AnalysisOfficial: US values DM as respectful foil to PM but caps expectations

Gallant seeks to smooth over tensions after PM’s cancellation leaves him alone in DC

Defense minister stresses importance of US support between meetings with top Biden officials, who use opportunity to pass along tough messages on Gaza humanitarian aid, Rafah op

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at far left, speaks while meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, across table at far right, at the Pentagon, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at far left, speaks while meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, across table at far right, at the Pentagon, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — Defense Minister Yoav Gallant sought to present a sense of business as usual in meetings with top Biden administration officials in Washington on Tuesday, even as ties between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the US descended to their lowest point in years.

“I am here to emphasize the importance of… relations [with the US]. We share 100 percent of the values and 99 percent of the interests with the United States,” Gallant told reporters in a briefing between meetings with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and CIA chief William Burns.

But that one-percent disagreement appeared a lot more noticeable on Tuesday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office accused the Biden administration of torpedoing the hostage talks by allowing the passage on Monday of a UN Security Council resolution that calls for an immediate ceasefire and hostage release without explicitly conditioning the former on the latter.

In addition to the jarring accusations, Netanyahu also canceled plans to send two top aides to Washington, which had sought to host talks on alternatives to Israel’s planned ground offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah that the Biden administration opposes.

The decision left Gallant as the only Israeli address in Washington to whom the US could air its growing list of concerns regarding the prosecution of the war in Gaza.

“In Gaza today, the number of civilian casualties is far too high and the amount of humanitarian aid is far too low,” Austin told Gallant in public remarks before their meeting at the Pentagon. “We need immediate increases in assistance to avert famine.”

People walk past the rubble of Al-Faruq Mosque, that was destroyed during Israeli bombardment, in Rafah on the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

There is “a moral necessity and a strategic imperative” to protect Palestinian civilians, Austin said, calling the situation in Gaza a “humanitarian catastrophe” that is “getting even worse.”

Last week, a UN-backed report warned of imminent famine in northern Gaza, and US officials have increasingly been citing the Hamas-run health ministry’s war death count of over 32,000 Palestinians, noting that the majority killed have not been Hamas terrorists. But numbers provided by the terror group cannot be independently verified and do not differentiate between civilians and Hamas operatives. Israel says it has killed over 13,000 operatives since the beginning of the war in Gaza and 1,000 inside Israel on October 7.

The messages passed along on Monday and Tuesday by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Austin and Burns were difficult, but Gallant was a more comfortable address, as far as the Biden administration is concerned.

Gallant might not be particularly close to Netanyahu — who fired him a year ago on Tuesday after he warned that the societal divisions caused by the government’s judicial overhaul push posed an imminent security threat to Israel — he was later reinstated amid a public outcry — but he holds a highly influential role in the prosecution of the war, even if he is more hawkish than fellow war cabinet minister Benny Gantz.

Gallant also speaks regularly about how important US military support is for Israel’s security, rejecting the doctrine of public rifts with Washington that has characterized many of Netanyahu’s years as premier and has markedly intensified of late.

“Direct dialogue with the American administration is essential, and must not be abandoned, even when there are challenges and disputes,” Gallant said on Monday in an apparent swipe at Netanyahu for canceling the planned visit by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi.

US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

US expectations that Gallant will be able to steer the government’s ship in a direction that Washington would prefer are still measured, one Biden official told The Times of Israel, noting that the defense minister speaks in some of the same platitudes as Netanyahu regarding a “total victory” that is within reach in Gaza — messaging that the official said presents a dishonest picture to Israelis, given Hamas’s ability to return to many of the areas in northern Gaza that Israel has already cleared because Jerusalem has failed to establish a viable alternative to the terror group.

The Biden official indicated that Gallant is also limited by political considerations and has avoided talking about the need to return a reformed PA to govern Gaza — the US’s preferred outcome.

He has done so privately, according to leaks from a cabinet meeting earlier this month when he sparred with other Likud ministers over the matter.

But in on-record remarks to reporters on Tuesday, Gallant sufficed with saying that Israel “must build a local alternative” to rule Gaza after Hamas.

Gallant recognized the imperative of improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza during the Tuesday briefing, saying he discussed the need to deliver more aid into Gaza while ensuring that it reaches civilians and not Hamas.

“I discussed with American officials the importance of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region – including air capabilities and essential platforms,” Gallant told reporters, referencing a top agenda item for his DC trip as Jerusalem seeks weapons it desperately needs, not for the war against Hamas but for a potential war against the far more threatening Hezbollah.

Parachutes of humanitarian aid drop over Gaza on March 26, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“I discussed the importance of our achievements in creating deterrence and signaling our regional enemies – our common enemies,” he said.

The Biden administration has indicated that it is not yet prepared to start conditioning or restricting military aid to Israel, even as calls for such moves have grown from progressives on the Hill. But if the abstention at the UN Security Council this week was any indicator, the administration is slowly moving in that direction.

Nonetheless, Austin made a point of reiterating the long-held talking point that “the United States is Israel’s closest friend and that won’t change.”

After the meeting, the Pentagon said Austin had a frank and direct discussion with Gallant.

Gallant told reporters after that Israel has destroyed 18 or 19 of Hamas’s regional battalions. Another four remain in Rafah. “This is the last significant holdout that hasn’t lost battalion commanders,” he said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Washington, March 26, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The defense minister appeared to share the view of Netanyahu regarding the necessity for an invasion of Rafah. The US maintains that such an offensive will not advance Israel’s war aims because it will lead to even more civilian casualties, cut off the delivery of humanitarian aid, further isolate Israel internationally and harm Israel’s long-term security.

“We continue to share the goal of seeing Hamas defeated, so we’ll discuss alternative approaches to target Hamas elements, and we must also plan for Israel’s security after this conflict ends, and that includes working in renewed cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and our regional partners to stabilize Gaza and to move toward a two-state solution,” Austin told Gallant ahead of their meeting, adding that “the safety of the 1.5 million Palestinian civilians in Rafah is also a top priority for the United States.”

Gallant said he also discussed the ongoing hostage negotiations with both Austin and Burns, reiterating his belief that the military force Israel is applying in Gaza is critical for securing their release.

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