Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of the Palestinian Authority returning to the Gaza Strip is undermining US efforts to rally like-minded Arab countries around a strategy for stabilizing the coastal enclave after the Israel-Hamas war, an administration official and two senior Arab diplomats told The Times of Israel.
Netanyahu’s refusal to address who will govern Gaza if Israel succeeds in toppling Hamas, along with the premier’s mixed messaging regarding whether the Israeli military will re-occupy the Strip, have pushed away Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The Biden administration believes the backing of those countries will be needed to help rehabilitate and manage the Strip for an interim period after the war, the three officials explained.
But absent a post-war strategy, the countries will be more likely to instead pile pressure on Israel to cease fighting short of its goal of removing Hamas. Sensing that Netanyahu is being hamstrung by his far-right coalition allies, the US has begun to ask about the possibility of a more moderate government being shuffled in, according to a former official.
“The diplomatic umbrella the US and other Western countries are providing Israel to continue operating in Gaza constricts, as civilian casualties mount,” a Biden administration official said on condition of anonymity. “Refusal to cooperate with — and even inhibiting — [our] efforts constrict that umbrella even more.”
On Saturday, Netanyahu told a press conference that Israel would oppose the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza following the war — a goal declaredly sought by Washington — and said discussions of how the Strip would be governed after the war, would “only come after the eradication of Hamas,” reiterating a stance that has exasperated the Biden administration, which insists that post-war strategizing cannot wait to begin after the war.
He also said the military will remain in Gaza “as long as necessary” to prevent the enclave from being used to launch terror attacks against Israel. “Hamas will be demilitarized; there will be no further threat from the Gaza Strip on Israel, and to ensure that, for all long as necessary, the IDF will control Gaza security to prevent terror from there,” he said.
An Arab ambassador, speaking on condition of anonymity, argued that Netanyahu’s dismissal of proposals to return the relatively moderate PA to the Gaza Strip would lead to the creation of a vacuum in Gaza that would be filled with forces no less radical than Hamas, warning that the region would be further destabilized.
A second Arab official, a senior diplomat, appeared to link Netanyahu’s stance to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s recent rejection of a proposal by CIA director William Burns that Cairo help manage security in Gaza for an interim period after the war
Sissi told the US spy chief that Egypt does not want to be complicit in the removal of Hamas, which has helped secure Egypt’s border with Gaza in recent years and will merely be replaced by less reliable forces, the senior diplomat said, confirming reporting in the Wall Street Journal.
The growing attitude in Cairo and other Arab capitals is that the IDF will not be able to completely eradicate Hamas and that the animosity the war is creating will lead to the creation of far more volatility, said the senior Arab diplomat.
“In addition to being an armed resistance group, Hamas is an idea that cannot be defeated only with a military,” said the diplomat. “If non-violent alternatives continue to be undermined, Israel will have accomplished nothing in this war.”
The diplomat and the Biden administration official clarified that Israel’s current and potential Arab allies are not opposed to Hamas’s removal in theory. The terror group is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement whose Islamist populism is seen as a threat by the Arab monarchies and Egypt’s strongman Sissi.
But “how it is removed matters,” the US official said, arguing that even authoritarian regimes in the Arab world will not be able to ignore growing public anger over the killing of thousands of civilians and the destruction of Gaza.
Where the Arab world stands
Arab countries, including allies of Israel, have released strident statements condemning Israel’s Gaza offensive and urging a ceasefire that would leave Hamas intact, but the Biden administration official dismissed the missives as largely catered toward appeasing the Arab street, describing their private positions as more nuanced.
The senior Arab diplomat said none of the Abraham Accords countries — the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco — are currently considering severing ties with Israel completely, explaining that each made a “strategic decision” to forge ties with Israel to help promote a more “integrated and prosperous” region.
However, the diplomat acknowledged that a massive civilian casualty incident in Gaza could change the calculus of even Israel’s closest friends in the Arab world.
Egypt and Jordan are in a different category, given that severing ties with Israel would have national security implications for both countries, which rely on cooperation with Israel to keep their shared borders quiet, the Arab diplomat explained.
However, with Sissi facing a re-election campaign and an already embattled Jordanian monarchy aiming to keep its majority-Palestinian public at bay, the public rhetoric from Cairo and Amman against Israel is likely to continue intensifying, the diplomat speculated.
They added that additional steps could be taken in the event of a mass-casualty incident in Gaza.
According to the Arab ambassador, Saudi Arabia still has not shut the door on US efforts to broker a normalization deal between Riyadh and Jerusalem, adding that the kingdom is unhappy that its national security priorities were upended by Hamas when it carried out the October 7 massacres.
According to a report, Saudi Arabia joined the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Jordan, and Egypt in blocking a clause calling on all countries to sever ties with Israel from being included in a joint statement issued at the conclusion of an Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Riyadh on Saturday.
At the same time, an unspecified concession to the Palestinians as part of a potential normalization deal with Riyadh, previously described as “significant,” will now need to be “even more significant” when talks resume, the ambassador said, due to elevated public sympathy for the Palestinian cause, which the Gulf kingdom cannot ignore.
The Arab statements have helped build pressure on Israel for a ceasefire, shrinking the window of time in which it has wide leeway to carry out its offensive.
While the IDF prefers to work relatively slowly in order to limit casualties among its forces as well as Palestinian civilians, the longer the war drags out, the shorter the diplomatic leash becomes, an Israeli official acknowledged.
One way to expand Israel’s diplomatic breathing room would be to entertain efforts to return a “reformed” PA to the Gaza Strip, the Biden administration official asserted.
The increasingly unpopular PA was ousted from Gaza in a bloody Hamas coup in 2007, and its hold over parts of the northern West Bank has weakened in recent years.
Much of the Arab world has no illusions regarding Ramallah’s current ability to govern, according to the senior Arab diplomat, but they still see the PA as the best and most realistic option on the table which can be revived with Israel’s cooperation.
Repeating past mistakes
Netanyahu all but rejected the idea over the weekend, accusing the PA of “educating its children to hate Israel,” blasting Ramallah for its welfare payments, which include stipends to jailed terrorists and the families of slain attackers, and calling out PA President Mahmoud Abbas for his milquetoast statement on the October 7 massacre, which broadly condemned the targeting of civilians, but failed to even mention Hamas by name.
An Israeli source familiar with the matter said Netanyahu didn’t completely rule out returning the PA to Gaza, rather said that the governing body would have to undergo significant reforms before Israel would be comfortable with taking charge of the enclave.
Netanyahu has backed up his talk in deed, supporting a measure on November 3 to withhold NIS 100 million ($26 million) in Palestinian tax revenues from the cash-strapped PA, bucking warnings from both the US and his own security establishment who argue that the PA is a partner in maintaining stability in the West Bank and that contributing to its collapse risks the opening of an additional front in the Gaza war.
The US has pleaded with Israel to learn from Washington’s mistakes after the September 11, 2001, attacks, which led to American troops being bogged down for over a decade in the Middle East, after they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan without a clear exit strategy.
Israeli strategists have likened a possible post-war reality in Gaza to Area B in the West Bank, which is under Palestinian civilian control and Israeli security control, the Israeli official told The Times of Israel.
The US has meanwhile expressed its desire for an international force to play an interim role in managing Gaza’s security.
However, no country will agree to contribute troops to an interim force in Gaza after the war if they are constantly undermined by the IDF, as has been the case with the PA’s security forces in the West Bank, the senior Arab diplomat asserted.
Pursuing other options?
Netanyahu also has not elaborated on how this pledge to maintain “overall security control” squares with his other assertions that Israel will not re-occupy or govern Gaza after the war.
The Biden administration has privately asked the premier’s office for clarifications on the matter, a second US official said, noting that Netanyahu appears more influenced by the concerns of his far-right coalition partners than those of the Biden administration.
Recognizing that the administration’s hands are tied as long as Netanyahu’s coalition remains, Biden officials have again begun to inquire into whether a more moderate government could be formed in Jerusalem, a former US official familiar with the matter said.
They pointed to meetings top Biden aides have held with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, a top political rival to Netanyahu, as well as opposition chairman Yair Lapid and fellow former prime minister Naftali Bennett.
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) November 8, 2023
“They are not trying to change the government, but they are aware of Netanyahu’s poor polling numbers,” the former official said.
“They’re increasingly running into dead-ends with this government, and their entire regional agenda is on the line,” they added.
‘We won’t clean up Israel’s mess’
Even before the prime minister’s comments on Saturday, the Biden administration was having a hard time galvanizing its Arab allies.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken participated in a ministerial summit last weekend in Amman with counterparts from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, who welcome the idea of returning PA to the Gaza Strip, even if it means that their governments will have to pitch in with funds or troops to help rehabilitate and manage the coastal enclave for an interim period after the war until the PA is ready to take over, the administration official and the Arab ambassador said.
Blinken sought to secure a degree of cooperation from Israel during a trip to Tel Aviv the day before, but failed to do so, torpedoing his efforts in Amman, the Arab ambassador said.
“The meeting did not go well,” the ambassador said bluntly.
It is hard enough for Israel’s Arab neighbors to entertain day-after scenarios while the fighting in Gaza persists, given the overwhelming sympathy for the Palestinians in the Arab street, the ambassador explained. Israel’s rejection made engaging with those plans a non-starter for the Arab governments.
“What happens next? How can we even entertain what will happen next?” said Jordan Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi in a fiery press conference alongside Blinken and Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry.
“We don’t have all the variables to even start thinking about that… We need to get our priorities straight,” Safadi said.
There was an initial US plan to use the ministerial summit in Amman to issue a joint statement affirming a series of principles such as support for humanitarian pauses, increasing humanitarian aid into Gaza and pursuing a two-state solution after the war while opposing the displacement of Palestinians, the re-occupation of Gaza and the reduction of Gaza territory, the US official said. But the the idea was shot down by overwhelming opposition from countries present, who felt this was the wrong focus.
Without Israeli clarity on its own post-war strategy to dispel fears that it may not support Palestinian rule in the Strip, it would be impossible to get Arab capitals to back any proposal pushed by Washington.
“It will be hard enough to convince the Arab states to temporarily shoulder the burden, but they will reject out of hand any scenario that doesn’t eventually lead to Palestinian self-governance in Gaza,” the US official said.
The Arab ambassador pointed to the popular allegation that Netanyahu himself played a role in propping up Hamas to keep the PA in check, noting the government’s authorization for tens of millions of dollars in Qatari cash to be transferred to the terror group-ruled Strip, while it resisted similar moves for the PA.
“Netanyahu systematically helped weaken the PA over the year, all while boosting Hamas,” said the ambassador.
Netanyahu denied the claim on Saturday, claiming his policy has been to hit Hamas hard, pointing to four military operations launched by the IDF against the Gaza terror group over the past decade.
“We mowed them [like grass], but did not uproot them, so now we’re correcting that mistake,” he said.
The Arab ambassador was not convinced.
“Right now, he thinks Israel can go at it on its own. But soon he will call on us to clean up his mess,” they said. “By then it might be too late.”