U.S. and Israel Struggle to Align on Gaza War Strategy

U.S. and Israel at Odds Over Gaza War Strategy

by Faruk Imamovic
U.S. and Israel Struggle to Align on Gaza War Strategy
© Getty Images/Hector Vivas

The Gaza conflict continues to present significant challenges for both Israel and the United States, as they struggle to align their visions for peace and stability in the region. Top Biden administration officials, currently visiting Israel, face the daunting task of persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to adopt a strategy that balances military objectives with humanitarian considerations. Despite more than seven months of intense fighting and the tragic loss of countless Palestinian lives, a clear path to peace remains elusive.

Divergent Strategies and Theories of Victory

At the heart of the U.S.-Israeli discord are profound differences in their approaches and end goals. While Israel's military operations are focused on achieving a decisive victory over Hamas, U.S. officials question the feasibility and wisdom of this approach. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, speaking at a NATO youth conference, emphasized the improbability of a sweeping battlefield victory and urged a more strategic approach that considers the broader implications of prolonged conflict.

Israel's recent assault on Rafah, where many Palestinians have sought refuge, underscores the disparity in perspectives. President Biden, while reaffirming unwavering support for Israel's defense, has cautioned against the severe consequences of the current military strategy. The administration believes that the human cost and extensive destruction will ultimately undermine broader U.S. and Israeli goals in the Middle East.

Humanitarian Crisis and Strategic Disagreements

The humanitarian situation in Gaza, particularly in Rafah, is dire. Despite the evacuation of over 600,000 Palestinians, the lack of basic necessities remains critical. The Biden administration has so far refrained from labeling Israel's actions in Rafah as a major operation, which would trigger more severe repercussions. However, Republican lawmakers have fiercely criticized any pause in military aid, advocating for unwavering support for Israel.

The strategic and political dilemmas are profound, with officials on both sides expressing skepticism about reaching a consensus. The upcoming visit of White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his team aims to address these issues. Their trip, which includes stops in Riyadh and other Arab capitals, highlights the broader regional context and the need for a cohesive plan for Gaza's future.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken's remarks in Kyiv emphasized the importance of a clear and concrete plan for Gaza, urging Israel to present its ideas. Netanyahu's stance, rejecting the two-state solution and proposing Palestinian administration with retained Israeli control, starkly contrasts with the Biden administration's vision of a sustainable resolution.

U.S. and Israel Struggle to Align on Gaza War Strategy
U.S. and Israel Struggle to Align on Gaza War Strategy© Getty Images/Lior Mizrahi

Long-Term Prospects and Intelligence Assessments

U.S. intelligence officials share the administration's doubts about the complete defeat of Hamas. The annual threat assessment in February highlighted the persistent challenge of neutralizing Hamas's underground infrastructure, which allows the group to regroup and continue its operations. The administration has advocated for more precise, intelligence-based targeting to minimize civilian casualties and achieve short-term goals, such as the release of hostages.

The difficulty of persuading Israel to change its course has been compounded by the ongoing failure of U.S.-backed negotiations. The lack of progress in securing a cease-fire and the release of hostages has fueled frustration. Retired Gen. David Petraeus has criticized Israel's punitive clearing operations, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive strategy that includes holding and rebuilding the territory to prevent a resurgence of insurgency.

Senator Chris Murphy's recent remarks highlighted the importance of protecting civilians to avoid creating more terrorists. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the strategic imperative of civilian protection in conflict zones.

Diplomatic Efforts and Regional Implications

The Biden administration's diplomatic efforts extend beyond Israel, focusing on maintaining crucial relationships in the region. The administration is working to persuade Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, to normalize relations with Israel and contribute to Gaza's reconstruction. However, the absence of a clear plan and conditions on the ground has made it challenging to secure commitments from these countries.

Efforts to offer incentives, such as a strengthened defense pact with Saudi Arabia and an enhanced civil nuclear program, aim to foster regional stability and counterbalance influences from China and Russia. However, these negotiations are complex and have yet to yield tangible results that can be presented to Israel.

Many within Israel's security and intelligence forces acknowledge the problem, yet the Biden administration's pressure on Netanyahu has achieved limited success. "Rafah is not the turning point. Nominating an alternative government to Gaza is the key," said Rami Igra, former head of the Prisoners and Missing Persons Division for Mossad. Alon Pinkas, a veteran Israeli diplomat, echoed this sentiment, arguing that a broad, armored invasion into Rafah would lead to more civilian deaths and a prolonged quagmire. "Wake up," Pinkas said. "'Toppling Hamas' is only possible through diplomatic means."

The administration has committed substantial effort to heavy diplomacy aimed at preserving the crucial relationship between Egypt and Israel. Additionally, it is working to persuade Arab states in the Persian Gulf, primarily Saudi Arabia, to normalize their historically tense relations with Israel as a long-term security bulwark against Iran and its proxies, including Hamas, and to help secure and rebuild Gaza as part of a new Palestinian state.

The administration is trying to convince these states to not only pay for reconstructing Gaza but also to provide troops to form a postwar security force there until a trained Palestinian force can be readied. However, as a former senior U.S. military official noted, "nobody has raised their hand" to participate, given the uncertain conditions on the ground and Israel's role in the process.