The Biden administration is increasingly convinced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has entered “campaign mode” as the premier escalates his rhetoric against the Palestinian Authority, two US officials told The Times of Israel.
“This isn’t a government-wide approach. It’s mainly coming from the prime minister, which is quite telling,” said one of the officials who spoke over the weekend on condition of anonymity.
The quiet attribution of Netanyahu’s motivations to political interests rather than security ones appears to reveal the growing frustration in Washington with the prime minister.
For roughly a month after the October 7 terror onslaught in Israel, Netanyahu avoided any mention of the PA in his public remarks, focusing instead on Israel’s two major war goals of eradicating Hamas and returning the hostages from Gaza.
The US has backed those goals, while pressing Israel to begin planning for who will rule the Strip after the war and making it increasingly clear that its preference was for the PA to pick up the baton. A singular governing address for both the West Bank and Gaza would better situate the Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel, Washington explained.
“There needs to be a Palestinian Authority. There needs to be a path to a Palestinian state,” US President Joe Biden declared on October 15.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken later clarified that the cash-strapped and domestically unpopular PA would need to be “revitalized” before returning to Gaza and that international or Arab forces would be needed to manage Gaza in the interim.
But by November 10, Netanyahu ruled out the latter idea, telling a group of southern border town mayors that Israel “will not give [Gaza] to international forces.”
The next day, he went after the PA for the first time: “I will tell you what there will not be… There will not be a civil authority that educates its children to hate Israel, to kill Israelis, to eliminate the State of Israel.”
“There cannot be an authority that pays the families of murderers [amounts] based on the number they murdered. There cannot be an authority whose leader still has not condemned the terrible [October 7] massacre 30 days later,” the prime minister said, very clearly referring to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu repeated this line of attack against Ramallah in the weeks that followed, but an anonymous Israeli official made a point of highlighting that the premier didn’t explicitly rule out the PA returning to Gaza, just insisted that it needed to undergo “significant reform.”
US Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer tried clinging to this logic as well, telling the Aspen Security Forum last week that Netanyahu was referring to the PA “exactly as currently constituted.”
But the premier has left little room for interpretation, tweeting on December 6 that as long as he is prime minister, the PA will not take control of Gaza, and two days later that the PA “is not the solution.”
Similar quotes were also leaked to Hebrew media earlier this month in what has further strengthened the belief in Washington that Netanyahu is in “campaign mode,” one of the US officials said.
The second US official agreed with the characterization and noted that Netanyahu has been the only Israeli war cabinet minister to publicly bat down the PA.
The premier has used his statements as the basis for his third goal for the war: to ensure that Gaza does not again pose a threat to Israel.
But this has not been an objective echoed by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and fellow war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, who have stuck to the original two goals — toppling Hamas and returning the hostages — during press conferences alongside the premier, who insists the IDF’s operation has three aims.
Responding to the criticism from his US counterparts, an official from Netanyahu’s Likud party argued that the Biden administration is also influenced by an approaching presidential election campaign.
In Israel though, no election has been called, even if analysts speculate that Israelis will head back to the polls in 2024 with widespread disapproval of Netanyahu’s government.
The Israeli official claimed the approaching 2024 US election has led Washington to double down on public messaging regarding protecting civilians in Gaza that has been more nuanced in private, given that the US understands the IDF is doing its best to prevent harm to noncombatants.
And while the public criticism of the PA has come from Netanyahu and his far-right ministers, opposition to Ramallah extends much further, the Israeli official said, pointing to discourse during a Sunday night security cabinet meeting during which ministers resisted US pressure to transfer tax revenues to the PA and allow workers from the West Bank back into Israel.
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