More than 1,600 Israelis and Palestinians, and 11 Americans, have been killed following the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel. The White House says several more Americans are likely being held hostage by Palestinian militants.
President Joe Biden is expected to deliver remarks on the situation Tuesday afternoon. But as violence continues to escalate in the Middle East, lawmakers here in the United States are dealing with a conflict of their own: How do they legislate and help facilitate the U.S. response with no leadership in the House of Representatives? U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Salem joined GBH’s Morning Edition co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about the situation. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rep. Seth Moulton: Good morning.
Jeremy Siegel: Can Congress effectively respond to an international conflict of this magnitude when there is no speaker of the House?
Moulton: Certainly not as effectively as we should. And we're all waiting for the Republicans to decide whom to nominate so we can actually have a vote on the speaker. But of course, the last time they did this, it took 15 rounds of voting to eventually elect Kevin McCarthy. And that's the only way McCarthy got there, was by being more and more subservient to the far right. It sounds like the candidates that the GOP is advancing right now are going to be beholden to the same extremists. So there's a lot of concern here.
Paris Alston: Congressman, we mentioned that the president is expected to give an address on the situation later today. What role does he play in unifying not only the nation, but also our federal lawmakers in this time of uncertainty?
Moulton: Well, there's two important things that he needs to do. First of all, he needs to make clear and reaffirm our undeniable support for Israel and its right to exist, its right to defend itself, its right to eliminate the threat that is exemplified by these heinous attacks from Hamas. But the second thing is: He needs to show that America is united and strong. I think there will be a lot of criticism about domestic issues going on in Israel and how much they might have contributed to the fact that Israel was caught off guard, that this was an effective surprise by Hamas with all the domestic unrest at home in Israel. You could make the same case against the United States. We don't have a speaker of the House for the first time in our history. Political divisions run deep. Now, there used to be a tradition of being united at the water's edge. So we might have our domestic disputes, but when it came to international policy, the Republicans and Democrats would stand together. And yet, as soon as Hamas attacked, we saw Republicans attacking the president and somehow blaming him for this. The head of the RNC even said that this is a political opportunity for Republicans to take advantage of. You know, that's a big departure from our tradition in it. And it points to the fact that we have a lot of domestic political divisions at home. We can't let that convey weakness to the rest of the world.
Siegel: Moving closer to home, there were several rallies held around Boston yesterday: a demonstration supporting Palestinians held in Cambridge that was met with counterprotests; one in support of Israel on the Common where your colleague, Sen. Ed Markey, faced resounding boos when he called for a "de-escalation" of the current violence. As the federal government does navigate its response, should priority be placed on unconditional support or de-escalation, or are the two not mutually exclusive?
Moulton: Look, the long-term goal, of course, is de-escalation, right? But in the immediate future, Israel has to defend itself. It has to recover the hostages. It has to eliminate this threat from Hamas. You know, in the Marine Corps in Iraq, we had a well-worn phrase where we said we want to be known as, you know, no better friend, no worse enemy, right? So if you're Hamas, you should know that the Israeli Defense Forces are no worse enemy. They will come after you. They will hunt you down if you are a terrorist. But at the same time, the people, the Palestinian people, we need to get to a point where they actually can get along with Israelis. And that's the no better friend part. So both of these things have to happen in an effective counterinsurgency fight. But the problem with going out on the Common and just saying that we need to de-escalate things when you're in the face of terrorist attacks, raping and killing of women and children, whole families massacred needlessly — I mean, it suggests a moral equivalency that doesn't exist. Terrorism is never justified. Doesn't matter where it comes from or why you think it occurred. Terrorism is never justified, and it must be met with a firm, strong response.
Alston: When we think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, congressman, we know this is not the first time that we've had this conversation. This has been going on for a very long time. There are a lot of emotions involved and a lot of tensions, as we've just discussed. And we know that Harvard University, your alma mater, has come under fire recently as a student group released a statement saying that Israel was "entirely responsible" for all unfolding violence. And dozens of other student organizations signed that. And the university has not condemned it and has been criticized for not doing so. So how do we balance that when we know that people have these feelings that go both ways and want to speak out about them? But we also know that we can't oversimplify what is a really, really complicated situation?
Moulton: No, that's absolutely right. I mean, look, you can condemn the heinous, barbarous terrorist acts of Hamas while also standing up for the rights of the Palestinian people. Those are not morally exclusive. You can condemn the actions of Hamas, while also at the same time criticizing the anti-democratic actions of the Netanyahu government, whilst also while also saying, 'Hey, Israel has a right to defend itself and its people.' So having that intellectually and morally honest debate is what should be happening at places like Harvard. But it doesn't seem to be. It seems that the Harvard administration is perfectly complicit in allowing large numbers of student groups, not just one or two, to actually blame these barbarous terrorist attacks on Israel. I mean, imagine if all these groups had come out and blamed 9/11 on the United States. Do you think Harvard would have remained silent then?
Siegel: That is Congressman Seth Moulton of Salem. Congressman, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us this morning.
Moulton: Thank you.
Alston: You are listening to GBH's Morning Edition.