Special: Israeli-Palestinian Crisis & Racial Gap in School Reopening

May. 14, 2021 AT 9:04 p.m. EDT

President Biden is facing pressure from all sides as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militia group Hamas escalates. The panel also discussed how the pandemic revealed racial disparities in students returning to school.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.

Let’s continue the conversation where we left off. President Biden is facing pressure from all sides as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militia group Hamas escalates. On Wednesday, President Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He expressed his unwavering support for Israel and condemned Hamas. Now what can the White House actually do and how is Washington responding to all of this?

Joining me tonight are four reporters following the story: Kasie Hunt, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and host of MSNBC’s Way Too Early; Manu Raju, chief congressional correspondent for CNN; and joining me in studio, Eugene Daniels, White House correspondent for Politico and the co-author of Playbook; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today and author of the new book Madam Speaker. Thanks so much for being here.

Susan, I want to start with you. What effect did former President Trump’s moves in the Middle East have on the region and even in this conflict, and how is that impacting how President Biden is dealing with this issue?

SUSAN PAGE: Remember, for four years Israel could really count on the president of the United States being behind them 100 percent. The relationship between Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu was close. That’s changed. That may have emboldened Israel in some ways. At this point the – President Biden said what American presidents always say, which is that Israel has a right to self-defense and standing with Israel, but the politics of it is a little different in part because of the nature of the Democratic coalition. The most progressive voices in the Democratic coalition also expressed concern about what’s happening with the Palestinians, want to put pressure on Israel to be more restrained in the action they’re taking that’s led to dozens of Palestinian deaths, so it’s a different situation than it was for the past four years.

MS. ALCINDOR: Manu, I want to come to you. Susan said it’s a very different situation than it’s been; tell me a little bit about how this is all playing out on Capitol Hill. What are people saying? What’s your reporting telling you?

MANU RAJU: Yeah, I mean, the politics in the Democratic Party have shifted dramatically over the last several years and it’s becoming pretty pronounced in this latest conflict, and what you’re seeing is a sharp divide within the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate. You have the Israel hawks like Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez, Steny Hoyer – those are top Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House – they have – going up against the folks like – who are the very loud, outspoken voices on the left, people like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have – are pushing for more – for a tougher line against Israel, calling for defending the rights of the Palestinians. And look no further to show how the Democratic Party has shifted if you look at a New York district that booted out Eliot Engel last – in the last cycle. He was a staunch defender of Israel. He was the House Foreign Affairs chairman. He no longer has a seat in Congress. He was replaced by Jamaal Bowman, who has said this week while he has criticized what Hamas has done, and has also called into question what Israel has done as well. So you’re seeing a real shift within the Democratic Party, a lot of the younger guard versus the old guard, and it’s really playing out here as Republicans see an advantage here with Democrats divided on this issue.

MS. ALCINDOR: Kasie, talk a little bit about what you’re hearing. Manu’s talking about this big shift. Why do you think it’s happening?

KASIE HUNT: Well, I think that there’s a generational shift in the Democratic Party that Manu was talking about, but I also think that President Biden is still very much – as Susan points out, he has a different personal relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu and a different sort of main focus. He wants to focus on fighting the pandemic more than this has been on the front policy burner. But you know, that said, he is someone who I think comes or at least is most familiar with the way things have been with the Democratic Party and Israel, and there has been a pretty durable coalition both on the left and the right in terms of supporting Israel in the Middle East particularly as a democracy. But I do think it’s also important to remember that Benjamin Netanyahu has some of his own political problems at home. He’s been facing indictment, investigations, all sorts of – you know, they’ve had repeated elections. I was talking to one longtime NBC reporter who’s covered the region for decades this morning and he was pointing out the fact that Netanyahu has in many ways activated right-wing Israelis more aggressively because of his own political problems at home, and that that’s contributing to some of what we’re seeing in terms of the violence on the ground, and that’s one piece that may be different this time around. So the U.S. has to grapple not only with our own political – and President Biden has to grapple with his own party and the divisions inside the Democratic Party and how that’s changing around him, but also how things are changing in Israel as he tries to navigate this.

MS. ALCINDOR: Eugene, Kasie’s making great points, pointing out kind of the domestic politics in Israel as well as what’s going on here. How is all of that impacting the way that President Biden sees this?

EUGENE DANIELS: Yeah, I think that, you know, like we’ve talked about, this is a president who wants to stay focused, and I think, you know, as we start to see – right after they got that COVID bill done, other things start to pop up, right, and you start to see the world moving and changing. And so they’re having, I think, a harder time figuring out how to do that, how to, you know, do this thing and this thing and in a way that’s politically sound for them, because it’s not just about the policy, which is I think what this White House really likes to focus on, right? They don’t like to talk about the politics of things, but that is a huge deal, and like everyone’s talking about the change in the way that the Democratic Party has talked about this, especially the left how they’re willing to play in the shades of gray and it’s not just a black-and-white issue, and you know, Israel good and, you know, Hamas bad, or Palestine bad. Like, that is not the way that the younger guard sees things, and so it’s making things a lot more difficult for people who do have a lot more power and have a lot more influence because you have a president who now has to contend with all of this friction in a way that President Obama did not have to and, obviously, President Trump didn’t have to, and so that part of it is going to be more difficult for them. How are they going to do it? I think they’re going to hope that this kind of tamps down a little bit and then they can continue to focus on infrastructure, right, and moving on to whatever they have next, because that really is what they want to do. And on foreign policy in general, this is a president who wants to focus on China. This is a president who wants to focus on Russia. And so what’s happening in Middle East has not been at the top of the priority list, except leaving Afghanistan, right? And so you could – even by just leaving Afghanistan, it’s clear that the Middle East is less of a priority for this administration.

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, and it’s definitely something that he’s going to have to contend with because it doesn’t seem like it’s tamping down with the U.N., as we said, warning that it could be a full-scale war.

I want to now turn to the pandemic and racial disparities in students returning to school. Inequalities in the country’s education system have only deepened because of COVID-19. Studies show that parents of Black and Latino students are more hesitant to send their children back to school than White parents. On Monday I questioned the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, about this; here’s what she said.

MS. ALCINDOR: (From video.) Black, Latino, and Asian students aren’t going back to school at the same rates as White students. There are a lot of people who are worried about that equity gap. Does the administration have a goal in – a number in mind for how this should be playing out when it comes to students and who’s going back school?

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: (From video.) One of the challenges is that the data is from March, and so the data at this point is a month and a half old. It still shows encouraging signs, but as you pointed out there, Yamiche, it’s not nearly where we want it to be at the end – you know, at the conclusion of this. But our goal and objective is to have all schools open five days a week, and that’s what we’re working toward, and we’re not going to be satisfied until we get there.

MS. ALCINDOR: Eugene, I want to come to you. Of course this data was from March, but this is, obviously, a problem that Black and Latino students could have a gap in who was going back to school. Talk to me a little bit about what you’re hearing about the administration’s plan on this issue.

MR. DANIELS: Exactly, it’s – the information’s from March, but what we’ve seen this entire pandemic is that the disparities between Black and brown people and White – their White counterparts are always, no matter what age group, no matter what amount of money people are making, where they live, have been different. And so I think that is something the administration has really talked a lot about. They’ve put equity at the forefront of almost every single topic that they’re – that they’ve been speaking about. And this – the school aspect of COVID has always dogged them, right? They – it was always a place where they were politically vulnerable – (laughs) – from the very beginning. And that’s continued.

And on the, you know, Black and brown parents feeling like they’re ready to go to school, you know, that is an aspect of it that they have to take very seriously, right, because when you talk to teachers and educators, they say that Black and brown students have lost so much more education. Some of them didn’t have a lot of internet, so their ability to go to school, you know, at home, virtually, wasn’t the same as their White counterparts. And so they can’t just say, you know, that information is from March and we’re focused on five days a week. Which is, again, like we’ve been talking about, they want to be focused on that goal. That’s their goal. But there’s so much more that goes into this, and speaking to those Black and brown parents, speaking to educators there’s so much more of the conversation that the White House is going to have to engage in and start moving things around a lot more than I think they’ve done so far.

MS. ALCINDOR: Eugene makes a lot of good points. Manu, I want to talk to you because what Eugene’s talking is this idea that this gap that’s happening right now, it could follow students. When I talk to experts, you could look back maybe possibly, they say, in 20 years and say here is where that gap started when it comes to Black students and White students. I wonder what’s going on on Capitol Hill. How much are they talking about equity in schools and, of course, about school reopening in general?

MR. RAJU: Well, it does come up from time to time. And it does – it has become a focus in some congressional hearings and the like, but probably not as much of a focus as it needs to be given the amount of concerns that you are laying out that the administration and the Congress needs to look at. Now, there has been – there’s so much money that was in the COVID relief bill for schools that was enacted, you know, in March that still has not been doled out. I mean, there are billions, and billions, and billions of dollars that they are still in the process of getting into the system.

And that’s going to be a big challenge going forward, getting that money into schools to make sure that they can address the issues here – both whether it’s racial disparities or just ensuring that schools can reopen five days a week – getting that out in a timely basis because it is incredibly difficult to spend that kind of money and have an impact so quickly. And that’s one of the things they’re working through right now. So these challenges still exist and they’re not going to get resolved anytime soon, and part of the reason why is just the slow mechanics of government and also just not as much focus as perhaps there needs to be from the leaders of both Congress and at the White House.

MS. ALCINDOR: And, Kasie, Manu’s really talking about something really important, which is, of course, funding and money. We know that there are – there’s a gap there when it comes to schools that are predominantly Black and people of color and White schools. I wonder, can we at all – are you hearing at all anything about additional funding for schooling related to equity on the Hill, and how much are they talking about this issue?

MS. HUNT: Well, I think it’s definitely something that lawmakers are very focused on, particularly because we’re learning more about students that have simply become lost to the system. People who dropped off the grid in the face of the pandemic. So many families moved. And this has been something that’s really affected particularly the students that you’re focused on and talking about here. And has also been really pronounced because for many of those students their parents were not able to work from home. I mean, this pandemic has really exacerbated divides across our society. And you’re seeing that for children here as well.

I do think that right now the focus is mainly on making sure that kids can be back in school safely five days a week so that they both can continue their education and also so that their parents actually are able to reliably return to work. I mean, one statistic that we learned about over the last week that stood out to me was that many of the job gains in April – in fact, basically all of them – went to men, because many women still are dropping out of the workforce instead. And I think that speaks to why the uncertainty around schools is so critical and important.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Susan, Kasie’s talking so much about uncertainty and all of the things that are really at risk here. The first lady’s been on the road talking about schools, talking about education. Talk to me a little bit about what her role is and what her focus is.

MS. PAGE: You know, she could have a – she could have a big role, because even if you have all the schools reopen in the fall if you haven’t persuaded parents of color that it is safe to send their kids there, they’re not going to send their kids there. We need to figure out why there is this – is it – is it vaccine hesitancy? Is it school hesitancy? Is it – does it reflect different experiences that people of color have had during this pandemic? Such a bigger toll, both medically and economically on their lives. And, you know, Jill Biden is someone who has some credibility in talking as a parent, and as a grandparent, and talking as an educator. She is very proud of the fact that she is a long – has had a career as a teacher herself. So I could see her being deployed to try to figure out and persuade parents of color that they need to send their kids back to school.

You know, it’s not as though when the pandemic is over and schools reopen, we snap back to where we were before the pandemic. There are going to be all kinds of complications, and problems, and concerns that people have that we’re going to need to have to figure out and address.

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, and that’s such a smart way to end it, which that we’re not going to snap back. Even if we take our mask off, even if there are all these announcements, it’s still a bumpy road ahead. So we’ll leave it there for tonight. Thanks so much to Kasie, Manu, Eugene, and Susan for all of your insights, and thank you so much for joining us.

Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind the scenes look at all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.


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