US and Israel both leave key questions unanswered in the Gaza war

Brian Katulis
Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Senior Advisor to the President

Brian Katulis
  • The escalating public fight between the Biden administration and Netanyahu government continues to spill into both countries’ domestic politics.

  • As the Gaza war’s six-month mark approaches, neither the United States nor Israel has sufficiently answered key strategic questions about the conflict, including how to define victory over Hamas, how to address the growing humanitarian crisis for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and what both countries see as a realistic outcome when the war is over.

The Biden administration and Netanyahu government continued to engage in a public fight over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Late last week, at the end of his sixth trip to the Middle East since the war began, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel and warned the country’s leaders that they are risking long-term security harm and global isolation if its military moves forward with an offensive in Rafah. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rebuffed Blinken’s warning and said that Israel will go into Rafah alone if necessary.

US Vice President Kamala Harris doubled down on the Biden administration’s warnings yesterday, suggesting there might be “consequences” if Israel moves forward with plans to attack Rafah, where well over a million Palestinian civilians and the remnants of Hamas are now. With America’s elections nearly seven months away, the incentives in America’s political system to make the Gaza war a partisan wedge issue are growing. On Thursday, Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said he was planning to invite the Israeli prime minister to address Congress, a move that would be reminiscent of a similar speech by Netanyahu in 2015 that accelerated partisan fights in America over Israel.

Neither Israel nor the United States has sufficiently answered several key strategic questions about this war as it approaches the six-month mark soon, including:

1. How do both countries define victory over Hamas? The debate between the two governments over the past few weeks has diverted attention from answering this key question with any clarity. This is ironic, because both Israel and America agree that eliminating Hamas as a security threat is a key objective, but neither has defined success in achieving this goal. Some estimates suggest that more than half of the fighting force of Hamas has been killed or wounded thus far, but it is unclear how many weapons it still has and what the plan is to deal with the group’s underground tunnel network, which spans hundreds of miles.

2. What policies will best address the growing humanitarian crisis for Palestinians in Gaza? The warning signs of growing hunger among Palestinians across the Gaza Strip, along with strong concerns that Israel’s military actions have killed and wounded large numbers of Palestinian civilians, are key factors that seem to be driving the Biden administration’s public criticisms of the Netanyahu government. That’s why the possible Israeli military offensive in Rafah is in the spotlight, along with the fact that threats of military action may also be aimed at shaping the negotiations over a cease-fire and hostage release. Neither Israel nor America seems to have a complete, integrated plan in mind that answers these first two questions.

3. What is a realistic political end state after the war is over? The biggest question of all that remains unanswered is one that Israel has sought to avoid answering with precision and the US has failed for years to define in clear and achievable terms. The Biden administration recently restated the long-term goal of a two-state solution, something Israel’s current government rejects. Military campaigns that fail to define a clear, pragmatic end goal often result in long, costly wars that weaken rather than increase security for those engaged in those wars.

None of the sound and fury in the politics of both countries or the heated commentary by leaders and pundits alike have answered these key questions. The political and media institutions of America and Israel have become adept at creating division between and within both countries, yet those institutions continue to offer inadequate answers to some elemental questions related to this war.

Follow: @Katulis

Congress bans funding for UNRWA

Wa'el Alzayat
Senior Fellow

Wa'el Alzayat
  • The recently passed $1.2 trillion congressional spending bill bans all direct US funding for UNRWA, the main conduit for humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and a host of neighboring countries, until March 2025.

  • US support typically accounts for around 30% of the agency’s budget, and the move comes as humanitarian experts warn of an impending famine in Gaza.

On March 23, the US Senate voted 74-24 to pass a $1.2 trillion spending bill following its passage in the House of Representatives. The legislation was signed into law by President Joe Biden the following day. While averting a government shutdown, the bill bans all direct US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), until March 2025. The Biden administration temporarily paused new funding to UNRWA following Israeli claims that 12 agency employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. UNRWA, which employees over 30,000 people, vehemently denied the allegations, but terminated 10 of those employees while launching an investigation. The reputational damage inflicted upon the agency caused more than a dozen other Western countries to also suspend funding, even as humanitarian experts warn of an impending famine in Gaza.

A number of senators, most notably Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, have contested Israeli accusations against UNRWA and have gone as far as saying that claims that “UNRWA is a proxy for Hamas, are just flat out lies.” Opposition to UNRWA on the Hill predates Oct. 7 as a result of a sustained pressure campaign by Israel arguing against bestowing refugee status on the descendants of Palestinian refugees. The agency is the main conduit for humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and a host of neighboring countries. The cuts, experts fear, will severely impact an already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and place additional burdens on Jordan and Lebanon, hosts to millions of Palestinian refugees. While several of the countries that cut aid, including Sweden, Canada, and Australia, have reversed course and restored funding in recent weeks, US support typically accounts for around 30% of UNRWA’s budget. The US cuts could be made permanent if subsequent Congresses fail to enact new legislation to resume funding. 

Follow: @WaelAlzayat

Turkey’s 2024 local elections and the future of the political opposition

Evren Balta
Non-resident Scholar

Evren Balta
  • Following the Justice and Development Party’s victory in the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, the primary base of support for the ruling party has shifted to smaller cities and rural areas, where its electoral influence on the national scale is weaker compared to the opposition’s stronghold in major urban centers.

  • The focus of the 2024 elections lies heavily on the pivotal political battleground of Istanbul, where the results will not only determine the city’s governance but also potentially shape the future leadership of the opposition.

In Turkey’s 2019 local elections, the opposition achieved notable success through effective electoral coordination, the selection of high-caliber candidates, and a service-oriented depolarization strategy aimed at countering the government. As Turkey’s biggest city and the central engine of its construction-oriented economic development, Istanbul’s loss represented a major setback for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The triumph of 2019 buoyed opposition spirits, fostering optimism that they could effect a change of government in the 2023 general elections. However, the opposition suffered an ignominious electoral defeat in both the presidential and parliamentary contests, leading to disappointment, disarray, and apathy in the opposition ranks as well as among opposition supporters.

The aftermath of the 2023 rout casts a shadow over the 2024 local elections. The opposition alliance formed in previous elections dissolved, and the parties that composed it have decided to run their own candidates this time. Moreover, the sense of powerlessness and disillusionment that the 2023 loss engendered dampened enthusiasm for political engagement among opposition voters. In contrast, the ruling bloc maintained internal cohesion and consolidated its authority as the election victor.

In essence, the opposition entered the 2024 elections at a disadvantage compared to the AKP-led government. Nonetheless, certain factors may play a role to offset this unfavorable position. Firstly, the primary base of support for the ruling party has shifted to smaller cities and rural areas, where its electoral influence is weaker compared to the opposition’s stronghold in major urban centers. Secondly, the incumbent mayors of Istanbul and Ankara — Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, respectively, both from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — enjoy high levels of approval, having steered these cities forward despite challenges and resource constraints imposed by the central government. Indeed, the two mayors remain potential flagship candidates for the opposition; their defeat would spell a major setback for the opposition camp. Thirdly, there is a prevalent tradition of strategic voting in local elections, which may see opposition supporters coalescing at the grassroots level, even in the absence of formal party alliances.

In conclusion, the outcome of these local elections hangs in the balance. It is unlikely that the main opposition faction, the CHP, will be able to maintain control of all 11 provinces it secured in the 2019 elections, but it may gain new ones. However, the focal point revolves around the mayoral races in Turkey’s three largest cities. Of these urban centers, only Ankara looks assured to remain in opposition hands. In Izmir, a traditional stronghold of the opposition and secular values, the electoral race seems remarkably close, largely due to the CHP’s subpar candidate selection. Yet, it is Istanbul where the pulse of the elections beats strongest. The results of the Istanbul vote will not only dictate the governance of Turkey’s largest city but will also play a pivotal role in shaping the future trajectory of the potential leader of the opposition.

Pakistan and Afghanistan at swords’ points

Marvin G. Weinbaum
Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies

Marvin G. Weinbaum
  • Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have deteriorated sharply amid Pakistan’s escalating security challenges, especially those linked to the Afghanistan-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which carried out 881 terrorist attacks in the country in 2023.

  • There seems to be little likelihood of change in the near term: The Afghan Taliban leadership is unlikely to sever ties with the TTP, but with both countries heavily dependent on trade and commerce, neither can afford a much deeper conflict.

In the weeks since Pakistan’s new civil-military government took office, it has been actively trying to showcase its competence by creating an impression that it has everything under control. The country’s escalating security challenges offer a contrasting reality. Pakistan recently experienced two high-profile terrorist attacks: one in the northwestern region bordering Afghanistan and the other aimed at the economically and strategically significant Gwadar Port in restive Balochistan Province. On March 16, in the latest in a series of anti-state terrorist strikes, the Afghanistan-based, religiopolitical-motivated Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targeted a military outpost in a suicide attack, killing seven Pakistani security personnel. On March 20, the nationalist Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), deploying a brigade of “self-sacrificers,” claimed credit for infiltrating Pakistan’s prized Gwadar Port and destroying sensitive military intelligence installations. Although distinct entities, the TTP and BLA share a common enemy in the Pakistan military.

Relations between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban have steadily deteriorated over the short history of Afghanistan’s second Islamic Emirate. A once mutually rewarding partnership lasting almost 25 years has been worsening almost from the time the Taliban seized power in Kabul in August 2021. The key source of contention has been Kabul’s harboring of TTP militants. The emboldened Taliban regime is viewed by Pakistan as acting as the TTP’s patron, and also using the TTP to serve as a proxy force. The Kabul government rejects Pakistan’s accusations, insisting that it is firmly committed to refusing the use of Afghan territory as a staging ground for terrorist attacks against other countries. Kabul also frequently denies the TTP’s presence in Afghanistan as a cross-border terrorist organization.

Pakistan’s northwest has borne the brunt of the country’s worsening security problem. In 2023, the TTP carried out 881 terrorist attacks, resulting in the deaths and injuries of 2,193 members of Pakistan’s security forces. Although Islamabad had not launched a strike on TTP bases inside Afghanistan for almost two years, on March 18 it carried out an airstrike directly inside the border area in an effort to neutralize the terrorists’ fighting capacity. Kabul protested that the strike resulted in eight deaths, all of them women and children. Afghan forces very shortly retaliated with “heavy weapons” fire directed at security bases along the border.

Against the backdrop of heighted tensions between the two countries, late last year Pakistan acted on its long-stated threat, for security and economic reasons, to expel Afghan refugees living in Pakistan without proper documentation, setting a late November 2023 deadline for their departure. After forcing more than 500,000 to leave, Pakistan seemed to treat the removal of more than a million remaining targeted Afghans with less urgency. But following the most recent flare-up in fighting between the neighbors, Pakistan announced it would renew its push for refugee departures, now supposed to begin after the end of the current Eid, in roughly two weeks’ time.

There seems little likelihood of a near-term improvement in bilateral relations. Discussions by the two countries over establishing a joint counter-terrorism approach have gone nowhere. Afghanistan has at times seemed willing to conciliate Pakistan by calling on TTP cadres to leave the border areas, but it has then failed to block their quick return. An angered Pakistan military has apparently lost patience with the TTP and the Kabul government. Pakistan Army chief Gen. Asim Munir even went so far as to say that, “When it comes to the safety and security of every single Pakistani, the whole of Afghanistan can be damned.” Meanwhile, there are concerns in the international community that the Afghan Taliban may be strengthening its ties with the TTP to head off the organization’s possible alignment with Islamic State should Kabul yield to Pakistan’s pressure.

That the Afghan Taliban leadership can be induced to sever ties with the TTP, as Pakistan demands, seems unlikely though. Leaving aside the loyalties forged during the years of the Afghan Taliban insurgency, proxy forces like the TTP serve as a deterrence strategy for Kabul that allows for plausible deniability. At the same time, it is also unlikely that the current faceoff between Pakistan and Afghanistan will sharply escalate. With both countries heavily dependent on trade and commerce, linked in part by ethnic bonds, and faced with major financial difficulties as well as competing regional and domestic security priorities, neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can afford a much deeper conflict.

Research assistant Naad-e-Ali Sulehria contributed to this piece.

Follow: @mgweinbaum

Saudi Arabia’s $40 billion AI bet

Mohammed Soliman
Director, Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program

Mohammed Soliman
  • Unsurprisingly for those following Saudi Arabia’s rise as a major tech player in the past several years, on March 19, the kingdom announced plans to create a $40 billion fund for investment in artificial intelligence.

  • The development of the technology sector is among the government’s top priorities as it works to transform from a hydrocarbon-dominated economy into a diversified one that includes globally competitive knowledge-based industries.

Saudi Arabia has spearheaded a multigenerational, socio-economic transformation that is reshaping its economy and the wider region at an unprecedented pace. From digital adoption and implementation and the development of the e-gaming industry to advancements in tourism, entertainment, and space exploration, the kingdom’s ambitious blueprint for this transformation is comprehensive and far-reaching. As global attention turns toward cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI), Saudi Arabia is positioning itself not only as a consumer but also as an active participant in its development and governance. This additionally reflects the growing aspirations of emerging markets to assert a more prominent role in the global high-technology sector.

Reflecting these Saudi aspirations, on March 19, the kingdom announced plans to create a $40 billion fund to invest in AI. The Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, has reportedly been in conversations with American venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and other investors to discuss their financial participation. To those who have been following Saudi Arabia’s rise as a major tech player over the past several years, this move is unsurprising.

The Saudi push for large-scale investment in AI builds on previous steps and moves made by Riyadh. In 2020, the kingdom announced the launch of its first AI strategy, which calls for the country to become a global leader in AI and data by 2030. Specific objectives include launching AI and data-related initiatives led by Saudi Arabia, implementing an AI focus in the educational system, activating regulatory frameworks for data and AI activities to draw in companies working on these issues, attracting domestic and foreign investments in data and AI, building an AI platform, and elevating innovation in this space. The development of the Saudi technology sector is among the government’s top priorities as it continues its efforts to transform from a hydrocarbon-dominated economy into a diversified one that includes globally competitive knowledge-based industries. Within the tech sector, Saudi leaders have identified AI as a key target area for growth and innovation and a vehicle for shaping the kingdom’s image as an advanced, tech-savvy society.

Follow: @ThisIsSoliman

Photo by EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.