Israel and US at odds over conflicting visions for post-war Gaza

While Netanyahu insists the Palestinian Authority cannot rule the Strip after Hamas rule is destroyed, Washington sees no other option

US President Joe Biden, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP)
US President Joe Biden, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP)

AP — The United States has offered strong support to Israel in its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But the allies are increasingly at odds over what will happen to Gaza once the war winds down.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week announced that Israel would retain an open-ended security presence in Gaza. Israeli officials talk of imposing a buffer zone to keep Palestinians away from the Israeli border. They rule out any role for an unreformed Palestinian Authority, which was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 but governs semi-autonomous areas of the West Bank.

The United States has laid out a much different vision. Top officials have said they will not allow Israel to reoccupy Gaza or further shrink its already small territory. They have repeatedly called for the eventual return of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority and the resumption of peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

These conflicting visions have set the stage for difficult discussions between Israel and the US.

Here’s a closer look at the issues.

Shaky common ground

Israel declared war on Hamas after the terror group burst across its southern border on October 7, slaughtering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians massacred amid horrific acts of brutality, and kidnapping more than 240 others. President Joe Biden quickly flew to Israel on a solidarity mission, and his administration has strongly backed Israel’s right and imperative to defend itself while providing weapons and military assistance.

Israel has said its goal is to destroy Hamas — a difficult task given the group’s deep roots in Palestinian society.

The US, which along with other Western countries considers Hamas a terrorist group, has embraced this goal. But as the war drags on, it has expressed misgivings about the dire humanitarian conditions and mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, where Hamas-run health authorities claim over 17,000 dead, at least two-thirds of them women and children. The figures cannot be independently verified. Israel says Hamas is to blame by using civilians as human shields.

A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 8, 2023, shows smoke rising above buildings during an Israeli strike in northern Gaza, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Jack Guez / AFP)

Over the weekend, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it is critical that Israel protect Gaza’s civilians.

“If you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” he said. “So I have repeatedly made clear to Israel’s leaders that protecting civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.”

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken went even farther, telling Israel that “civilian casualties remain too high and that Israel must step up its efforts to reduce them,” his office said. Blinken also called on Israel to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Different visions

The biggest differences between the allies have emerged over the longer-term vision for Gaza.

Netanyahu has offered only glimpses of what he plans.

IDF troops operate inside Gaza, in this handout photo released on December 6, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Tuesday, he said the military would retain open-ended security control over the Gaza Strip long after the war ends, suggesting a form of extended Israeli occupation.

Netanyahu ruled out the idea of foreign peacekeepers, saying only the Israeli army could ensure that Gaza remains demilitarized. Netanyahu has also rejected a return of the Palestinian Authority, saying its leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, cannot be trusted.

“After destroying Hamas, Gaza will be demilitarized and de-radicalized so that no threat will be posed to Israel from Gaza,” said Ophir Falk, an adviser to Netanyahu. “The buffer zone may be part of the demilitarization. That’s the plan.”

File: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on Nov. 30, 2023 (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool)

Israel told Western allies and regional neighbors about the buffer zone plans as recently as last week, without offering a detailed proposal, according to Egyptian officials and Arab and Western diplomats, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the topic.

The officials said countries informed of the proposal include Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Two Egyptian officials said it appears that Israel doesn’t have a detailed workable plan for such a zone, including its width.

“They just say, ‘It would be a temporary buffer zone,'” one of the officials said. “But when we asked for details, they don’t have answers.”

Arab countries, meanwhile, have refused to talk about post-war scenarios while the fighting continues and are demanding a cease-fire. Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, for instance, recently said that Arab countries would not “come and clean the mess after Israel.”

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released for publication on December 6, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

While no decisions have been taken, these ideas appear to put Israel at odds with the White House.

Biden and other top officials have repeatedly said that a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority must play a role in postwar Gaza and that Israel must seek a two-state solution involving the PA. They have ruled out a long-term re-occupation or redrawing of Gaza’s borders.

Vice President Kamala Harris laid out perhaps the clearest US vision during an address in Dubai last weekend.

An aerial picture shows displaced Palestinians who fled Khan Yunis setting up camp in Rafah further south near the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt, on December 7, 2023 (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

“Five principles guide our approach for post-conflict Gaza: no forcible displacement, no re-occupation, no siege or blockade, no reduction in territory and no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism,” she said. “We want to see a unified Gaza and West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian voices and aspirations must be at the center of this work.”

Abbas has said he would only agree to return to Gaza if it is part of a broader plan aimed at establishing an independent state that also includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel captured all three territories in the 1967 Six Day war.

Frustration with Netanyahu may not be limited to the US.

Amos Harel, the military affairs columnist for the Haaretz daily, said Israeli army commanders believe Netanyahu is motivated by domestic political considerations and refusing to deal with the Palestinian Authority “due to coalition constructions from his far-right partners.” Netanyahu and his hardline coalition partners oppose Palestinian independence.

How serious are the disputes?

For now, both Israel and the US seem to be focused on the shared goal of destroying Hamas.

“It’s important for them that Israel achieve the military goals because this is the starting point for any changes that can happen the day after,” said Eldad Shavit, a former high-ranking Israeli intelligence official.

He said US pressure in the short term will be on immediate issues — such as pressure to minimize civilian casualties and to allow more deliveries of humanitarian aid.

Palestinians inspect the damage in a residential building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following Israeli air strikes early on December 4, 2023.(Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The US has indicated that it will show some patience after the fighting subsides.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US understands “there will have to be some kind of transition period after the end of major combat operations.” He declined to say how long that would take.

But as the death toll in Gaza continues to rise, conditions deteriorate, and Biden enters an election year with significant portions of his Democratic base pushing for an end to Israel’s offensive, these differences are likely to grow in the absence of a clear endgame.

Shavit said that tensions could rise if the US at some point concludes that Israel is dragging its feet or ignoring American demands. But for now, “the Americans want Israel to succeed,” he said.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is president of the US/Middle East Project, a policy institute that studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the Americans are unlikely to put their foot down.

He cited what he described as a tepid American response to heavy civilian casualties in Gaza as an indicator of what lies ahead.

“Israelis have a sense that their road to run is not endless, but they still feel they have lots of road to run,” he said.

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