Former officials speak out against Biden’s Israel support after aid worker killings: ‘No one can change his mind’

Pressure from the White House has stalled investigations into Israel’s potential war crimes with US weapons, former officials say

Richard Hall
Senior US Correspondent
Thursday 04 April 2024 16:46 BST
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas (AFP via Getty Images)

Investigations into potential Israeli war crimes and violations of international law are being undermined by President Joe Biden’s insistence on providing his close ally with billions of dollars in unconditional military support, several former State Department and Pentagon officials told The Independent.

Speaking out after the killing of seven international aid workers by Israel in Gaza, among them an American citizen, one former Pentagon attorney said that any US investigations into Israel’s actions were “perfunctory” and “performative” due to pressure from the White House.

The former officials say the president’s decades-long and deeply held personal connection to Israel renders US laws and regulations concerning US arms sales essentially toothless.

“There’s no incentive to investigate if the president and the White House themselves have announced that aid is unconditional,” said Brian Finucane, who worked for a decade in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the State Department advising on arms transfers and the laws of war.

“That means they don’t want to hear inconvenient legal conclusions,” he told The Independent.

Mr Finucane said senior administration officials he had spoken to had been met with a “shrug” by the US intelligence community when they quizzed them about mass civilian casualty incidents caused by Israeli bombing, “because it’s no one’s job in the US intelligence community, apparently, to actually investigate these things.”

“It flows directly from Oval Office, as a function of Biden's long-held views on Israel,” he added.

His assessment was corroborated by two former State Department officials and a former Pentagon attorney — all of whom worked on the issue of US arms transfers — in interviews with The Independent.

Charles Blaha, former director of the State Department’s Office of Security and Human Rights, which regulates weapons transfers, said investigations into breaches of humanitarian law in the Gaza conflict — if they are taking place at all — are likely not being taken seriously.

“My sense is that people get patted on the head and say, ‘this is all very interesting,’ But I think the president is the decider here,” he said.

President Biden is under increasing pressure from within his own party and from international allies over his refusal to consider suspending arms sales to Israel. The war in Gaza has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, mainly women and children, since October.

The US provides some $4bn in military support each year to Israel and is weighing sending another $18bn more imminently. But the president has stubbornly refused to consider such a measure despite a steady stream of atrocities being broadcast to the world.

This combination of photos provided by World Central Kitchen/, shows seven aid workers who were killed in Gaza Monday, April 1, 2024 (AP)

The killing of seven aid workers with the World Central Kitchen (WCK) — a non-profit humanitarian aid organisation founded by celebrity chef José Andrés — by three precision strikes from an Israeli drone made with British components, drew swift condemnation from the president, who said he was “outraged and heartbroken” over the deaths.

The workers had been returning from delivering food aid to northern Gaza, which is on the brink of famine, when the drone struck their three vehicles, which were clearly marked with the WCK logo.

Among the victims was Jacob Flickinger, 33, a US-Canadian dual citizen. That strike pushed the death toll for aid workers in the conflict to over 200.

On Wednesday, just one day after the killings, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby tersely rejected the notion that the US should reconsider sending weapons to Israel while it is potentially breaching international humanitarian law.

“The State Department continues to review incidents as they arise,” he said, emphasising that “they haven’t found an incident yet that has pointed to a violation of international humanitarian law.”

But the former officials described such reviews and investigations by the US government into those incidents as fatally flawed due to the president’s own policy.

“Civil society and the media can keep pointing out that Israel is violating the law or that its conduct of operations requires certain actions by the US government to cut assistance; but at the end of the day, what’s driving the entire process is the ideological and political perspective of the president,” Sarah Harrison, a former Pentagon attorney in the Office of General Counsel between 2017 and 2021, serving the Secretary of Defense, told The Independent.

Often, those investigations are intentionally mired in bureaucracy because those charged with reviewing the incidents are aware of the president’s commitment to providing unconditional support for Israel, she added.

“The delays concerning the assessments are on purpose,” Ms Harrison said. “They are the result of prioritising administration policy objectives, which are to not ever say Israel commits violations and to not cut off assistance to Israel. Those goals are coming directly from the president. We know from speaking to US officials that this is President Biden’s ideology and, if they’re even trying, nobody is able to change his mind.”

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in October 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Finucane, who advised on the legality of arms transfers during his time at the State Department, tells The Independent that potential war crimes by Israel are “not really looked at.”

“[John] Kirby is clearly overstating the extent to which there’s any process to examine how Israel is conducting hostilities and how those using US weapons in Gaza,” he said.

Ms Harrison said that there was a culture within the various processes for investigation, as a result of the president’s policy, that silences dissent on the issue.

“The culture that permeates to the bottom of the bureaucracy is one in which the US does not criticise Israel or ever acknowledge that it’s committing violations of international law,” she said.

The Biden administration’s refusal to consider halting arms sales to Israel was having a devastating effect on State Department staff, says Mr Blaha.

“I was in the State Department for 32 years, including during the Iraq War. I have never seen this much unhappiness in the State Department,” he said. “It was even worse than Iraq. So yeah, people are concerned.”

Josh Paul, who resigned in October as director of the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in protest of the Biden administration’s unconditional military support to Israel, describes his former department as being on “autopilot.”

War in Gaza (Associated Press)

“It continues to approve transfers to Israel on a daily basis,” he said. “And no one at the lower level is willing to stick their head above the parapet for as long as the direction from the top remains to move forward.”

Mr Paul noted that previous US presidents, from Ronald Reagen to George W. Bush, had threatened to suspend aid to Israel to achieve US policy objectives, but Mr Biden has remained steadfast in his commitment to leave conditions off the table.

“There's been essentially some atrophying of the muscles that we used to use in this space, because it's been so long since anyone tried to apply leverage in this way and conditionality. But you know, that can be relearned. This is all a question of political will,” he said.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent for this story.

However, Mr Kirby, the White House spokesperson, made clear on Wednesday morning that the Biden administration would continue supporting Israel despite the international uproar.

“We make no bones about the fact that we have certain issues about some of the way things are being done,” he said. “We also make no bones about the fact that Israel is going to continue to have American support for the fight that they are in to eliminate the threat from Hamas.”

In fact, the Biden administration authorised the transfer of over 1,000 500-pound bombs and over 1,000 small-diameter bombs to Israel on Monday, shortly before the strike on the aid workers.

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