Full Episode: President Biden and The Israeli-Palestinian Ceasefire

May. 21, 2021 AT 9:07 p.m. EDT

Israel and Hamas have agreed to a ceasefire but President Biden faces challenges to broker a more lasting peace. The panel also discussed the debate over a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th.

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

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: An uneasy peace in the Middle East and political battles at home.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Prime Minister Netanyahu informed me that Israel has agreed to a mutual unconditional ceasefire.

MS. ALCINDOR: A fragile ceasefire leaves Gaza in shambles and Israel on edge, but can President Biden balance support for Israel with pushback from his own party? Plus –

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Are they going to join us in pursuing the truth or are they going to cover for Donald Trump and his big lie?

MS. ALCINDOR: Congress tries to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol insurrection, but partisan politics gets in the way as the majority of GOP lawmakers refuse to support it.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) I’ve made the decision to oppose the House Democrats’ slanted and unbalanced proposal.


ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. Tonight, a ceasefire is still holding in the Middle East. With President Biden in office for only 121 days, he’s faced a number of unexpected challenges. This week it was navigating deadly violence between Israel and Hamas. Thursday, both sides agreed to pause the fighting. White House sources tell me behind the scenes President Biden in very frank terms pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal. Here’s the president on Thursday.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy. My administration will continue our quiet and relentless diplomacy toward that end. I believe we have a genuine opportunity.

MS. ALCINDOR: But as President Biden affirmed the U.S. relationship with Israel, he faced pushback from his own party. Progressive Democrats are trying to block a $735 million - $735 million weapons sale to Israel. And later tonight we will discuss the political war in Washington, where most Republican lawmakers are refusing to back a bipartisan deal to investigate January 6th.

Joining me tonight are four of Washington’s best journalists: Asma Khalid, political correspondent for NPR and co-host of the NPR Politics podcast; Jeff Zeleny, chief national affairs correspondent for CNN; and joining me in studio – I’m so happy to have people around the table – Andrea Mitchell, chief Washington correspondent and chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, and host of MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports; and Rachel Scott, congressional correspondent for ABC News. Thank you so much, all of you, for being here.

Andrea, I want to start with you. You have so much good reporting on this Middle East story that unfolded this week. Tell me behind the scenes how did we get to this point, and will this ceasefire last?

ANDREA MITCHELL: We don’t know if it’s going to last. That’s certainly the hope, but it is, as you said, fragile. And the president really decided very, very early on that he had to stop Israel from invading, that that really was the important thing, and to persuade Israel that it should not invade, because he felt that if they invaded, if it became a land invasion, that this would stretch out as it had in 2014. He didn’t want months and months of a conflict. It was already – in the very opening hours, Hamas was firing more rockets and further and with more precision than in previous engagements, so he knew that Netanyahu had to retaliate and he was insistent that they emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself. And that, as it continued day by day, did alienate not only the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but some Democratic moderates, some allies. Senators like Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine and Jeanne Shaheen were all telling me and others that they thought that the U.S. needed to call for an immediate ceasefire right away, but the president’s decision was that you can’t back Bibi Netanyahu into a corner, and I think from his years of experience as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, then eight years as vice president when President Obama famously had a very cold relationship with Netanyahu, President – Vice President Biden then was sort of the go between, the – you know, the Bibi whisperer, trying to communicate and keep things – keep channels open, and that is his nature. And I think that it was that and the intensive diplomacy, and the key to it really was Egypt – was persuading Egypt to show it could deliver results from Hamas. And four days before the ceasefire finally came together, Egypt finally showed that they could get Hamas to stop firing long-range – long-range rockets into Tel Aviv, and that was such a red line with the Israelis, such a hot button for them, and when those rockets stopped the U.S. side knew that, you know, Hamas might deal, and then it was time to start escalating the pressure on Netanyahu and saying you’ve done enough, you’ve got to – you’ve got to pull back, it’s time for peace.

MS. ALCINDOR: Jeff, I want to turn to you. Andrea just laid out the complicated nature of this. Talk to me a little bit about how this gets even more complicated when you think of what is going on in the Democratic Party and the shifting politics there when it comes to the Middle East.

JEFF ZELENY: Well, President Biden saw that directly as he was traveling to Michigan on Tuesday, of course promoting his domestic agenda, his economic agenda. He was doing that in Dearborn, Michigan. That had long been on the White House schedule. Well, of course, Dearborn, Michigan, just a suburb of Detroit, is home to the largest Arab American population in the country, so there were protests preceding his trip and during his trip there, and it really laid bare, you know, the challenges here. And this is not something that President Biden has ever wanted in his foreign policy menu of options here. He knows that the Middle East is intractable, there’s very little that a U.S. president can do, so his – you know, certainly his presidency up until now has been focused on domestic concerns, but this was indeed, no matter how you slice it, the first foreign policy crisis of his administration, and it is that experience – you know, the long experience Andrea was talking about as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as vice president – that really guided him through this. And it could have gone either way; it still can go either way. The ceasefire is holding at this hour, and there is some reason to think it will going forward, but the president still does not want the Middle East to be dominating his foreign policy agenda. Of course, he’s focused on China and Russia and everything here at home, but this is all happening as he’s about to step onto the world stage, traveling next month for the first time as president overseas to meet with world leaders at NATO, the G-7, and a likely summit with Vladimir Putin, so he was eager to get this behind him, on the back burner if you will, and it did take that quiet, intense diplomacy as he’s calling it – it’s the beginning of the Biden doctrine. And you know, we’ll see as the days go on there how much credit he actually deserves for bringing this ceasefire because really both sides had done a lot and, you know, there would have been a lot of retribution from around the world if Prime Minister Netanyahu had launched a ground invasion and Hamas had, you know, struck many targets, so he was really joining a process already in play, but it would not have happened without him and the intervention of Egypt as well. So this is a first test for him, but you can just see this is one reason he was elected, because of the experience he brings to this. The confidence that he dealt with this, talking to Bibi Netanyahu six times over 11 days, was pretty extraordinary.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Jeff is talking about this being a test. Asma, I want to come to you. There’s the Biden doctrine, this being his first test. What’s your reporting tell you, though, about the ability of progressive Democrats in particular to nudge the president when it comes to his views on the Middle East?

ASMA KHALID: Yeah, I agree with a lot of what Jeff was saying. I think that the challenge for Joe Biden, though, at this point is that progressives tell me – both analysts and well as operatives – that the situation on the ground domestically, when we talk about U.S. politics, as well as in Israel, has changed. They are dealing with a Benjamin Netanyahu has – who has embraced the American right and they have embraced him back. And then also, you know, there is a growing power of social justice movements, of racial justice movements here in the U.S. within the Democratic Party. You know, in my reporting one of the most fascinating things I discovered is that some of these alliances were formed on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, in Florida after Trayvon Martin was killed, where you had Black activists and Palestinian activists joining forces, and in fact there were delegations sent that Palestinians helped to organize of one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement to Israel to see how Palestinians were living, and over time you’ve just seen younger activists, you’ve seen this progressive wing of the party be more vocal. And this is something that, you know, Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser under the Obama administration, mentioned to me this week. He said there was never this type of vocal, outspoken protests that they had on the left when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as we’ve seen this week.

MS. ALCINDOR: Rachel, what Asma’s talking about is this real meshing of racial justice and the Palestinian cause. I want to talk to you a little bit about how all of this is playing out on Capitol Hill – what’s your reporting saying?

RACHEL SCOTT: Well, and Congressman Rashida Tlaib – I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever been so curious as to what was going on on a tarmac before –

MS. ALCINDOR: (Laughs.) Right.

MS. SCOTT: Eight minutes you had her talking to the president –

MS. ALCINDOR: With the hands out, holding –

MS. SCOTT: Hands out – it seemed a little tense, and I was talking to an aide in her office, and it was confrontational. I mean, she pressed the president on this issue, and she feels like the White House needed to do more and do more sooner, and this is very personal to her. I think when we talk about the change in politics in the progressive wing, I don’t think we have ever seen so many lawmakers – progressive lawmakers on the House floor, speaking out, sharing these stories, and then pressing the president directly in front of the cameras for that long, putting that pressure on President Joe Biden. Clearly, I think there was a little bit of wiggle room here. I think they pushed him a little bit to speak out a little bit more about the rights of Palestinians and what they are going through. We saw that in some of his statements this week as well, but the question is, for progressives, is does he think he’s going far enough on it.

MS. ALCINDOR: Andrea, I want to turn to you. The president of South Korea was at the White House today. Jeff talked a bit about this not – this Middle East really – this Middle East issue upending the politics that President Biden – the priorities that he had. Tell me a little bit about what’s going on here and what you see as all of this is playing out.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, the fact that he kept it focused today on China, on North Korea – the mutual threat and also sort of reasserting the alliance with South Korea and Japan has been so important. The only previous leader who came before the South Korean visit was the Japanese prime minister. And so this is another instance, just as the Middle East was, where this is so different from the Trump foreign policy agenda because – well, first of all, the discipline. You saw over all these 10, 11 days on the Middle East that the president never broke secrecy, never answered, you know, drive-by questions. He stiffed reporters –

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, we tried.

MS. MITCHELL: – day after day – I know, despite all of you guys trying – and again, on North Korea, there will be no love letters between Joe Biden and Kim Jong-un, none of those beautiful letters, none of the overt threats back and forth, and this kind of roller coaster of emotional personal diplomacy. He wants some commitments before they meet, but he – you know, he is willing to meet, but he wants denuclearization, which was the same goal as the Trump White House. But it’s not going to be as personalized; it’s going to be much more substantive, and this was really reassuring to South Korea. Very important meeting today where – President Trump, in his first meeting in Singapore when I was there covering that summit with Kim Jong-un, agreed without telling his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, that he was going to cancel the joint exercises – the military exercises with the U.S. and South Korea, which was a bedrock of, you know, preparation and readiness, and also signals to the North, and to do that unilaterally without telling his advisers, his Cabinet secretaries, was pretty startling. And they still have not been resumed other than tabletop exercises. So this was basically getting back to the substance of what you could call a normal U.S. foreign policy.

MS. ALCINDOR: Incredible times when you think about those Trump years. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the House voted to approve creating a commission to investigate the insurrection on January 6th. Democratic Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio slammed Republicans for not supporting it.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM RYAN (D-OH): (From video.) We have people scaling the Capitol, hitting the Capitol Police with lead pipes across the head, and we can’t get bipartisanship. What else has to happen in this country? Cops – this is a slap in the face to every rank-and-file cop in the United States. If we’re going to take on China, if we’re going to rebuild the country, if we’re going to reverse climate change, we need two political parties in this country that are both living in reality, and you ain’t one of ‘em.

MS. ALCINDOR: In the end, 35 Republicans defied GOP leaders and joined Democrats in voting for it. The bill now heads to the Senate where its fate is unclear. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said he will oppose the legislation. He is accusing Democrats of partisanship. All this comes as allies of former President Trump are now seeking vote audits in swing states. Republicans in states like Georgia and Michigan are trying to re-litigate the 2020 election based on the false claim that there was widespread voter fraud. Rachel, I want to come to you. How likely is it that this commission comes together, and if doesn’t get approved, what will Democrats and Republicans do?

MS. SCOTT: Yeah, I don’t think it really stands a chance at this point in its current form in the Senate. We were on Capitol Hill talking to all of the Republican senators; mainly the ones who actually voted to convict former President Donald Trump in the second impeachment trial. I could tell you a handful – Senator Romney, Susan Collins seem to have a willingness toward some sort of commission, but they didn’t want to see some type of changes – but the bottom line is there’s not 10 votes in the Senate to do this – Republican votes. That’s what the Democrats would need in order to get this through. And that was my question to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week, is how long are you willing to wait before you move on this on your own and before Democrats over in the House form a select committee on their own. She wouldn’t really give a timeline to that, but she did warn that either way, Democrats are going to investigate this.

There is a real fear on Capitol Hill among lawmakers right now that this is going to happen again, and for Republicans – sources that I’ve been talking to in the party – a lot of them just really fear that this was going to hang over the midterm elections. Even though the commission would have ended by the end of the year, they thought that it would drip, drip, drip, dabble, dabble, dabble, on and on and on, and that it would continue to hang over the critical mid-term elections at a time when Trump is still a central part of the party.

MS. ALCINDOR: Trump is clearly a central part of the party, and Republicans that I’ve been talking to definitely are worried about what the implications are if there are testimonies about January 6. Asma, I want to come to you. What is the White House’s view of all of this, how are they going to handle this, and how will they deal with this when you think of the midterms coming up in 2022?

MS. KHALID: Well, the White House and Joe Biden himself – President Biden – has said that he would like there to be a bipartisan commission. At this point, you know – as Rachel was saying – that doesn’t seem likely, which I think is just fascinating given that it’s modeled off of the 9/11 Commission as a – you know, a bipartisan group. But I think, look, this just speaks to the fact the 9/11 Commission was based off of an attack by outsiders; this was an attack committed by those within the United States, and there doesn’t seem to be consensus with how to deal with this. I think some of this is about – you know, certainly, senators wanting to shift the conversation to other issues, like the economy, et cetera, but part of this to me has always been the fact that Donald Trump, you know, in the 2016 election, was not an isolated force. I’ve often said he tapped into this preexisting condition in the country. And there are certainly Republicans, particularly in the House, who feel that it is a liability to – openly – essentially disagree with the former president.

MS. ALCINDOR: Jeff, the former president, Trump, still has so much influence over the GOP, but his legal troubles are multiplying. This week, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that she is teaming up with the Manhattan district attorney for a criminal investigation into the Trump Organization. I wonder, from your point of view, what is the legal jeopardy this could cause for former President Trump, and how does that connect to all that we’re talking about – the commission, the GOP sticking with President Trump?

MR. ZELENY: Well, look, it just shows how fragile the Republican Party’s decision to really embrace the former president is. I mean, as he begins to make his way from Mar-a-Lago, where he has been for the last five months, up to Bedminster, New Jersey, to spend the summer and early fall, he really is going to be in the shadow of this investigation in New York by the Manhattan district attorney as well as the New York attorney general. Now, we do not know if they are going to bring criminal charges, but the sense that they said out loud that they are now pursuing that type of investigation certainly opens that distinct possibility. It could be a variety of things. Now, we do know that a tax fraud is one possibility; also, making false statements is a possibility. And when – if you think about the Trump Organization, it is a very small, family-run organization, and nothing gets under the former president’s skin more than if someone is looking into his finances – his personal finances or his family’s finances. So all of this is coming. It really, you know, is a risky bet for House Republicans, particularly Kevin McCarthy, to, you know, throw all the chips in with the former president here because we do not know his standing at the end of all this. But one thing that is interesting – and we’ll have to watch how this plays out – the Republican base is still very, very energized around the idea of this election fraud, which has not been proven. In fact, there are no examples of widespread election fraud that would have impacted the election at all, yet these audits are going on in Arizona, other places. For now, the Republicans I talk to say that’s fine; it’s keeping the base energized. But the reality is by allowing – you know, by not moving on from the former president, they have invited him directly into their table for 2022. And Mitch McConnell has made the decision – the Senate minority leader has made the decision to not go after – not support this commission, not because of President Trump per se, because he is focused on trying to win a Senate majority and he does not want this hanging over him. But, boy, it is very risky, and the Republicans who are still so concerned about what happened on that day are uneasy about not, you know, doing the simple step of, you know, simply investigating it, but President Trump is still directing this party.

MS. ALCINDOR: Andrea, Jeff just said, you know, President Trump is still at the table. I think he’s probably at the head of that table, right? Talk to me a bit about how the GOP both, of course, wants to put the 2020 election behind them but also wants to relitigate the 2020 election. How is that complicating all of this, and really what does it say about our democracy and the dangers that this might have?

MS. MITCHELL: It’s very frightening in terms of the democracy because never before have we had a president of the United States not concede an election. We even had a very graceful concession from Al Gore when there were, you know, 500 and some votes deciding that election in Florida and it took the Supreme Court and conceded it. He had to; it was a Supreme Court decision. But in this case, it wasn’t even close. And so for him not to concede, it definitely hampered the transition on a lot of major issues – defense, intelligence, COVID preparations, vaccine distribution – so there were real, real issues, and now we see vacancies in – not having ambassadors in key places like Israel. A lot of things would have happened much more quickly if there had been a normal transition between even two opposing parties; we’ve seen that before. But the fundamental undermining of the democracy is I think what is so profoundly disturbing, and especially after January 6th – Rachel was there; she experienced it. I have colleagues who were there, who were, you know, in the gallery on their hands and knees with the people who were being threatened, and for the House members who were more threatened than the Senate members, actually, with the – you know, the effort to get into the chamber, to be just denying the reality of it – and to see what’s going on in Arizona, where now the secretary of state in Arizona has said that none of their voting machines can be used in the 2022 election; they have to buy all new voting machines because the chain of custody has been broken because this, you know, Ninja group has gotten – (laughter) –

MS. ALCINDOR: The Cyber Ninjas, yes.

MS. MITCHELL: The Cyber Ninjas have got the voting machines, so there’s no way to prove that they haven’t been tampered with. And so it’s just – and now that’s, as you say, being, you know, mirrored in legislature after legislature. It’s just a complete denial of the process of democracy.

MS. ALCINDOR: And before we go I want to discuss this week’s moving testimony from the oldest living survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. During the tragedy, a White mob attacked Black Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in what was known as Black Wall Street. The attackers left hundreds of Black families dead, homeless, and fighting for survival. Viola Fletcher, who is 107 years old, came to D.C. to push for reparations and justice. Here’s what she said.

VIOLA FLETCHER: (From video.) I’m asking that my country acknowledge what has happened to me, the traumas and the pain, the loss. For 70 years the city of Tulsa and its Chamber of Commerce told us that the massacre didn’t happen like we didn’t see it with our own eyes. No one cared about us for almost a hundred years. We and our history have been forgotten, washed away. This Congress must recognize us and our history.

MS. ALCINDOR: Rachel, you were in Tulsa last year for Juneteenth. What’s the impact, do you think, going to be of these efforts, and what might come of this?

MS. SCOTT: Well, listen, I think that the conversation on reparations has taken a major step forward. It’s been introduced in every session of Congress since 1989. For the first time it’s actually made it out of the committee; it’s a question of whether or not it can actually get through Congress. But I mean, when we hear from someone like Viola, it was just last year that the Tulsa race massacre made it into the history books in Oklahoma. It is considered the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. And when I was on the ground, you could hear the pain and you could hear people learning about it for the very first time. So I think the conversation has moved a little bit further, but you still have Republicans – even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he says he does not believe that there should be reparations for the sins of something that happened hundreds of years ago, but there you have the living history of it, right – you’re looking at her, you’re hearing her, you’re seeing her – and that impassioned plea to just not forget about what happened. So I think it’s a notable movement. It was her very first time in Washington, D.C., actually, she said. The question, though, is, is can Democrats get Republicans onboard to actually do something about this?

MS. ALCINDOR: And we only have 10 seconds left, but her brother came with her, and I wonder if you think of the impact that this long history has had of ignoring it.

MS. SCOTT: Yeah, and I think that was the thing that really struck me the most when I was in Tulsa, is that this history was silenced for so long because of the violence, because if you spoke out you were killed. And so that – this in itself, having the living survivors there on Capitol Hill speaking their truth, I think in itself is an extraordinary moment.

MS. ALCINDOR: We’re going to have to leave it there. It’s so powerful to see Viola. Thanks so much to Asma, Jeff, Andrea, and Rachel for their insights. Thank you for joining us. Make sure you join us for the Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 Eastern on YouTube, Facebook, and our website.

I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Appreciate you all for watching. Good night from Washington.


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