarian aid for Gaza, opposing a two-state solution to the Hamas-Israel war, calling for a wall at the southern border of the U.S., defunding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and so on.

Greene was especially active in opposition to aid to Ukraine. She tried to amend the bill to direct the president to withdraw the U.S. from NATO and demanded that any members of Congress voting for aid to Ukraine be conscripted into the Ukraine army as well as have their salaries taken to offset funding. She wanted to stop funding until Ukraine “turns over all information related to Hunter Biden and Burisma,” and to require Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to resign. More curiously, she suggested amending the Ukraine bill so that funding would require “restrictions on ethnic minorities’, including Hungarians in Transcarpathia, right to use their native languages in schools are lifted.” This language echoes a very specific piece of Russian propaganda.

Finally, Moskowitz proposed “that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene…should be appointed as Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy to the United States Congress.” 

Many congress members have left Washington, D.C., since Friday was to be the first day of a planned recess. This meant the partisan majority on the floor fluctuated. Olivia Beavers of Politico reported that that instability made Freedom Caucus members nervous enough to put together a Floor Action Response Team (FART—I am not making this up) to make sure other Republicans didn’t limit the power of the extremists when they were off the floor.

The name of their response team seems likely to be their way to signal their disrespect for the entire Congress. Their fellow Republicans are returning the heat. Today Mike Turner (R-OH) referred to the extremists as the Bully Caucus on MSNBC and said, “We need to get back to professionalism, we need to get back to governing, we need to get back to legislating.” Derrick Van Orden (R-WI) told Juliegrace Brufke of Axios:  “The vast majority of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives…are sick and tired of having people who…constantly blackmail the speaker of the House.”

Another Republican representative, Jake LaTurner of Kansas, announced today he will not run for reelection. He joins more than 20 other Republican representatives heading for the exits.

After all the drama, the House Rules Committee voted 6–3 tonight to advance the foreign aid package to the House floor. Three Republicans voted nay. While it is customary for the opposition party to vote against advancing bills out of the committee, the Democrats broke with tradition and voted in favor.

Notes:

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/opinion/donald-trump-trial-prison.html

https://www.politico.com/live-updates/2024/04/18/congress/hfc-on-alert-00153097

https://www.jns.org/house-rules-committee-debates-israel-aid-package-as-house-speaker-confronts-right-flank/

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-new-york-court-criminal-trial/

https://www.thedailybeast.com/jesse-watters-goes-juror-by-juror-to-sow-doubt-in-trump-hush-money-case

https://www.salon.com/2024/04/18/juror-quits-over-fear-of-being-outed-after-fox-news-host-singled-her-out/

https://www.rawstory.com/jake-laturner/#cxrecs_s

https://www.cnn.com/2024/04/18/politics/mike-johnson-speakership-rules

https://www.rawstory.com/freedom-caucus-2667810851/

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8034

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8035

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2024/04/18/trump-campaign-funnels-money-to-his-businesses/73344744007/

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/mike-johnson-gaetz-motion-to-vacate-ukraine

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/jake-laturner-retire-house-gop-kansas

https://www.axios.com/2024/03/27/house-members-retiring-quitting-productivity

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/us/politics/house-israel-ukraine-aid-package-explainer.html

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April 17, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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