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The U.S. and Israel's relationship is at a contentious balancing point


The relationship between the U.S. and Israel has become touchy at this point during the war in Gaza following the Hamas attacks on October 7. The U.S. has openly urged restraint on Israel's military response. Israel's Netanyahu government was upset the U.S. did not veto a U.N. Security Council vote for a temporary cease-fire in Gaza. We're joined now by Princeton professor Daniel Kurtzer. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush. And before that, he was U.S. ambassador to Egypt and worked in the State Department in the 1980s and '90s.

Ambassador Kurtzer, thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL KURTZER: My pleasure.

SIMON: You've written an editorial for Haaretz - the Israeli newspaper - where you say you find Israel's diplomatic approach right now to be confounding. How so?

KURTZER: Well, they entered this war after the massacre of October 7 without a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish. Prime Minister Netanyahu announced early on that he wanted to, quote-unquote, "destroy Hamas" - an objective that everybody understood was really not going to be achieved. Hamas is not a defined army. It's a movement of religious and institutional, organizational - as well as military - capabilities. And they don't have really a plan for what happens as the war winds down.

So the United States has been extremely supportive of Israel, but has been asking Israel both to define its objective and to moderate its activities so as to reduce civilian casualties. But we've not gotten much response from Israel on either of those two issues.

SIMON: What do you think the U.S. response should be at this point? White House press secretary said this week that there are no plans to reduce the weaponry that the U.S. sends to Israel. But should the U.S. scale back?

KURTZER: Well, the next date to watch is May the 8, when the Secretary of State has to either certify or not certify that Israel is compliant with U.S. law with regard to the utilization of American weapons. But in the next couple of weeks, either if Israel goes into Rafah without agreement of the United States or if there is an uptick in civilian casualties or a downturn in humanitarian assistance, then there'll be tremendous pressure on the Biden administration to take some action.

SIMON: Should they take that action?

KURTZER: I think they're going to have to. The civilian issue alone is very concerning - humanitarian distress. The United States is hopeful that Israel will continue to allow as many trucks and assistance packages as possible to come in. But if that changes and the humanitarian distress increases - for example, a U.N. agency has said that Gaza's on the cusp of famine - then I think the president will not have a choice, really, but to take some action that sends a very definitive signal to Israel that they're going to have to change course.

SIMON: And reducing the amount of military aid would do that?

KURTZER: Well, changing the nature of the military aid, I think. We're not going to reduce at all what the administration will term defensive weapons, such as the Iron Dome that protects Israel from incoming rockets. But there may be some hesitation to continue to deliver the very heavy weapons that are being used against Hamas' tunnels and the buildings. It would be great if they could focus on the tunnels. But they're also knocking down buildings, which have not only Hamas people inside, but also civilians.

SIMON: Ambassador Kurtzer, you've been working this beat for a while. Ever seen a time like this?

KURTZER: We've had differences of view with Israel a number of times, both in war and in the peace process. Back in the 1970s, for a period of time, the Ford administration went through a reassessment of the relationship. The George H.W. Bush administration withheld loan guarantees because of settlement activity. So we've had contretemps before, but this is quite serious, given the horror of what happened on October 7.

But then you've had six months of Israeli non-stop bombardment of a very small area - one of the most densely populated areas in the world. So it's an extremely challenging situation. But the Biden administration has tried to be as supportive as possible, but has also tried to provide some advice to the Israeli government, which so far has largely fallen on deaf ears.


SIMON: Daniel Kurtzer is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt before that. Thank you very much for being with us, Ambassador.

KURTZER: My pleasure. Thank you.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.