How Netanyahu Is Undermining Biden’s Gaza Strategy

6 minute read
Novik is a fellow at Israel Policy Forum, a member of Commanders for Israel’s Security, a Fellow at the Economic Cooperation Foundation, and former Foreign Policy Senior Advisor to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres,. The views expressed are his own.

Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu threw a political grenade at U.S. diplomacy during a recent press conference. Its explosion threatened to sabotage American efforts to put together a three-way, win-win, post-Gaza war regional architecture. First, the U.S. plan would relieve Israel of the need to govern Gaza's 2.2 million Palestinians with no exit in sight. Second, it would offer Palestinians a credible political horizon and thereby prevent the West Bank from sliding into a Gaza-like crisis, while prepping the Palestinian Authority (PA) for controlling Gaza in the future. Third, it was to consolidate a powerful, U.S.-led regional coalition to check Iran's and its proxies’ regional meddling, with revived talk of Israeli-Saudi normalization included.

But, in declaring his flat objection for having Gaza run by the PA, Netanyahu removed the cornerstone on which Secretary of State Blinken had been trying to mobilize regional support.

President Biden, the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House, who enjoys more credit with the Israeli public than any predecessor, is yet to tell the reckless Netanyahu "enough is enough."

The farthest he has gone in that direction came when he was asked whether he had been frustrated with Netanyahu’s belated acceptance of limited humanitarian pauses, long sought by the U.S. In typical understatement, Biden responded, “It’s taken a little longer than I had hoped.”

Frustration seems to have characterized American efforts to persuade Jerusalem to consider the context, not just the military dimensions, of the Gaza operation.

Similarly, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's Middle East shuttle diplomacy and Amman meeting with Arab foreign ministers the previous week ended in disappointment. Intended to get them to agree on the contours of a Gaza ‘morning after’ strategy, his interlocutors refused to engage.

Like Blinken, they view a future reinvigorated Palestinian Authority as the likely and desired long-term solution for the Gaza Strip, none was willing to discuss the "missing link"—the one-to-two-year period between the likely gradual IDF exit from Gaza and the equally phased PA take-over. Those Arab states refused to discuss such matters as who governs, polices, and provides security in Gaza; who reinvents the PA and preps it so that it is able to govern the Strip and what its rejuvenation entails; who coordinates, oversees and, yes, funds it all. Their refusal to discuss—let alone commit to contribute to—a day-after strategy had little to do with Blinken’s formidable diplomatic skill, nor even with Gaza. It was largely about Jerusalem, or more precisely, the Netanyahu government.

Read More: Why Peace Is Possible for Israel and Gaza

It appears that Blinken's Arab interlocutors saw no point in discussing their role in saving Israel from its Gaza dilemma absent a clear message from Jerusalem concerning its contribution to the enormous post-war Gaza stabilization, reconstruction, and governance effort. That contribution, they reportedly insisted, must involve a complete change in Israel’s West Bank policy (settler violence and settlement expansion included), attitude toward the PA (including releasing all its funds), restoring and preserving the status quo on Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and, most importantly, a credible political horizon for the Palestinians.

Alas, employing his long-perfected diversion technique, Netanyahu seems to have gotten the U.S. Secretary of State involved in endless arguments over the number of trucks to enter Gaza, what their cargo might include, and the duration and frequency of humanitarian pauses. All to avoid discussing the morning after. As Netanyahu reportedly told a frustrated President Biden, an equally astonished Secretary of Defense Austin, and repeatedly Secretary Blinken, words to the effect: "Not now. Now we focus on winning this"

He repeated this mantra on Sunday, publicly, when he told CNN’s Dana Bash: “The first thing we have to do is to destroy Hamas.”

Some in Washington give him the credit that he just doesn't get it. That he doesn't understand the importance of preparing now—and adjusting the conduct of the war to—Israel's desired morning after. Others know him better. They know that he understands it better than most, as do Minister of Defense Yoav Galant and former IDF chiefs Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who are now members of the war cabinet.

They all realize that discussing the morning after exposes the need for Israel to change course on the Palestinian issue. Since Netanyahu’s annexationist, messianic coalition partners would not hear of it, advancing such measures is a sure trigger for a coalition crisis. Although these reckless partners are replaceable with no need for new elections, and wartime certainly justifies such emergency measures, what’s at stake is not only his coalition structure, but something far more important for Netanyahu: his legal predicament. Unlike those far-right coalition partners, those replacing them would not provide him with an exit—legislated or otherwise—before his trial for corruption charges runs its course and a verdict is reached.

On the West Bank too, ignoring warnings from his security establishment and an increasingly agitated Washington, Netanyahu prioritizes his coalition over national security. His allowing reckless efforts that choke the PA financially, Jewish terrorism in the West Bank, and settlement expansion to continue might well lead to the PA becoming one of the victims of this war. Whether that is due to Palestinian leadership’s fatigue, a popular uprising, or the continued loss of control over important swaths of West Bank territory, a chaotic West Bank sliding in the direction of a Gaza-like crisis is a real possibility. Were it to materialize, the outcome for Israel might involve no exit strategy from Gaza, governing the lives of well over five million Palestinians, and a possible fallout affecting peaceful relations with Arab neighbors, near and far. If that happens, the entire new US regional architecture would lay in ruins.

To avert this eventuality, it seems that the time has come for Washington to use all venues— Defense Secretary Austin to Galant, Blinken to Israel’s war cabinet, and Biden to Bibi—to deliver a clear message:

Look, we are with you all the way. We will deter all the bad guys around. And you are a sovereign country. So Gaza is your call. But note these two things:

First, you can't ask us to shield you from an internationally imposed premature ceasefire while your ministers shoot their mouths on nuking Gaza or forcing its population on Egypt, while your finance minister chokes the PA financially, while your violent settlers go wild, and while you argue to death every humanitarian truck and every ten minutes of a humanitarian pause.

Second, no one in the neighborhood and beyond is willing to consider relieving you of the burden of Gaza once the morning after arrives, unless you change policy on the West Bank and vis-à-vis the PA, accept that the PA is part of the long-term solution to Gaza, and agree now to a two-state peace process later.

So, no pressure, friends. It's totally up to you: change course and allow a regional-international solution, or handle Gaza on your own. Though your decisions affect our national security as well, nonetheless, it's not the U.S. that will be stuck in Gaza for decades.”

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