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U.S. Diplomats and aid staff are objecting to U.S. policy in the Middle East

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Some U.S. diplomats and aid staff are objecting to U.S. policy in the Middle East, and they are calling for a cease-fire in Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza. It's not clear if the opposition is widespread within the U.S. government. But Biden administration officials say they are talking to staff and reaffirming Israel's right to respond to the October 7 Hamas attacks, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Retired diplomat Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley says she's fielded many questions from current staff about whether or not to sign on to dissent cables or letters. Her advice is to make sure the language is tempered and there's really room for debate.

GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: That's a reasonable question to ask, as we see, you know, whether it's academia or professional spaces, that emotions are so high that measured, thoughtful, informed discussions are increasingly hard to come by.

KELEMEN: Abercrombie-Winstanley, who recently worked on diversity issues at the State Department, says there is a lot of unease among U.S. diplomats about what she called President Biden's very tight bear hug with Israel as Israel's campaign in Gaza ramped up.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: As this goes on, this is not just Israel's war but the U.S. and Israel's.

KELEMEN: The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development won't say how many objections they've received or how many of their employees have signed on. USAID officials have been meeting with staff across the Middle East to hear their concerns. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller says Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been meeting with a wide range of employees, too.

MATTHEW MILLER: He encourages people to provide feedback. He encourages people to speak up if they disagree. It doesn't mean that we're going to change our policy based on the disagreements. He is going to take their recommendations and make ultimately what he thinks is the best judgment and make his recommendations to the president about what we ought to do.

KELEMEN: Miller says Blinken has done a lot of work to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza and push for humanitarian pauses. One of the newest letters from political appointees across the government says the U.S. should call for a cease-fire instead. The State Department's dissent channel goes back to the Vietnam War days and allows public servants to express their views privately. More recently, they've addressed Afghanistan, Syria and the Trump administration's Muslim ban. Retired diplomat Pete Romero says the dissent on Gaza is unusual because there are so many letters floating around.

PETE ROMERO: This has completely changed now because you've got all of these dissent channels or messages that leaked to the public. And in this toxic, partisan environment that we've got now, it's really difficult to have that kind of exchange that the dissent channel was designed for.

KELEMEN: Romero is focusing on dissent in his next podcast, "The American Diplomat," and says young people in particular are asking how to have a real debate about Israel and still be team players. Abercrombie-Winstanley says she knows that emotions are high but says the job of a diplomat is to find the way forward.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: As opposed to casting blame or focusing on the terrible things that have happened to Israelis and terrible things that have happened to Palestinians. Both of those things are true. It's our job to figure out or help figure out a way forward.

KELEMEN: So far, just one State Department official has quit over U.S. policy toward Israel. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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