The Morning Dispatch: Conflict Flares in Jerusalem
But there are reasons to hope things won't get as bad as they did during last year's 11-day war.
Happy Thursday! The Food and Drug Administration has reportedly received 231 complaints in recent weeks from consumers dealing with nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea after eating General Mills’ Lucky Charms cereal.
We thought that was just part of the Lucky Charms Experience™.
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
The Centers for Disease Control formally asked the Justice Department on Wednesday to appeal the recent ruling striking down the Biden administration’s federal public transportation mask mandate. In addition to the CDC’s claim the mandate remains “necessary for the public health,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki argued the appeal will “ensure the CDC’s authority and ability to put in mandates in the future remains intact.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit will hear the case, and masks will remain optional for passengers while it is litigated.
Soaring prices combined with rising mortgage rates have begun to cool housing demand, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) said Wednesday. Existing-home sales fell 2.7 percent from February to March—the second straight month of decline—while the median sales price rose 15 percent year-over-year to $375,000, the highest level since 1999. Mortgage rates continue to climb as the Federal Reserve signals additional interest rate hikes, with the 30-year fixed rate average hitting 5.2 percent this week, the highest level in more than a decade.
Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed Wednesday it had successfully tested a new RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, though analysts believe it is not yet ready for use. “This truly unique weapon will force all who are trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said while overseeing the launch. The Pentagon said Moscow notified the United States about the launch in advance, in accordance with START Treaty requirements.
The Treasury Department announced Wednesday the Biden administration was leveling new sanctions against Russia’s Transkapitalbank, Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev and his network, and companies in Russia’s virtual currency mining industry, including Bitriver.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters Wednesday Germany aims to cut oil imports from Russia in half by this summer, and stop importing Russian oil entirely by the end of 2022. “Then gas will follow, in a joint European roadmap,” she said. In the meantime, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner rebuffed President Vladimir Putin’s demand that purchasers of Russian oil and gas pay for it in rubles. “Contracts are based on dollars and euros,” he said. “So private-sector companies should pay in dollars or euros.”
In a shift from its stance earlier in the war, Israel will send Ukraine helmets and bulletproof vests for medical teams and first responders, Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced Wednesday. Germany, meanwhile, is reportedly planning to provide Ukrainian forces ammunition for and training on the PzH 2000 rapid-fire artillery system the Netherlands is sending to Ukraine.
The All England Club announced Wednesday it will prohibit Russian and Belarusian tennis players from participating in Wimbledon this summer given the “importance of not allowing sport to be used to promote the Russian regime.” Four Russian men are currently ranked in the ATP’s top 30, while five Russian and Belarusian women are ranked in the WTA’s top 30.
Conflict Flares in Jerusalem
When Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire last May after an 11-day war that left hundreds dead, neither side seemed all that confident it would last. Agreeing to the truce, a spokesman for Hamas—the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza—claimed “the Palestinian resistance will abide by this agreement as long as the occupation abides by it.” Then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was even more non-committal: “It is the reality on the ground that will determine the future of the operation.”
It shouldn’t be all that surprising, then, that the two factions find themselves on the verge of a similar conflict less than one year later. Tensions began rising in earnest in the days leading up to the start of Ramadan, which this year—unlike in 2021—overlapped with both Passover and Easter.
On March 27, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a shooting attack in Hadera, Israel in which two militants killed two Israeli border police officers and injured more than 10 others. Two days later, a gunman killed at least five people in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. On April 8, a Palestinian from the West Bank opened fire in a Tel Aviv bar, killing two and wounding seven others.
“Israel is facing a wave of murderous Arab terrorism,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the time. The Israeli military responded with a series of raids in the West Bank, arresting dozens and, according to an Associated Press count, killing more than 20 Palestinians. Some of those killed were reportedly civilian bystanders, while the majority either clashed with Israeli Defense Forces or were believed to be planning additional attacks on Israelis.
Hamas did not formally claim any of the terrorists as their own—and Israeli officials believe at least a few of them were acting as lone wolves—but a spokesman for the group praised the attacks as “heroic,” saying they “struck the Zionist security system and proved our people’s ability to hurt the occupation.” Akram Rajoub—governor of the Palestinian city of Jenin—blamed Israel for the shooting of civilians in Tel Aviv. “When you punish all of Jenin, prevent commerce and workers, you push people into a corner. Expect them to do anything,” he said. “Palestinians are not terrorists. Palestinians want to free themselves from occupation.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took a different approach, condemning both the Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli response. “[The] killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians only leads to a further deterioration of the situation,” he said.
Things escalated further this past weekend, when Israeli police clashed with Palestinians at a holy site in Jerusalem important to both Muslims (the Al-Aqsa mosque) and Jews (Temple Mount) and historically a flashpoint for violence. Israel’s Foreign Ministry claimed its forces reopened the site for prayer after arresting hordes of “violent rioters” who were “desecrating” it and throwing stones, while the Palestinian Foreign Ministry accused Israeli police of committing “barbaric” crimes against worshipers. About 150 people—mostly Palestinians—were injured as the two sides exchanged rubber bullets and stones.
The situation could flare up again, as Hamas urged Palestinians to keep Israel from seizing control of Al-Aqsa: “We call on our Palestinian people to continue their mobilization in Al-Aqsa Mosque to protect Jerusalem and thwart the occupation's malicious plans.”
If the last month looked like the precursor to the 11-day war of 2021, the past few days have begun to look like the war itself. On Monday, Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepted a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip—the first in more than four months—and the Israeli Defense Force retaliated by destroying what military officials described as a Hamas weapons manufacturing facility in southern Gaza. The cycle repeated itself on Wednesday, except Iron Dome apparently wasn’t activated this time: A Palestinian rocket landed in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, and Israel responded with more airstrikes on Hamas facilities it said held “raw chemicals used for the manufacturing of rocket engines.” Palestinians reportedly fired anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli planes in both instances, but missed both times.
The escalation is a bad sign, but there’s still reason to hope this year’s clashes won’t become a reprise of last year’s war, as the major political players all have stronger incentives to avoid a broader conflict. Hamas, for instance, has yet to replace the thousands of rockets it fired at Israel last year, and Gaza still hasn’t rebuilt the infrastructure Israel destroyed in retaliation. The bump in popularity Hamas received from Palestinians during the war has since receded, and Israel has attempted to engender some goodwill by significantly increasing the number of work permits issued to Palestinians—a move it could revoke if Hamas attacked.
“Hamas has no real interest in escalating,” Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute who advised previous peace talks, told The Dispatch. “[It] emerged from last year’s war quite deeply scarred.”
With the war in Ukraine dominating news cycles, Hamas’ leaders may also decide more fighting won’t garner enough attention to justify the cost. “When Hamas attacks, it’s not attacking to win,” Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, told The Dispatch, noting Israel’s superior military. “It’s attacking to get sympathy. In a sense what Hamas is saying is, ‘Okay, give me a bloody nose, and the whole world will see you.’ If the world is distracted by something bigger, what’s the point?”
Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, also has every reason to deescalate, as his fragile coalition—an alliance of eight parties that includes members of the Jewish right-wing and Arab Muslims—would likely dissolve if a full-fledged war breaks out. It’s already showing cracks over the clashes: Right-wing parliament member Itamar Ben Gvir defied Bennett to march with Jewish nationalists on Wednesday, and the Arab Muslim Ra’am Party has “frozen” its participation in the coalition. The moves are largely while Parliament is in recess, but they could turn into full withdrawals if a war starts, leaving Bennett vulnerable to a no-confidence vote. But too conciliatory a stance toward Hamas could erode Bennett’s right-wing support. He already lost his paper-thin majority in parliament earlier this month after a member of his own party quit the coalition over a religious disagreement.
The U.S. has stuck to its typical stance on the conflict, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday urging Palestinian and Israeli officials to work together for peace and negotiate an independent state for the Palestinian people alongside Israel–the so-called two-state solution. He also urged Jordanian officials to help “end the cycle of violence” by “refraining from actions and rhetoric that further escalate tensions.”
Jordan and Egypt are subtly aiding the push for peace, according to al-Omari, balancing their support for Palestinians with a desire to improve relationships with Israel. Unlike Netanyahu, Bennett has cultivated a working relationship with Jordan. Although Jordan’s King Abdullah condemned Israel’s “provocative” behavior toward Muslims at Al-Aqsa this week, al-Omari said that was mostly bluster. “Beyond the rhetoric, there is a lot of practical cooperation on limiting the violence in the mosque,” he told The Dispatch, adding that he believes Egyptian intelligence officials are also quietly discouraging Hamas from further attacks.
But a conflict as deep-seated as this one could combust at any time. “When it comes down to a fundamental issue like this, being attacked, the [Israeli] government will do what it needs to do and sort out the political consequences afterwards,” Pipes said. “I would expect—just like last year—a flare up, death, and destruction, and anguish. And then it ends, and we go back to a quieter time, and then it will flare up again.”
Worth Your Time
In his Very Serious newsletter, Josh Barro had one of the most eminently reasonable takes on the end of the federal public transportation mask mandate. “Mourning the rule we lost yesterday only makes sense if your interest in masks is more about how we should regard COVID than how we should prevent it. That is, if you just liked seeing people forced to make sartorial expressions like your own about how much they care about COVID, then yesterday was indeed a sad day for you,” he writes. “The public health establishment still has not grappled with the damage it’s done to its reputation by failing to respect the fact that members of the public have different values and preferences than their own, or to place any value at all on individual freedom. There is a cost to ordering people around all the time, and if you’re too obnoxious about it, your powers to do so will be taken away. This is part of why leaving the transportation mandate in place so long was such a mistake: The more capricious an enforcement measure looks, the more likely it is the courts will find some justification to throw it out.”
The Biden administration and U.S. intelligence community are increasingly worried that Russia is now so isolated from the rest of the world that Putin sees little downside in acting even more recklessly than he has in the past, David Sanger reports for The New York Times. “Even before [Wednesday’s] missile launch, American officials and foreign leaders were weighing whether their success in cutting Russia off from much of the global economy, making it a diplomatic pariah, could further fuel Mr. Putin’s willingness to assert his country’s strength,” he writes. “William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, said last week that ‘every day, Putin demonstrates that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising ones,’ adding that his ‘risk appetite has grown as his grip on Russia has tightened.’ In private, American officials have been more direct about the potential for an isolated Russian leader to lash out in further destabilizing ways. ‘We have been so successful in disconnecting Putin from the global system that he has even more incentive to disrupt it beyond Ukraine,’ one senior intelligence official said in a recent conversation, insisting on anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments. ‘And if he grows increasingly desperate, he may try things that don’t seem rational.’”
Matthew Yglesias’ most recent Slow Boring post argues that, while misinformation is a problem in today’s politics, progressives are too quick to blame it for their own shortcomings. “The fact is that Obama did much better than Joe Biden with two groups of people—poor white people and Hispanic women—who happen to have low levels of political information. But if you take progressive ideas seriously, these are people whose interests we want to be representing. It’s on us to win their votes, as Obama did, not to charge them with being insufficiently informed,” he argues. “During his first term, Barack Obama spoke sympathetically about his racist white grandmother, said he believed marriage is between a man and a woman, bragged about setting record deportation levels, downplayed the gun control issue, never proposed anything close to the multi-trillion Build Back Better initiative, didn’t try to block oil & gas leasing on public lands, and frequently annoyed Black intellectuals with his practice of respectability politics. Maybe some or all of this change was for the better. But it was change, and I think if your view of why some people who voted for Obama later voted for Trump focuses on misinformation rather than shifts in actual issue positions and salience, then you are the one who is misinformed.”
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Toeing the Company Line
In this week’s Capitolism (🔒), the notoriously optimistic Scott Lincicome argues we should be skeptical of all the predictions that economic doom is right around the corner. “Sure, things got rough at times (it’s a global pandemic!); unexpected problems arose (hello, Delta); and messes remain,” he writes. “Overall, however, human ingenuity prevailed, and I’d wager it will again. Call it faith, call it optimism, call it whatever you want—as long as you also call it backed by decades and decades of reality.”
Jonah is a big fan of Matthew Continetti’s new book about the history of conservatism in the United States, but any book that focuses exclusively on the right is going to miss some of the broader historical context. “I have no problem exploring—and deploring—the baleful influence populism has had and continues to have on the right,” he writes in Wednesday’s G-File (🔒). “But the threat of populism isn’t a right-wing problem, it’s an American problem. Hell, it’s a problem inherent to all democracies.”
Sarah is joined by National Immigration Forum President Ali Noorani on Wednesday’s Dispatch Podcast for a conversation about the Biden administration’s immigration policies. Is the White House right to end the use of Title 42, the pandemic-era border policy? Why is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott busing migrants to Washington, D.C.? Does anyone have an actual plan?
Let Us Know
What do you make of the CDC’s now-struck-down public-transportation mask mandate? Was it a reasonable restriction of a few last very high-transmission spaces, or a relic of an earlier stage of the COVID pandemic that we’re better off without?