Top US official doubts Israel can achieve Netanyahu’s promised ‘total victory’ in Gaza

‘In some respects we are struggling over what the theory of victory is,’ Blinken deputy says; US denies report it conditioned intel regarding Hamas heads on Israel curbing Rafah op

File: Then-National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine his nomination to be Deputy Secretary of State on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
File: Then-National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine his nomination to be Deputy Secretary of State on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

The Biden administration does not see it likely or possible that Israel will achieve “total victory” in defeating Hamas in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said on Monday.

The phrase has often been used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly asserted that such a goal is within reach.

While US officials have urged Israel to help devise a clear plan for the governance of a postwar Gaza, Campbell’s comments are some of the clearest to date from a top US official effectively arguing that Israel’s current military strategy won’t bring the result that it is aiming for.

“In some respects, we are struggling over what the theory of victory is,” Campbell said at a NATO Youth Summit in Miami. “Sometimes when we listen closely to Israeli leaders, they talk about mostly the idea of… a sweeping victory on the battlefield, total victory,” he said.

“I don’t think we believe that that is likely or possible and that this looks a lot like situations that we found ourselves in after 9/11, where, after civilian populations had been moved and lots of violence… the insurrections continue.”

Campbell’s comments come as Washington is warning Israel not to go ahead with a major military offensive in Rafah, the southernmost city of the Gaza Strip where over a million people who have already been displaced by the war are taking shelter.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likening the situation in Gaza to that of a recurring insurgency that the United States faced in Afghanistan and Iraq after its invasions there following the Sept. 11 attack, Campbell said a political solution was required.

“I think we view that there has to be more of a political solution… What’s different from the past in that sense — many countries want to move towards a political solution in which the rights of Palestinians are more respected,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s ever been more difficult than right now,” he added.

Meanwhile, the White House denied reports that the United States withheld intelligence from Israel on the whereabouts of Hamas leaders.

The reports alleged that the United States would provide the intelligence in exchange for Israel curbing its planned offensive in Rafah.

“The United States is working with Israel day and night to hunt the senior leaders of Hamas, who were the authors of the brutal terrorist assault of Oct. 7,” a White House official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Troops of the 99th Division operate in Gaza City’s Zeitoun, in a handout photo published May 13, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We are providing unprecedented support — in ways that only the United States can — to help Israel bring them to justice. And we will continue to work relentlessly toward this objective in the period ahead,” the official said.

“Any report to the contrary is false. Helping Israel target the leaders of Hamas, and providing any information we have as to their whereabouts, is a top priority for us, and not a quid pro quo. None of this is dependent on operational decisions Israel makes.”

The official’s statement follows an exchange on the subject in a meeting at the White House with Jewish leaders on Monday. At the meeting — whose focus was the rollout of Biden’s strategy to combat antisemitism — Rabbi Levi Shemtov asked Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, about the reported quid-pro-quo.

The White House confirmed the exchange between Finer and Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Chabad (Lubavitch) in Washington, and added that Finer said, “It’s not true.”

Troops of the Givati Brigade operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout photo published May 13, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The forceful pushback comes as the Biden administration is endeavoring to make clear that despite recent tensions, it continues to support Israel’s war effort against Hamas.

Finer told the participants that he wanted to “clear up confusion” about US President Joe Biden’s decision earlier this month to suspend the delivery of large bombs to Israel as a means of influencing the operation in Rafah.

Biden opposes a massive invasion because the city has become a refuge to hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians. Netanyahu says the invasion is necessary to rout Hamas’s remaining battalions.

Israeli and conservative US media expressed alarm after The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration “is offering Israel valuable assistance in an effort to persuade it to hold back, including sensitive intelligence to help the Israeli military pinpoint the location of Hamas leaders and find the group’s hidden tunnels.” The Post cited four anonymous sources.

Also on Monday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the administration does not view the killings of Palestinians in Gaza by Israel during the war with Hamas as a genocide.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Sullivan said the US wants to see Hamas defeated, that Palestinians caught in the middle of the war were in “hell,” and that a major military operation by Israel in Rafah would be a mistake.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, May 13, 2024. (Susan Walsh/AP)

“We do not believe what is happening in Gaza is a genocide. We have been firmly on record rejecting that proposition,” Sullivan said.

Reiterating a comment Biden made over the weekend, Sullivan said there could be a ceasefire in Gaza now if Hamas would release hostages.

The world should be calling on Hamas to return to the negotiating table and accept a deal, he said, adding that Washington was working urgently for a ceasefire and hostage release deal, but cannot predict when or if such an agreement will be sealed.

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a toll that cannot be independently verified. The UN says some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals at this time. The rest of the total figure is based on murkier Hamas “media reports.” It also includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Two hundred and seventy-two IDF soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and in operations along the Gaza border.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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