Middle East

U.S.-Israel Tensions Escalate

Israel and the United States are increasingly at odds over the direction of the current war in the Gaza Strip and what comes after it.

These divisions emerged with a vengeance during U.S. Secretary of State Atony Blinken’s visit to Israel earlier this month, his fourth in a little more than three months. But they have been building incrementally as Israel attempts to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities, eradicate its leadership, and uproot Hamas as the governing authority in Gaza.

Such are the current tensions that, until January 19, U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not spoken to each other in almost a month. Their last conversation occurred on December 23 and ended on a sour note, with Biden hanging up in anger. But today, they spoke for 40 minutes, discussing the issues that divide them.

By any yardstick, they are significant.

Nearly 25,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed since Israel launched its air and ground offensive on October 8, a day after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 Israelis and foreigners in a surprise attack in southern Israel that traumatized the country.

Israeli troops in central Gaza on January 8

Shocked and appalled by Hamas’ pogrom, the United States, Israel’s main ally, has broadly supported Israel’s war aims, quickly replenished its stock of weapons and munitions, and repeatedly voted against United Nations resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire, which could only benefit Hamas at this juncture.

In this sense, there is no discernable daylight between these longtime allies. During this tense period, Biden has proven his friendship toward Israel, his misgivings notwithstanding.

Since Biden’s solidarity visit to Israel last October, the first by an American president during one of Israel’s wars, clear differences on two major issues have arisen between the United States and its closest Middle Eastern ally.

The high Palestinian civilian death toll, the highest in Israel’s numerous armed confrontations with the Palestinians since the 1948 war, has exceeded even the darkest forecasts and placed the United States in an uncomfortable moral position and on the horns of a dilemma.

While the Biden administration in principle endorses the Israeli campaign to wipe out Hamas, Israel’s fierce and unrelenting offensive has turned Gaza into a wasteland, with more than half its buildings having been crushed or flattened by Israeli air and land bombardments. As a result, the majority of its 2.3 million Palestinian inhabitants have been rendered homeless and confined to tent camps.

This humanitarian crisis has aroused regional and international indignation and outrage and exerted an influence on Biden in particular and in Americans in general.

Judging by recent polls, American public opinion has shifted away from Israel since its invasion of Gaza. A plurality of Americans (42 percent) now sympathize with both Israelis and Palestinians equally. And the Palestinians have more support than Israel among younger voters and people of color.

A pro-Palestinian rally in front of the White House in October

In light of all these factors, the U.S. has gradually pressured Israel to scale down the intensity and scope of its attacks and to transition to a more focused campaign of surgical strikes, even though this would mean that the war will last even longer. The Americans claim that this more careful method of warfare will minimize civilian casualties, help facilitate the release of the hostages, several of whom are Americans, and avert a regional war.

Washington has also put Israel on notice that it staunchly opposes the displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, an ethnic cleansing scheme supported by a few radical ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition government. Among them are Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party and Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power Party.

Concerned that Israel has not yet formulated a concrete plan for postwar governance in Gaza, the United States has called for a “revamped” and “revitalized” Palestinian Authority to administer that coastal enclave and the West Bank. In this connection, the U.S. has reiterated its opposition to an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza and endorsed a two-state solution.

Blinken raised these contentious issues during his last trip to Israel, and while Netanyahu was flexible on some, he dug in his heels on others.

Antony Blinken meets Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv

Netanyahu agreed to allow more humanitarian aid into Israel by opening another Israeli crossing at the Egyptian border. Nevertheless, the United Nations claims that not nearly enough supplies have reached Palestinian civilians, some of whom appear to be on the cusp of hunger.

Responding to a U.S. request to permit Palestinians to return to their homes in northern Gaza, Netanyahu pointed out that it is still a war zone and is far too dangerous for civilians. But in a goodwill gesture, he agreed to let a United Nations team assess conditions there.

While the Israeli Army announced it was scaling down its offensive in the north, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said that operations in the center and in the south were being intensified to ensure that Hamas is obliterated.

Yoav Gallant speaks to soldiers near Gaza on October 19

It will be a long campaign. A few days ago, Netanyahu said the war will extend into 2025, or until Israel achieves victory.

Skeptics think he favors a lengthy war not only because Israel needs more time to defeat Hamas, but also because he wants to remain in power, avoid a possible prison term after being indicted on charges of corruption, and postpone a commission of inquiry into the events of October 7.

Blinken arrived in Israel acutely aware that the war may last longer than he ever imagined. But he told Netanyahu that moderate Arab leaders in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to Egypt had assured him they would support postwar reconstruction in Gaza, the restoration of Palestinian Authority rule there, and a pathway toward a sovereign Palestinian state.

While Netanyahu satisfied the U.S. by asserting that Israel has “no intention of permanently occupying Gaza” or displacing its Palestinian residents, he upset Blinken by rejecting the notion of  Palestinian statehood, even if it leads to a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In a reference to Hamas, Netanyahu argued that the “little Palestinian state in Gaza” underscored the potential danger of allowing Palestinian statehood in the West Bank. On another occasion, he said, “I won’t allow Hamastan to be replaced by Fatahstan.”

On January 18, Netanyahu strongly hammered home that point once more. “In any arrangement in the foreseeable future — with an arrangement or without one — Israel must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan,” he said. “This clashes with the idea of sovereignty. What can you do? I told this truth to our friends, the Americans, and I also blocked the attempt to impose a reality that would harm Israel’s security. The prime minister needs to be able to say no, even to our best friends.”

Netanyahu has also said that the Palestinian Authority, which controls the Fatah faction and which has been accused of inefficiency and corruption, cannot govern Gaza in the future.

Netanyahu’s refusal to discuss Gaza’s postwar future is also rooted in domestic politics. The extremist faction in his cabinet, which props up his government, fervently believes that Israel should reoccupy and resettle Gaza, from which Israeli settlers were forced to leave in 2005 during Israel’s unilateral withdrawal.

Netanyahu’s views are not uncommon in Israel these days.

Yesterday, President Isaac Herzog said that Israelis are not psychologically prepared to contemplate the prospect of a peace process with the Palestinians only three months after Hamas’ atrocities. “If you ask an average Israeli now about his or her mental state, nobody in his right mind is willing now to think about what will be the solution of the peace agreements, because everybody wants to know: Can we be promised real safety in the future?

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos a day before, Blinken warned that Israel cannot achieve “genuine security” without a pathway to Palestinian statehood. He insisted that it could help Israel integrate into the region, unify the Middle East, and isolate Israel’s deadliest enemy, Iran. “The problem is getting from here to there, and of course, it requires very difficult, challenging decisions. It requires a mindset that is open to that perspective.”

Jake Sullivan

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also linked Israel-Saudi normalization with Palestinian statehood. In a speech at Davos, he said, “The basic recipe, which is peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a two-state solution with Israel’s security guaranteed — these pieces are not, in a way, operating in completely separate spheres. They are linked and connected. They were before October 7, they remain linked today, and they’re something that we’re going to have to continue to work on.”

The Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, advanced this argument at Davos as well. Calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, he said that Saudi Arabia would “certainly” be interested in a normalization agreement with Israel on condition that it is connected to a two-state solution. Israel’s “peace and security,” he said, is inextricably linked with the Palestinians’ yearning for statehood.

This is certainly true, but the somber mood in Israel today is hardly aligned with such an outcome.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli diplomat, believes that the Biden administration should rein in Israel. In a New York Times op-ed piece, he wrote, “Rather than slowly amplifying expressions of disquiet, Team Biden should make a course correction  — starting with exercising the very real diplomatic and military leverage at its disposal to move Israel in the direction of U.S. interests, rather than vice versa.

“The first and most critical shift required is for the administration to embrace the need for a full ceasefire now. That demand cannot be one of rhetoric alone. The administration should condition the transfer of further military supplies on Israel ending the war and stopping the collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population, and should create oversight mechanisms for the use of American weaponry that is already at Israel’s disposal. Ending Israel’s Gaza operation is also the surest way to avoid a regional war and the key to concluding negotiations for the release of hostages.”

Most Israelis would disagree with Levy’s recommendations. And it is doubtful whether the Biden administration would embrace them. But the U.S.’ patience with Israel is wearing thin, despite its unaltered view that Hamas is a malignant and destabilizing force that must be uprooted from Gaza.