Full Episode: Washington Week with The Atlantic full episode, 4/5/24

Apr. 05, 2024 AT 8:56 p.m. EDT

Biden signaled a major policy shift towards Israel by warning that future military aid will come with conditions. Even Trump leveled his own criticism of Netanyahu’s handling of the war. Join Franklin Foer, Leigh Ann Caldwell of Washington Post Live, Francesca Chambers of USA Today, Nancy Yousef of Wall Street Journal and Peter Baker of the New York Times to discuss the potential policy shift.

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

Franklin Foer: President Biden signals a major policy shift towards Israel by warning its Prime Minister Netanyahu that future U.S. military aid comes with conditions. Even Donald Trump, Biden's Republican rival, is leveling his own criticisms of Netanyahu's handling of the war.

What this means for the war, the U.S. presidential election, and the future of a very old alliance, next.

Good evening, and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK. I'm Franklin Foer. Jeffrey Goldberg is away.

It's been six months since Hamas militants invaded Israel, and Joe Biden has been that country's staunchest ally. But this week, for the first time, his public support for Israel's campaign against Hamas is wavering, and his frustration boiled over in a tense call with Benjamin Netanyahu. Is this a turning point for the U.S.-Israel alliance, or just a passing episode in Biden's dysfunctional relationship with the Israeli prime minister?

Joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Leigh Ann Caldwell is an anchor at Washington Post Live and a co-author of the Early 202 Newsletter, Francesca Chambers is a White House correspondent at USA Today, Nancy Youssef is a national security correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, and Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times. He is also the recipient of this year's White House Correspondents' Association's Award for excellence in presidential news coverage under deadline pressure.

Peter, another shiny piece of hardware for your bulging trophy cabinet. Congratulations. I don't think they told you that part of the prize is that you get the first question on Washington Week.

Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent, The New York Times: What’s the second prize?

Franklin Foer: You'll find out next year.

Take us inside this tense phone call between Biden and Netanyahu. How feisty was it? Who was angrier? How did Netanyahu respond to Biden's anger?

Peter Baker: Well, remember at the State of the Union, the president was caught on a hot mic talking with some congressmen. He said he was going to have a come to Jesus conversation with Netanyahu. Now, I don't know how you have a come to Jesus conversation with the head of Israel, but this may have been that moment, right?

Angry at the killing of those World Central Kitchen workers, he had a 30-minute call with Netanyahu that I think was unlike any of the other ones he's had. In this case, he said to Netanyahu the first time that my support for you, as unconditional as it's been so far, now comes with conditions. You have to do some things to help the people of Gaza in terms of humanitarian crisis, in terms of stopping so much of the civilian casualties, and do more in terms of the negotiations for a ceasefire with Hamas in order for me to stick on your side.

Now, he didn't directly say, I'm going to cut off military hardware. That's the implication. He didn't give him a deadline. It wasn't that concrete, as I understand it, but he was very strident. That was the term that was used with me this week, very strident in this conversation.

Netanyahu, for his part, knew what was coming, right? And I think he was ready to kind of try to meet Biden halfway. He says, look, okay, there are going to be some things I can do on the humanitarian front. I'll announce them within a few hours, and he did. By Thursday night, early Friday morning in Jerusalem, he announced an initial crossing opening for humanitarian aid, a port, and so on.

Whether this will -- that's not enough to satisfy Biden, according to the White House, but it may be the start, and we'll see where that leads.

Franklin Foer: But just in the arc of this war and the arc of this relationship between these two leaders, what has actually changed this week?

Peter Baker: Yes. Well, it's not clear. It is important to hear, and it is a change to hear the president say that it's not unconditional anymore, that you have to meet certain standards in order for me to continue to be your backer. But without telling us exactly what the or else is, it's still a little fuzzy, right?

And you hear Democrats saying, wait a second, not far enough. You got to be more specific and explicit on tying arms supplies to conditions or cutting off all together. On the other hand, of course, if you're Republicans and Israel supporters saying, wait a second, now you're abandoning our closest allies. You shouldn't be putting pressure on them. You should put pressure on Hamas.

So, the president, you know, the question is how far he's willing to take this. And we don't really know yet.

Franklin Foer: Nancy, I want to just unspool some of the events of this week and just start with the attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy itself. How did this happen? Was this intentional?

Nancy Youssef, National Security Correspondent, The Wall Street Journal: Well, very simply, the Israeli military has a sort of lower threshold for what it's willing to tolerate and at risk that it's willing to put civilians in.

You had a convoy of three vehicles, World Central Kitchen vehicles, at about 10:00 P.M. The commander on the ground, a colonel, believes that he sees a man with a gun near that convoy, and they fire on that convoy.

The challenge is it's very different than we would see from the U.S. military, in part because they didn't confirm that there was a gun. They suspect one person, shot seven. And so it's clear that they are not willing to put their troops at the same level of risk in some cases that the U.S. is. There's no indication in this case of Israeli troops nearby.

And so what they discovered is, of course, there wasn't a Hamas fighter. And rather than going after people maybe affiliated with, which I think was a suspicion, they ended up killing seven World Central Kitchen workers and also, I think, raising the concern among other aid agencies, many of whom pulled out, which put the pressure on the administration and the Israeli government to find ways to get aid to 2.2 million people, because so much of that aid may not be there now because of the strike.

Franklin Foer: Francesca, the initial White House response wasn't quite as blistering as this phone call. It's kind of come and fits and starts. It's been a bit of a journey. Can you just walk us through the evolution of --

Francesca Chambers, White House Correspondent, USA Today: Right. So, initially, it was, we're going to wait to see what this investigation says before we specify any of the steps that we want them to take. But they said they wanted to be swift and that they also wanted to be thorough, comprehensive, and that they wanted this investigation to be public.

But when I press this week to ask what kind of accountability it is that the White House actually wants to see, they could not provide specifics or define that at all. Then by a day later, you know that president had then spoken to Netanyahu, again, by that time, you hear the White House issuing a more forceful statement.

But this really riled progressives in the base of the president's party, because when you have the White House press secretary standing up at the podium saying that the president could not have been more vocal with his outrage and saying that her definition of that is the first three words of his statement were that he was outraged and that he was heartbroken, that just did not go far enough for members of the president's party who want to see him, as Peter was saying, at least cut off offensive weapons.

They're not saying defensive weapons, such as the Iron Dome, but they do want to see offensive weapons in terms of military aid cut off. And, of course, now you've seen Chris Coons coming out and talking about being open to conditional aid. You had Tim Kaine as well, another senator in the Democratic Party today, speaking out about this.

And so the president, when he has close members and friends, people he used to serve in the United States Senate with, talking to him, you have Jose Andres, who has an open line of communication to him, these things are clearly weighing on the president, and he's grappling with them at this time.

Franklin Foer: So, Leigh Ann, just talk a little bit more about what's happened with the response of progressives and Democrats on the Hill. Has Israel essentially lost them as a constituency for the rest of this war? Is this really a turning point for them?

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Anchor, Washington Post Live: We're going to have to see. But remember, still on the table is $14 billion worth of aid for Israel, military aid that has not been passed, that is stalled in the House right now because of Ukraine.

Go back about a month ago, even a little bit farther, the only people who were really anxious about giving Israel more aid was the squad, the most progressive, and Senator Bernie Sanders, who voted against this aid package in the Senate because of the funding for Israel and there weren't conditions placed on it and there was no guardrails around it.

Now, after what happened this week, that sentiment seems to be growing beyond just Bernie Sanders and the most progressive liberals in the House, and we're going to have to see where this goes. You've had Senator Chris Van Hollen, who didn't vote against it, but who had been calling for conditions, and that sentiment is really growing.

But I will say, for a while now, there has been a lot of concern among Democrats on Capitol Hill about how Israel has been engaging in this war, and not many have expressed it yet. But now I think that this is a turning point. I'm not sure yet what's going to happen in practicality. But Biden is also very aware of this because this is impacting him politically, too.

Francesca Chambers: Bernie Sanders at the White House this week, too.

Franklin Foer: So, Peter, there were multiple big events that happened in the course of this war. The second was that Israel attacked an Iranian facility in Syria. And so maybe it was not the most opportune moment for Benjamin Netanyahu to alienate his super power protector in the region.

We've been talking on the show for months about the possibility of a regional conflict escalating. Are we there? Are we on the cusp of something like that right now?

Peter Baker: Well, and we'll see. We're hearing reports, of course, from U.S. intelligence officials that they are expecting Iran to respond, to retaliate against Israel as early as tonight, sometime this weekend. We don't know what that would look like. Nancy has maybe a better sense of that than I do.

But you're right. I mean, obviously Netanyahu is counting on the United States, and that may be why he was eager in this phone call to begin, at least to look like he's placating President Biden for now, because he does want the United States on his side. And if he does risk losing Biden, he's really by himself, right? The Israel is left alone. He doesn't want that.

It may be also that he hopes that this Iran threat, you know, takes some of the attention away from World Central Kitchen, from Gaza, and reminds people of the larger threat that Israel faces in the region. It has a lot of enemies in the region and reminds some of those senators who have traditionally been supportive of Israel, don't like Netanyahu and what he's doing in Gaza, but that they do have an interest in Israel beyond that.

Franklin Foer: Nancy, I just want you to weigh in on this because you've covered past moments where we've seemed like we're on the cusp of regional conflict with Iran that might draw the United States further into a dangerous situation. What do those past incidents suggest about how this might play out?

Nancy Youssef: Well, in the past, when we've had these kinds of strikes, for example, when the U.S. killed Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, Iran didn't use its proxies. It attacked directly, from Iran attacked U.S. forces.

And I think what they're trying to do at the time is sort of strike this sweet spot where they show that they're retaliating, but not escalating. We saw troops that were injured but not killed at that time. And now they're talking about doing strikes on an Israeli site.

If past is any precedence, then we'll see maybe those buildings will be cleared right before the strike happens, and it will hit that same sort of balance.

The challenge is, what if there's a mistake? And in the past, this was between Iran and the U.S., so we had some sense of what the response would be. Whereas we don't know how Israel will respond to a retaliatory strike by the Iranians.

And so I think it adds to the instability and unpredictability of this threat that the U.S. has now warned of a possible attack on U.S. or Israeli targets in the region.

Francesca Chambers:  If I could just add, you're hitting on a really important point as to why this has been a difficult decision for President Biden when you talk about conditioning the aid. You know, John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, earlier hinted at this earlier today, that they're very concerned that Israel lives in a, quote/unquote, tough neighborhood, and that if you don't send them weapons, they're facing threats from the Houthis, from Hezbollah, from other actors in the region. And he specifically touched on the Iranian proxy groups as well.

And so that is what has also contributed to why even as the president hears from members of his party and disagrees with Netanyahu, this is something else that's going on in the back of his mind as someone who, again, chaired Senate Foreign Relations Committee and just has a long history of supporting Israel.

Franklin Foer: Yes, that's a very important point.

And you mentioned earlier that this is, of course, going to become an election issue. It's already an election issue. And Biden wasn't the only candidate for president to talk about this this week. Let's listen to what former President Donald Trump had to say about the war in Gaza.

Donald Trump (R), Former U.S. President, 2024 Presidential Candidate: I'm not sure that I'm loving the way they're doing it, because you've got to have victory.

Israel is absolutely losing the P.R. war. They're losing it big. But they've got to finish what they started, and they've got to finish it fast.

Franklin Foer: Leigh Ann, can you help us decipher what he's doing there? Is he just talking? Is there some sort of subtext there?

Leigh Ann Caldwell: I was like, please don't come to me first to decipher Donald Trump. But who knows where Donald Trump's. Maybe this is his pure instinct. As we were talking before, he really reacts and responds to images and who is actually winning the messaging game and Israel at this moment is not.

But it does break with the Republican Party, he does break with the Republican Party in some respect here, who has really -- especially on Capitol Hill, Republicans have used Democrats' discontent with Israel and Netanyahu to attack them as being sometimes anti-Israel or politicizing this moment when Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, came out a couple weeks ago saying that Netanyahu has lost his way and should perhaps step back. Republicans really seized on that.

We didn't see Donald Trump going very far, but the fact that there was some -- you know, he portrayed the fact that this is not great is actually a little bit of separation between him and his party at this moment.

Franklin Foer: Francesca, as it happens -- not Donald Trump -- you've been talking to voters in swing states about the war. What have you learned --

Francesca Chambers: Progressive voters.

Franklin Foer: Progressive voters.

Francesca Chambers: Progressive voters in particular in battleground states, and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about words just not being enough from President Biden at this point. He gave a State of the Union Address, he's issued various threats and phone calls, but anything short of action at this point that addresses the situation is just not going to be good enough for these voters.

And I think that the Biden campaign has, to this point, written off some of these things, like the uncommitted vote in Michigan, is something that's ultimately not going to hurt him in the general election, that these voters will come home to the Democratic Party, that surely they're not going to vote for Donald Trump, that democracy being on the ballot will weigh more for them.

But there are a lot of Democrats who just don't think that that's the case. There are these voters, these progressive voters who were saying that they're going to stay at home in the general election. And this is really something that the Biden campaign is going to have to contend with.

Franklin Foer: Did you believe them when they told you that or did you just -- not that you -- but as you kind of project forward and you think about the psychology of statements like that, when you project forward to the moment where it becomes a binary choice between Trump and Biden, do you believe that they're going to stay home?

Francesca Chambers: For the voters, these voters, for Arab-American voters, for progressive voters who this is the number one issue for them, I mean, I take them at their word that if they didn't vote for Biden in the primary, and if they say that they're grappling with whether or not to vote, I understand that it's still really early in the election cycle, and there are months and months of things that can happen.

By the way, you know, Biden could change his position on some of these things. It's still early in the year, but this is what the concerns that they are raising at this time.

Peter Baker: That early. I mean, the problem for the White House is they had hoped that they could get Netanyahu to wrap this up in January. So that by now, by summer, by the time people are focusing on the election, that the talk will be about peacemaking, about reconstruction, about how to make things better, and the angry people would kind of, you know, calm down a little bit and come to that binary choice you're talking about.

We're now getting pretty far into the year where that binary choice may not be enough. And it doesn't have to be a lot of people. It does not -- it could be just enough people that Francesca talked to to change a state like Michigan and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, the only states that really matter, and we saw the last two elections, how close those were.

Franklin Foer: Well, that's a delightful segue for us to put up on the screen some recent polling that The Wall Street Journal has conducted about the state of the race in the swing states. In six of the seven swing states, Trump is ahead of Biden. They are tied in Wisconsin.

Leigh Ann, can you decipher this for us now and give us a sense of the state of play for the coming elections?

Leigh Ann Caldwell: So, this Wall Street Journal poll is not an outlier. This is reflective of recent polls over the past couple weeks, maybe a month or so, where Biden is really struggling in these swing states and the states that matter.

The challenges for Biden though are different than the challenges for Trump. The fact that Biden is losing support among his base, his base voters of black voters, Latino voters, young voters as well, which this poll reflects, where Donald Trump is very strong among his base.

And so Biden is going to have to do the work, of course, to win the middle, but also to win back the enthusiasm and the motivation so that the voters that Francesca talked to don't stay home.

Franklin Foer: As it happens, I think you were both on the ground in Nevada this week, one of the -- this week's states, what did you learn? What did you see when you were out there that might get us beyond what the polls are, some other stories or some other sense of the contours of this contest?

Leigh Ann Caldwell: Yes. While I was doing this, I was there for a story, for a very policy-specific story. So, I didn't necessarily talk to voters about the horse race. But I did talk to people about their economic situation and how in Nevada they are really feeling the economy in different ways, even though the economy has come back in a post-pandemic level, inflation, housing costs, rental costs, they're struggling.

And you can see that in the instance of, you know, the Senate race there, Cook Political Report just switched that from a lean Democrat to a tossup because of how unpopular Joe Biden is there and the trickledown impact.

But I will say Joe Biden has a campaign there now. He has an infrastructure there. Donald Trump does not yet have that infrastructure in this key battleground state. I'm told that he is kind of embedded a little bit with the Nevada Republican Party, which is quite dysfunctional at this point.

And so, as Peter said, it's still early, but it's not that early. And he has a lot of work, infrastructure-wise, to do in order if he wants to win this state.

Francesca Chambers: Biden is hitting the right notes, I'm told, when it comes to housing, housing costs in particular are very important, and that was something he touched on when he was there recently. He's been to Nevada twice this year already.

But when it comes -- you're talking about the Senate race. I had an organizer tell me just this week that they never believed that this was a lean-Dem seat, that they always thought this was going to be a tossup. It was very close in 2022 when there was a Senate seat on the ballot. It's going to be really close in the presidential election. And you could see a scenario where the Senate seat goes one way, and the election goes another way in Nevada. We could see a split ticket there. So, this will be a really key state to watch.

Franklin Foer: Peter, there is also this evidence that in poll after poll, there has been somewhat of an uptick in Biden's direction. I don't know if the White House is taking solace in that and touting that. But what is the explanation for this ever so slight but very meaningful movement in these serious polls?

Peter Baker: I mean, I think that they took a lot of solace after the State of the Union when there seemed to be a little bit of momentum, right, that it wasn't going to win over necessarily Francesca's voters, but it was sort of calming the nerves of what David Plouffe famously calls the bedwetters, people who are so worried in the Democratic Party that Trump -- sorry, that Biden is past his prime and not capable of running the kind of campaign they would like to see. So, they felt better for a while.

But I remember hearing them say at that point that we'll need to look at these polls a month out. And that will really tell us. And here we are basically almost a month out. And it really hasn't improved in such a way that they should be taking the solace that they initially hoped for. It's still a very tight race. All these are within the margin of error. We can see what happens. It's about turnout. A lot of these states don't have very effective Republican organizations or conflicted Republican organizations right now. But there's no room for feeling overconfident in the Biden camp.

Nancy Youssef: And to that point, in The Wall Street Journal poll, the thing that jumped out to me is on three major issues, immigration, fit and readiness for the job, the economy. Trump was far ahead of President Biden. The only issue in which the president led was on abortion.

And yet, when you looked at the breakdown of the economy, voters said, I feel my personal economy is okay, my personal economic situation, but I'm worried about the economy nationally, which suggests that there was a problem around messaging, conflating inflation with other economic issues.

And I just thought, to your point, that it really showed a month out, that we're not seeing the kind of upswing in a sort of sustainable way that perhaps they'd hoped for.

Franklin Foer: Go ahead.

Leigh Ann Caldwell: I was just going to say in the entire Biden campaign strategy is to is I'm not Trump essentially. You know, I talked to the deputy campaign manager a couple of weeks ago, Quentin Fulks, and his response kept saying, look, when it is clear to voters that, like you said, a binary choice between Trump and Biden, that we are confident the voters are going to come back to Biden. And we'll see if that strategy works.

Francesca Chambers: And I just want to note that there are plenty of voters in these battleground states who voted for Biden who are telling me that despite all these things and maybe they disagree on Israel, yes, of course they're going to vote for Joe Biden again in a situation against Donald Trump.

I'm merely making the point that I think they're underestimating the undercurrent of frustration among progressives right now.

Peter Baker: The advantage that Biden does have, though, is money. He's way out in front of Trump. Trump obviously has a lot of other issues he has to spend money on, call his lawyers, they'll tell you. And Biden said -- there are people who say, look, we haven't really begun to engage. We're only starting to begin to engage, to make the point Leigh Ann's talking about, which is, did we tell you who we're running against? We might remind you of what you forgot about from four years ago. And if they use that money effectively, they think they can make that choice binary.

Franklin Foer: Unfortunately, we need to leave it there for now. Thanks to our panelists for joining us and sharing your reporting.

Before we go, on behalf of everyone here at WASHINGTON WEEK, congratulations to the guy who usually sits in this chair, Jeff Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, under his leadership, The Atlantic, for the third straight year, just won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Congratulations to him and to all my colleagues at The Atlantic.

I'm Franklin Foer. Good night from Washington.

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