Yesterday, Israeli’s government agreed to a four-day cease-fire in Gaza. Hamas would free 50 hostages in exchange for the release of 150 prisoners held by Israel. Allies could send humanitarian aid. After that, the conflict could continue.
Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who’d called for a more permanent ceasefire last week, wasn’t satisfied. On the 26th day of his presidential primary challenge to President Biden, Phillips talked with Semafor about what he wanted, how a new president could bring peace to Gaza, and criticism of what he’d said about Vice President Harris. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Dave Weigel: Let’s start with the reaction to what’s happening now — a brief ceasefire followed by a return to armed conflict after some hostages are freed. Are you comfortable with that?
Dean Phillips: As I laid out very clearly, I want to see all hostages released, then a comprehensive ceasefire or withdrawal, and then a replacement of Israeli troops with a multinational force from countries in the region — not including Israel and the US. I think that’s a big part of the problem.
Of course, I’m thrilled that some hostages are being released. I’m dismayed and frankly disgusted that Americans continue to be held by Hamas over six weeks later. It hasn’t been the primary focus, it appears, of the United States of America. I don’t remember a time in recent memory, where so many American citizens were being held hostage, without it being the biggest news story of every day. That’s unacceptable, and it should be our primary focus is to extract American citizens using every single lever available to us. [Ed. note: Hamas is expected to release three American hostages as part of the new deal, out of 10 total U.S. citizens believed to be in their captivity.]
Dave Weigel: What else could the administration be doing right now to put pressure on the Israeli government?
Dean Phillips: Many people in the United States and Israel making decisions today created the very ground for the problems we’re facing. I know there are very limited ways without more risk to human life, to extract hostages. That is why we have special forces; that is why we have the most extraordinary military in the world. That’s also why we have an extraordinary diplomatic corps, to use every tool available to America, to a) prevent such circumstances, and b) make that the foremost priority of the United States when Americans are held hostage, period.
Dave Weigel: You’ve met people who are calling for a ceasefire, continuing after hostage release, and I think you’ve suggested there’s a lack of concern for Israeli suffering from some of these people. Do you believe that calling for a ceasefire now is pro-Hamas or anti-Semitic?
Dean Phillips: Well, I’ve had a conversion. A month ago, I did not believe that anti-Semitism was driving some of these perspectives. On the campaign trail, over the last number of weeks, I have to admit that a combination of anti-Semitism and ignorance is very dangerous. Anybody who favors humanity and doesn’t recognize that it is the responsibility of a democratically elected government to defend its citizens is missing the entire point. Israel is a mosaic of Jews and Muslims and Christians. It’s not just a Jewish nation; it’s a multicultural nation. It has a responsibility to both protect its citizens and ensure that grave risks at its own borders are neutralized.
If we were facing the same thing from Canada, with 1200 Americans killed in my state of Minnesota by a border incursion — kids slaughtered in front of moms and moms slaughtered in front of their kids — I don’t think the United States of America would rest until we neutralized the group that did that. But my empathy for Palestinians is immense. I’m gonna keep focusing on these failures of the leaders of the past, from the West Bank to the West Wing. Israeli policy under Netanyahu is part of the problem. American policy, and the lack thereof has been part of the problem. I respect President Biden, but my goodness – Senate foreign relations chair and ranking member, eight years as Vice President, three years as president, and this cycle of bloodshed continues for every single year he’s been in Washington. It’s time for a new generation of leaders. It’s true here. It’s true in Israel. It’s also true in the Palestinian territories.
Dave Weigel: One of your principles is that Israelis must “call for elections and demand from their government a commitment to a future of mutual security, peace, and prosperity.” How do you enforce that? You have a very right-wing government, with cabinet members saying pretty eliminationist things about Gaza.
Dean Phillips: Thankfully, in America, it is up to Americans to make choices about who leads them. Do we want to keep putting people in positions of power from the past? Or do we want to move to the future? Israel will face the same question, probably sooner rather than later. Will they choose war? Would they choose peace? I think I think based on polls right now, an overwhelming majority are holding Netanyahu accountable, and I think they’ll choose peace. Palestinians have not been able to vote since 2006, so I believe that America and our allies could exert some pressure and create the conditions for votes in both the West Bank and Gaza. And that would mean investment and democratic civil society. In addition to a peacekeeping force, I believe it’s time to start making those investments right now to create the foundation for elections.
Now, granted, it would require both peoples to choose peace. We can’t impose that. We’ve never been successful at imposing regime change, imposing democracy. What we have to do here in America also has to be done in the Middle East. It’s the same thing that the black and Jewish communities have to do again, in the United States. Communities who are both under threat and persecution should be unifying right now, not dividing.
Dave Weigel: How do you bring about those conditions in Gaza? Is the idea that Hamas will not exist; will not be allowed to compete in this future democratic process?
Dean Phillips: Vision is easy. Execution is hard. When I argue for a multinational peacekeeping force that does not include the United States or Israel, attendant to that is a massive investment in civil society, democracy-building, massive commitment of infrastructure dollars to Gaza. I do believe that if those investments are made, which won’t be instantaneous, and will take time, it can create the foundation for Palestinians to see the possibilities. If they were to vote right now, I don’t know what choice they would make. They might choose Hamas again, because they’re so distraught and angry. But if we do something that has a longer-term vision, that should have been done decades ago, I would argue that by the time my children were in their 20s, or in their 50s, and in leadership positions around the world, that we’ll have a very different Middle East.
Dave Weigel: What could be done right now to influence Israel and the Netanyahu government? Is it worth putting restrictions or red lines or conditions on weapons aid?
Dean Phillips: I think being consistent is most important. The United States shares dollars, resources, and support with some awfully challenging regimes and countries and governments all around the world. I’m not putting Israel in that basket; I’m just saying that we have to look at this with some sobriety. Israel is our partner, has been since their founding. They’re the only democracy in the Middle East. They’re the only multicultural nation in the Middle East. They’re the only progressive nation in the Middle East.
I do believe that, considering the butchering attack on October 7, it is important that America continue to support Israel, and then use all of its leverage to push for peace. And that means an end to the settlement policy. It means, I believe, an end to the right-wing policies of the Netanyahu government. Can the US use its dollars to extract that? I think the answer is, actually, no. Israel is not the same Israel as 1948. It’s a successful, wealthy, democratic nation that generally can fend for itself. We also should be supporting Palestinians, but we can only do that if a terrorist organization is removed from power.
We have an AUMF (authorization of military force) that I was renegotiating with Ken Buck, as recently as some weeks ago. I would argue that we should include Hamas on it, the way we’ve included al Qaeda and ISIS. They’re dangers to Americans. They’re a terrorist organization that is preventing peace; that is imposing itself on Israel and Palestinians. But the US should not be involved in Gaza physically.
Dave Weigel: But not conditioning some of the military aid and weapons we give Israel on what they’re doing internally. Not threatening to cut if off if they don’t, for example, stop expanding settlements.
Dean Phillips: I’m not there yet. Could I get there? Yes. Could I get there if this continues, if Netanyahu continues to operate in this manner after hostages are released, and this continues to spin out of control? Do I believe that America should use every lever available to us to ensure the security of Israel? Yes. I’m afraid that Netanyahu is increasingly acting like a man who has more to gain personally from a protracted conflict than he has to gain from peace. This is about support of Israel. My contention is, what leverage do we have to use against a man who I believe no longer is able to keep Israel secure, and whose policies are making it more and more likely it will remain insecure for years to come.
Dave Weigel: What’s your reaction to Sam Altman returning as CEO of OpenAI? Is he still interested in financially supporting your campaign?
Dean Phillips: I’m not going to speak for him, but I believe so. I’m so pleased to see him return to open AI – and by the way, what an extraordinary expression of democratic capitalism! I don’t know if there’s been another example of that. What changed here is 500 of 700 employees said, we’re going to either walk out or he’s coming back. That’s like labor organizing, but not for money and not for benefits – for principle. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.
Dave Weigel: Finally, I wanted to get your reaction to Democrats who didn’t like what you told Mark Leibovich about Kamala Harris. You’ve dealt with this sort of criticism before; you suggest that the vice president isn’t in the best position politically, and you’re accused of demeaning her as unintelligent. Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester sort of said as much: “I know her as somebody who’s intelligent, dependable, a proven leader.” What’s your response to that?
Dean Phillips: You can imagine how just staggering and disheartening that is — and how, frankly, those who ostensibly commit themselves to defend against misinformation and disinformation are so willing to participate in it. The country has expressed itself and I think it’s unfair to her. That’s what I was articulating. That’s why her approval ratings are 39%. I have had nothing but good experiences with her. And I said those words. The fact that people would either be ignorant and not read them, or convert them into something I didn’t say – that is damaging to Democrats chances to beat Donald Trump.
I support the vice president. I believe she’s competent. I’ve only seen the good in her. The fact of the matter is, I think she should run for president. So why would Democrats be putting up an 81-year old when there’s the vice president right there. Why not run? I’ve said this for years. Democrats should jump in.
Dave Weigel: If you became president, do you see a role for her in the administration, or as vice president?
Dean Phillips: I make one commitment: I will have the most diverse cabinet, not just in terms of races and religions, but in terms of politics, in history. I will have a youth cabinet for the first time in American history. Do I want the very best and brightest to join this administration? Absolutely. And do I think Vice President Harris is a perfect example of someone with whom I would love to work? Yes, and many others whose names are not even known at all right now around the country, with whom I’ve worked in Congress, who are waiting for the chance to rise to leadership positions that are being held back by a generation that keeps people down, including President Biden
I’m not keeping people down. I’m trying to create space in place for this beautiful generation to rise. That’s why I worked so hard for Hakeem Jeffries over two and a half terms, to get him elevated. I wanted him the first time. I wanted him the second time. Nobody has pointed out what I did for Hakeem Jeffries, having a dinner with my freshman colleagues two nights before the election that helped him become the chair of the caucus — because otherwise, Barbara Lee was going to win it. He won by just a handful of votes. I’ve spent my whole damn life trying to afford others the same opportunities that were afforded me only because of luck.