US envoy indicates Biden’s Gaza strategy has no alternative to hostage deal

In interview, Jack Lew says Oct. 7 upended his plan to orchestrate Saudi normalization, urges sending more aid into Gaza; says US campus antisemitism stems from ignorance

File: United States Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew gives a speech to relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, in Tel Aviv on January 13, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
File: United States Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew gives a speech to relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, in Tel Aviv on January 13, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew indicated Friday that the Biden administration does not see any alternative to a hostage deal as it seeks to wind down the war and stabilize the region.

“I’m not going to talk about the alternative if there is no hostage deal because, honestly, I don’t think we can accept an alternative where there is no deal,” Lew tells the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in one of his first interviews since entering his role as ambassador days after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

“We have to keep pressing. And I understand that time is not on the hostages’ side,” he says, using the Hebrew word for hostages during the English interview, which was published in Hebrew.

He tells Yedioth that there has been progress toward a deal in recent days, but declines to speculate regarding chances for success, “especially when the party that ultimately has to make the decision is Hamas and Sinwar.”

“The hostage deal is critical, not only as a humanitarian issue, but also as a regional strategic matter,” Lew says.

The US views it as the first step in its broader regional agenda, which seeks a winding down of the war, followed by assistance from Arab partners in rehabilitating Gaza in partnership with a reformed Palestinian Authority that eventually returns to governing both the West Bank and Gaza. The US wants this restoration to be coupled with the establishment of an Israel-approved pathway for a future Palestinian state in parallel to decisions from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel in order to bolster the regional axis against Iran.

File: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, talks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, DC, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“If you look at the geopolitical components, whether it’s Hezbollah and Lebanon or Saudi Arabia. All of the pieces come together more easily if there is a deal to return the hostages along with a ceasefire,” he says.

Lew rejected the premise that intensifying public US criticism of Israel emboldens Hamas to harden its position in the hostage talks, insisting that the administration is constantly working toward a deal. “No one cares more about Hamas believing that there must be a release of the hostages than the US,” he asserts. “We wouldn’t do anything to harm that [perception].”

He also dismissed the Israeli claim that the UN Security Council resolution that the US allowed to pass last month amounted to a shift in stance from Washington, which has long maintained that a ceasefire can only be reached through a hostage deal.

The resolution called for an immediate ceasefire and hostage release in the same sentence, but did not explicitly condition the former on the latter.

Lew insisted that the US position remains that a ceasefire is conditioned on a hostage release. “Any description of our position as if it has changed is simply incorrect.”

Lew pushed back against the idea that relations between the White House and Israel were fraying and dismissed accusations that US President Joe Biden was trying to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Relatives and supporters of hostages held in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 massacre hold placards and wave national flags during a demonstration in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 7, 2024. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“When the president made the decision to support Israel, he understood — like all of us — that as the war progresses there would be political opposition,” the envoy said. “His decision was one of deep conviction, not politics, to stand by Israel.”

While conceding that “there are moments when the closest of friends see things differently,” the ambassador was confident that Biden’s prodding of the Israeli government to let more aid into hunger-ravaged Gaza “will not be remembered as a matter that we asked for, but as an issue that is in accordance with the values ​​of the State of Israel.”

Asked if Netanyahu’s loyalists were correct in their assessment that the Biden administration was trying to unseat Netanyahu’s rightwing government, Lew responded: “I think this is a misconception. We try very hard not to interfere in the politics of other countries, especially our allies.”

As for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s call for early elections to replace Netanyahu, Lew said the White House does not tell lawmakers what to say.

Advising against “overanalyzing” such statements, Lew pointed to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s recent visit to Washington as an example of the steadfast US-Israel relations, saying the minister’s meetings with US defense officials were “the type of meeting you want your defense minister to hold in the capital of Israel’s closest ally.”

Nonetheless, Lew did not withhold criticism of the slow flow of aid into Gaza. “The stories about the urgent need for food, water and sanitation are very disturbing, and we were clear about that,” Lew said, while noting that Israel had taken several steps after intense prodding from Washington.

“There has been tremendous progress, and there are large amounts of humanitarian aid going into Gaza. And there needs to be more. I won’t sit here and say the job is done. We need many more trucks to enter all parts of Gaza,” he added.

Lew acknowledged that Israeli public opinion hasn’t been overwhelmingly supportive of delivering humanitarian aid into Gaza so long as Hamas holds onto hostages. However, “you must do this to maintain the support of the US and around the world.”

File: Then-US president Barack Obama talks with then-secretary of defense Chuck Hagel (L), then-secretary of the treasury Jack Lew (2nd L) and then-secretary of state John Kerry (C) as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

Lew’s nomination for ambassador was announced in September, but was not yet confirmed on October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and take over 250 hostages.

Lew, a former White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary, said he had hoped to help pave the way to normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, telling Yedioth, “That is why I decided to take on this position in the first place.”

Acknowledging that his plans were upended by the Hamas attack, the ambassador said his goal now is to overcome the crisis and return to the original path. “To come out of this period of terrible darkness, there must be a vision of something better, sustainable, stable and safer for Israel and the region,” Lew said.

He insisted that the “window is still open” for a deal, though, “it will become more challenging as time goes by,” as Riyadh intensifies its criticism of Israel’s prosecution of the war and comes under more pressure domestically and regionally not to ink a normalization agreement with Jerusalem following such a bloody conflict.

Still, Lew said he is “of the opinion that if this was the strategic interest of the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel on October 6, it is the strategic interest of all three parties now as well.”

An observant Jew, Lew said he was not aware of the violence on October 7 when it began on the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah. Lew said he was informed by another man in his synagogue whose daughter, who lives in Israel, told him a war had broken out.

US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew (left) presents his credentials to President Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence on November 5, 2023, in Jerusalem. (Screenshot)

“As soon as I heard the news, without knowing all the details, I had a flashback to 1973, the Yom Kippur War. That was the last time I heard about a war in Israel that broke out on a holy day when I myself was in a synagogue,” Lew recalled, adding that “there was a sense of existential risk that felt very real.”

In the interview, Lew maintained that the growing hostility toward Israel on American college campuses stems more from students’ ignorance than antisemitism.

“I think that one should be very careful before reaching conclusions about the nature of the threat and the depth of hostility that people are talking about,” he said, claiming hostility toward Jews on campus was driven more by ignorance than antisemitism.

He recalled how his father was able to attend law school in New York after quotas were lifted on Jewish enrollment and cautioned against “conclud[ing] that this is a hostile environment and we must not be part of it. This is a big mistake. We need to be stronger.”

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