The National Interest Foundation Newsletter
Issue 168, November 10, 2022
Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. In this week’s headlines: the anticipated inclusion of bigoted Jewish supremacist and extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir as a minister in the new Israeli coalition government draws strong displeasure from the Biden administration and others, control of the U.S. Senate and House hangs in the balance as Democrats outperform expectations in several key battleground states, Russian-backed forces in Syria carry out aerial attacks on displacement camps in Idlib killing at least 10 civilians and wounding dozens of others, and the COP27 global climate summit kicks off in Egypt amidst a backdrop of worldwide environmental disasters and local human rights concerns.
Strong Displeasure and Concern Over Ben-Gvir
The Anticipated Inclusion of Bigoted Jewish Supremacist and Extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir as a Minister in the New Israeli Coalition Government Draws Strong Displeasure from the Biden Administration and Others
“The whole world is worried,” a statement even made and caught on a hot mic by Israeli President Isaac Herzog has relayed the feelings of many governments around the world. The strong concern and dissatisfaction are centered on the recently elected Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, a bigoted Jewish supremacist, far-right, ultra-nationalist extremist, and the anticipated role that he will play as a minister in the new Israeli coalition government. The Biden administration in particular is holding back on dealing with Ben-Gvir at all, expressing its strong displeasure and even hinting that it might boycott Ben-Gvir, though this seems unlikely due to the domestic political ramifications. Some American politicians, like U.S. Senator Bob Menedez, have also expressed their serious concern, saying that forming a government that includes “extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben-Gvir” would harm U.S.-Israeli bilateral relations. Forms of resistance in the U.S. government will likely be by individuals and non-governmental organizations. Multiple other foreign governments and their representatives have also voiced their displeasure and are likely to take action to minimize relations with Ben-Gvir.
Ben-Gvir has a long history of deplorable behavior, including his support of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in 1994. He openly supports the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and lives in an illegal settlement where he actively advocates for the violent eviction of Palestinian residents from their homes. Ben-Gvir has also made multiple violent threats against former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Just two weeks before Rabin was assassinated, Ben-Gvir was filmed holding an ornament taken from Rabin’s car, saying “we got his car and we’ll get him too.” In 2007, he was convicted in an Israeli court for inciting racism and support for a terrorist group. He has supported multiple Jewish extremists and supports the racist Kahanist ideology. Kahanism is an extremist Jewish ideology that states Arabs living in Israel are enemies of the Jewish people and advocates for the creation of a Jewish theocratic state. Ben-Gvir is part of the Otzma Yehudit party, which has partnered before with the Noam party, an aggressively bigoted and anti-gay group led by Bezalel Smotrich, a fellow fascist and racist.
The anticipated ministerial position of Ben-Gvir has also garnered pushback from other groups and entities. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the leader of J Street, tweeted that “Ben-Gvir & fellow ultranationalist Bezalel Smotrich raise the specter of a government willing to strip Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens of rights, weaken the judiciary, short-circuit Netanyahu’s legal charges & ratchet up intercommunal tensions and violations of Palestinian rights…this is a moment of truth and of choice…and to a vision of a world rooted in equality and justice.” The array of pushback and concern outlines how dangerous Ben-Gvir is seen to be by a host of entities, and the destructive role that he would play as a coalition government minister.
While U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has said that he “intends to keep working with Israel’s government on the two countries’ shared interests and values,” impartial social justice observers have pointed out that the United States should not work with extremist far-right governments, especially those that employ people with a history of racism, violent extremism, and clear fascist tendencies. Not only is it morally wrong to allow people like Ben-Gvir any shred of legitimacy, it will also have vast negative political ramifications for the United States in the Middle East. Based on his deplorable track record, Ben-Gvir is likely to continue to enflame the situation in Palestine and play a damaging role in inciting and encouraging violence. He will also push for increased illegal Israeli settlements, another exacerbating factor that has prolonged the status quo of injustices in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any form of American support for allowing this to transpire would trigger an intensely negative response amongst human rights and social justice activists. It is incumbent on the United States to champion values of freedom and justice around the world, and engaging with Ben-Gvir in any way would undermine our efforts and legitimize this type of bigoted brand of governance and oppression.
Lack of a GOP ‘Red Wave’
Control of the U.S. Senate and House Hangs in the Balance as Democrats Outperform Expectations in Several Key Battleground States
The 2022 United States midterm elections are over, and the results are continuing to pour in. As of now, the balance of power in both chambers of Congress has yet to be officially determined, although control of the U.S. House of Representatives is leaning towards a slim Republican majority. The GOP now holds a total of 209 seats, while Democrats hold 191. It is expected that Republicans will most likely reach the needed 218 seats to gain control. The Senate, on the other hand, is anyone’s game, and many election analysts anticipate that control could ultimately be determined by the extremely tight U.S. Senate race in Georgia – which is headed to an early December runoff since neither candidate was able to reach the necessary 50% threshold. Republicans have won 49 seats to 48 for Democrats, with the outcomes of the Arizona, Nevada, and aforementioned Georgia races yet to be determined. In the races for governor, there are currently 24 Republican and 22 Democratic governors. These results are all circumstantial, as most states have not finished counting votes, and with Georgia expecting a runoff in their Senate race. It will still be a while before all votes are tallied.
Whether majority control goes to the GOP or to the Democrats will have an impact on domestic issues such as inflation, crime, abortion, and immigration. These topics are the ones most dominating candidates’ platforms. If the Republicans gain control of the Senate, a Republican president in 2024 would benefit greatly. This is especially true since the Senate holds certain rights such as the right to approve presidential appointments and approve treaties. The Senate can refuse appointments for key positions such as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense that play a vital role in foreign policy. The Senate also runs the Foreign Relations Committee which is crucial in making U.S. foreign policy decisions. Thus, whichever party runs the Senate has the most influence on foreign policy-related issues in the United States.
The biggest surprise of the midterm elections has been the absence of the expected “red wave.” Although Republicans will likely still gain control of the House, they are now expected to gain anywhere from 7 to 12 seats, which is at the low end of the 8-20 estimated by Inside Elections and a very far cry from the 20+ many Republicans predicted. Historically speaking, this is in fact looking to be a very poor performance for the party out of power. Even when the president’s approval is above 50%, the opposition party has averaged a gain of 28 seats in a president’s first midterm election since World War II. When approval ratings are below 50%, as Biden’s are, the gain has been 43 seats on average.
Many Democratic incumbents proved themselves to be resilient. Although Republican Monica De La Cruz won Texas District 15 in the Rio Grande Valley, Democrats held on in other border districts. In Minnesota and Maine’s highly-contested 2nd districts, Democrats also put on strong performances, with incumbent Angie Craig securing a tight race in Minnesota and Jared Golden ahead in Maine with 95% reporting. That race, however, will likely take a while to call, as no candidate has won a majority of the votes and will now move to rank choice. In Ohio’s 1st district, 26-year Republican incumbent Steve Chabot was ousted by Democratic challenger Greg Landsman with some help from re-drawn district lines. However, Republicans also scored key victories. In Iowa’s 3rd district, Republican Zach Nunn beat Democrat Cindy Axne by just over 2,000 votes in a race in which over 300,000 were cast. As a result, all of Iowa is now Republican-controlled. Florida, which has 28 electoral votes, also upped its GOP affinity this cycle. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar again won Florida’s 27th congressional district, which is home to Miami. Salazar won the race by a much larger margin than she did in 2020. At the gubernatorial level, Ron DeSantis became the first Republican to win Miami-Dade County since 2002.
In the Senate, several key races are still undecided and will determine control of the chamber. Of the five races expected to determine the outcome, only two have been called. Incumbent Republican Ron Johnson narrowly defeated Democrat and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, and in Pennsylvania, Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman was victorious over Republican TV personality Mehmet Oz. This means that Republicans will need to win two of the three races in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. Although Raphael Warnock came out on top in Georgia, he failed to attain a majority of votes, meaning that a runoff election will take place next month. In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly leads Republican Blake Masters by five points with 70% reporting. In Nevada, Republican Adam Laxalt leads Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto by just under 2 points with 83% of the vote in. There are clearly a lot of votes left to count in both Arizona and Nevada, but if the current standing persists, all eyes will be on Georgia to determine the fate of the U.S. Senate.
Aerial Attacks on Displacement Camps in Idlib
Russian-Backed Forces in Syria Carry Out Aerial Attacks on Displacement Camps in Idlib Killing at Least 10 Civilians and Wounding Dozens of Others
Earlier this week, Russian-backed forces in Syria carried out aerial attacks on displacement camps in Idlib, killing at least 10 civilians and wounding dozens of others. Rights groups have denounced the deplorable strikes for targeting vulnerable families and civilians, including children. Regrettably, this behavior is part of a disturbing longstanding trend of Russian and Syrian government forces engaging in deadly assaults against civilians. Observers have documented how over the past year alone, these types of attacks in northern Syria have killed more than 50 civilians, including an alarming 22 children. While Russia often claims that it is solely targeting the hideouts of combatant groups in Idlib, humanitarian workers refute this and condemn the far too commonplace strikes against civilian sites and facilities – particularly in cases like this involving displacement camps with at-risk citizens.
Humanitarian agencies have expressed that at least seven camps were hit in this latest aerial attack, which not only killed and injured civilians, but also further displaced hundreds as well and caused extensive destruction. The strikes also mark the most recent in an array of many violations of the March 2020 truce in Syria. The Idlib province is frequently cited as the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria, and as such, vulnerable civilians in the northern parts of the country are often unfortunately subjected to attacks at the hands of Russian and Syrian government forces. The strikes this week targeted tent settlements of displaced families in Idlib, with opposition activists reporting that government forces fired a cluster of bombs shooting about 30 rockets. The area around the camps was targeted by four Russian air strikes after the initial attack as well. The strikes came a day after the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that opposition forces were preparing a drone attack on a Russian military air base. Rights groups and activists have strongly condemned the use of these deadly air assaults against civilian-populated areas in the Idlib province.
Volunteer humanitarian organizations like The White Helmets in Syria are often left to try and aid civilians in need as a result of these types of attacks. The group consists of trained plumbers, postmen, teachers, and other civilians who join the force to become part of the medical and rescue team. The organization of several thousand Syrian men and women pull survivors and bodies from the rubble of bombed-out buildings in rebel-held areas. In doing so, they aim to at least provide some relief to those who suffer from these attacks. The group has condemned assaults like these on civilian displacement camps, also pointing out how they sometimes lead to further issues as they can cause fires to erupt and destroy the homes of displaced civilians. Workers with the organization have accused Russia of media disinformation over the aerial strikes by claiming that they only target combatant sites, which has been shown to be untrue.
The longstanding Syrian conflict has had devastating consequences on the country’s civilian population. It has resulted in a vast refugee crisis which has displaced an estimated half of the country’s pre-war population, killed thousands, destroyed large parts of Syria, and seen a slew of human rights violations committed against civilians. This week’s incident is just the latest example of this, and demonstrates how it is Syria’s civilian population that has sadly borne the brunt of the conflict.
COP27 Global Climate Summit in Egypt
The COP27 Global Climate Summit Kicks Off in Egypt Amidst a Backdrop of Worldwide Environmental Disasters and Local Human Rights Concerns
This past Sunday, the 27th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) summit began in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where world leaders will sit down for two weeks to discuss an increasingly dire global climate disaster. From the beginning, it has been clear that there is an undercurrent of urgency and dissatisfaction this year, especially among smaller nations that are the most affected by the volatility that climate change breeds. Many of these countries have come forward with specific plans in mind. In one of the most powerful moments of the summit thus far, Tuvaluan Prime Minister Kausea Natano delivered a speech calling for a zero-proliferation agreement that would prevent the development of further fossil fuel installations. Tuvalu is one of several small nations that have backed the idea, which although not entirely unheard of in civil society, has never been presented as a viable option to governments. Unfortunately for this coalition, the proposal comes at a time in which energy prices are skyrocketing and governments are searching for new ways to produce energy at lower costs.
Nevertheless, countries angry with the damage that big carbon producers are causing have remained relentless in their demands. Before the conference even got underway, they succeeded in getting a discussion of “loss and damage” on the agenda for the first time in the conference’s history – which is a reference to the idea that the countries who have done the most harm to the environment should have to pay reparations to the countries most affected by their actions. For years, some have managed to make dubious promises and essentially dodge the topic. Others, however, have already committed to making payments. Austria, Scotland, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany have agreed to participate in the proposed loss and damage fund, whereas New Zealand is poised to unilaterally distribute $20 million to affected nations. It’s an admirable gesture, but a miniscule percentage of the $2 trillion that a recent study concluded will be needed annually to fully support affected nations. Famous climate economist and leading contributor to the report, Nicholas Stern, has said that half of the $2 trillion would come from local sources, with the rest coming from international aid.
With the stakes being so high, one would expect significant levels of peaceful civilian participation and protests at the event, as have taken place at countless previous COPs. However, human rights groups were accurate in predicting that this would not be the case this year. Since 2013, freedom of expression has steadily decreased under Egyptian President El-Sisi. According to a Human Rights Watch report written on Monday, Egyptian officials began instituting “arbitrary funding, research, and registration obstacles that debilitated local environmental groups” even before the conference began.
But interestingly, it is not climate-specific censorship that has taken center stage. Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a British-Egyptian dual citizen and political prisoner for much of the last decade, intensified his longstanding hunger strike on Sunday by refusing to drink water, stating that he intends to either die or be released in the coming days. In response, his sister, Sanaa Seif, who is also a well-known activist, has returned to Egypt to lobby for his release. In the small area Egyptian officials allowed activists to have at the event, Seif called for his release and raised concerns that the prison may force-feed him to prevent martyrdom. Prime Ministers Sunak and Macron, as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, have spoken to El-Sisi about his release, who has responded by saying that his “health would be preserved.” President Biden is expected to speak to El-Sisi more broadly about the state of human rights in Egypt on Friday, where Abdel-Fattah is only one of an estimated 60,000 political prisoners.
Censorship is so extreme that even the proper functioning of the conference itself has been affected. Firewalls around the websites of entities like Human Rights Watch and Al Jazeera had to be removed after delegates complained about not being able to reference certain information. Prior to the event, Egypt had to temporarily enable communication lines such as WhatsApp calling and FaceTime that are prohibited under normal circumstances.