Why US and Israel are diverging on war in Gaza, and what comes after

The tight embrace between Israel and the United States in the wake of the brutal Hamas attack on Oct. 7 is starting to loosen.

Just over a month into Israel’s military campaign in Gaza aimed at rooting out the militant Islamist organization Hamas, differences between the two allies are widening on key elements of the war, from humanitarian accommodations in the fighting and protection for hospitals to what Israel’s endgame should look like.

This is not to say that President Joe Biden’s support for Israel is wavering. Rather, the Biden administration’s unease and indeed disapproval of the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is conducting the war – and other aspects of Israeli governance of keen interest to the U.S., including the broader Palestinian issue – are growing.

Alarm bells sounded in the Biden White House when Mr. Netanyahu hinted last week that Israel envisions remaining in Gaza for an “indefinite period” after the fighting ends.

On Friday the Israeli leader went further, telling journalists, “We will have total security control, with the ability to enter whenever we want to eliminate any terrorists who reemerge.”

This took everyone from President Biden on down by surprise, as it followed stark warnings from a range of administration officials that any semblance of Israeli reoccupation of the Palestinian territory must be avoided – not least for the impact such a step would have across the Middle East.

It was only a matter of time before the U.S.-Israel embrace started loosening, many analysts say, given that Israel is laser-focused on its goal of “destroying” Hamas, while the U.S. is balancing its commitment to Israel against its broader interests in the region.

Yet while differences between the allies on war strategy were to be expected, some analysts say, more worrisome are the deep divides on core postwar issues – including the prickly question of Palestinian governance.

Moreover, those key issues are unlikely to be addressed to anything near Washington’s satisfaction by the current Israeli government, some Israeli experts say.

The U.S.-Israel relationship “is facing two clusters of differences, the first being inevitable disagreements over how to run the military campaign and everything it entails, including all the aspects of the humanitarian impact and how to address it,” says Nimrod Novik, former senior foreign policy adviser to the late Prime Minister and Labor party leader Shimon Peres.

“But I’m more concerned with the second cluster, which is far from inevitable but which derives from internal Israeli politics and from the prime minister prioritizing personal interests and the survival of his coalition,” adds Mr. Novik, who is the senior Israel fellow with the Israel Policy Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “In this moment of national crisis, this is simply intolerable.”

As an example, he notes that after Mr. Biden’s visit to Israel on Oct. 18, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to heed the president’s admonition to begin envisioning and planning for the endgame by assigning two teams with the task of – in Mr. Novik’s words – “designing the end strategy and morning after” for Gaza.

But he adds that so far Mr. Netanyahu has kept any discussion of the reports out of the Cabinet “because they would not meet with the approval of this governing coalition when it comes to the Palestinian issue writ large.”

Two clocks

Still, some Israeli officials and analysts are increasingly cautioning Mr. Netanyahu against testing Washington’s support too much, underscoring Israel’s need of its powerful ally – especially as other major global powers, particularly Russia, line up against it.

Israel does not have unlimited time to carry out its Gaza offensive, some analysts say, with relations with Washington being one factor determining the time frame.

“The Israeli army is proceeding as if time is unlimited, and yet we are operating against several clocks that are ticking increasingly rapidly as the war proceeds,” says Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.

One of those “clocks” is in Washington, he says, where Mr. Biden – facing rising opposition over his staunch support of Israel both on the political front at home and among America’s Arab partners – is pressing Israel to move more deliberately, particularly on the humanitarian front.

U.S. officials are said to be telling their Israeli counterparts that the Gaza military operation needs to be carried out over a matter of weeks, while Israeli officials say the time frame will be set by achieving goals – and that is more likely to take months.

“That pressure [from Washington] is not going to ease up,” Ambassador Oren says, “so you have that clock going.”

Then there is growing pressure from the U.S. and Israel’s other Western allies on the humanitarian front – to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, and to alter the military campaign to reduce Palestinian casualties, which according to the Gaza Health Ministry, an agency of the Hamas-run government, have now surpassed 11,000 people killed.

Some analysts say the daily four-hour “pauses” in fighting that Israel has instituted in northern Gaza are recognition that Mr. Biden needs some gestures in exchange for his support.

The pauses, intended to allow safe passage south for trapped civilians and a window for food, water, and other supplies to come in, were announced by the White House Thursday. In reality, the Israeli military had already implemented the pauses beforehand, announcing the periodic cessations of fighting with a leaflet drop over Gaza City on Oct. 21.

The four-hour pauses fall short of the more robust two-to-three-day pause President Biden has been seeking to allow for more substantial humanitarian aid and the release of at least some of the 240 hostages Hamas is holding. But U.S. officials say privately that they see the short daily pauses as something to build upon and not as the end of the matter.

Indeed some U.S. officials point to recent talks in Qatar involving CIA Director William Burns and David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, as a sign that a pause-for-hostages deal could be forthcoming.

Gaza’s future

U.S.-Israel differences over the postwar plan focus in particular on how a Gaza flattened to rubble but still home to 2.3 million Palestinians would be administered.

The White House wasted no time in rejecting Mr. Netanyahu’s suggestion that Israel might remain in Gaza indefinitely, with national security spokesperson John Kirby saying President Biden “maintains his position that reoccupation by Israeli forces is not the right thing to do.”

Friday, on the sidelines of a G7 foreign ministers meeting in Tokyo, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken concurred, and laid out a set of principles, including “no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, no use of Gaza as a platform for launching terrorism or other attacks against Israel, no diminution in the territory of Gaza, and a commitment to Palestinian-led governance for Gaza and for the West Bank, and in a unified way.”

Yet as numerous Israeli analysts have pointed out since, those “principles” run counter to a number of pronouncements by members of the government putting off the planning for postwar Gaza.

The coming clash over governance, Mr. Novik says, will pit the U.S. and a “consensus” of the international community favoring the Palestinian Authority – which rules the West Bank under Israeli occupation – as the enclave’s eventual administrator, against an Israeli government that disdains the PA and has worked in recent years to weaken it.

Still, some analysts caution that it won’t be solely international forces that pressure Israel to wind up its miliary campaign faster than the army might like. Inexorable domestic pressures, they add, are also going to place time limits.

“One clock is the steady supply of ammunition,” says Ambassador Oren. “We just aren’t going to be able to shoot indefinitely.” Other domestic “clocks” he lists include the limits on long-term deployment of the army’s 360,000 reservists, and the impact the war is having on the economy.

“So there are many clocks,” he says, “and we have to keep our eye on every one.”

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