The White House wants Israel to delay its ground operation in the Gaza Strip to allow more time for negotiations to release the hostages held by terrorists there and for aid to enter the Palestinian enclave, several unnamed US officials told The New York Times.
The Sunday report came two days after a senior diplomatic official told The Times of Israel the same thing, indicating that the pressure on Israel has continued through the weekend.
The New York Times report said the Biden administration also wants to increase preparedness for any potential attacks on US targets in the region from Iran-based groups, which it believes are likely to increase as the war goes on.
War between Israel and the Hamas began on October 7 when the terror group abruptly launched a ground, air, and sea assault on the Jewish state. Under the cover of a barrage of thousands of rockets fired at town and cities across the country, over 2,500 gunmen crossed the border and rampaged murderously through southern areas. They slaughtered over 1,400 people — the vast majority of them civilians, of all ages. They also abducted over 200 people, men, women, and children, whom they took captive to Gaza.
Hamas rocket fire has persisted on south and central Israel, causing more deaths and injuries. Some 200,000 Israelis have been displaced from both the south and the north, which has also come under barrages from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group.
Israel has responded with intensive strikes on Hamas targets while vowing to destroy the terror group and remove it from power in Gaza, where it has ruled since 2007. Gaza civilians residing in the north of the Strip have been told to evacuate. The IDF has also massed troops ahead of an expected ground incursion.
Officials said that the US is not asking Israel to abort the ground invasion but is advising it to wait, and that Washington still fully supports Israel’s aim to destroy Hamas in the wake of the deadly onslaught.
Nonetheless, four senior Israeli defense officials told the Times the ground invasion has been repeatedly put off and they don’t know the reason why. Two suggested the wait was due to hostage negotiations.
Two US officials told the newspaper that the delay message had been conveyed to Israel via US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin, who speaks with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant almost every day. A spokesperson for Gallant would not confirm the report to the newspaper.
Additionally, US President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again on Sunday.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office denied that Washington is holding Israel back, saying only, “There is no US pressure, only US backing.”
Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the US, told CNN, “There is really no pressure. They give us advice, but they are not telling us what to do, what not to do.”
US officials backed up that version, saying that even when Biden met with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv last week, the president did not make any requests but rather posed questions about a possible ground invasion to clarify that it wouldn’t become an open-ended conflict. That included asking who would take over in Gaza once Hamas was removed from power and how a ground assault would impact the fate of hostages, the report said. One official said that humanitarian aid to Gaza and civilian casualties were also discussed.
The advice is part of the military support the Pentagon is giving Israel. According to the Times, there have been “fast moving events” since the release Friday of two US women who were held hostage by Hamas. That led Washington to “more urgently suggest” that Israel allow time for negotiations to release all the remaining hostages. The exact mechanism of the Friday hostage transfer was not immediately clear. Hamas said that the release was made “for humanitarian reasons.”
An official familiar with the hostage negotiations, which are being conducted through Qatar, said that Hamas has warned an Israel ground operation would make a hostage deal less possible. An unnamed senior Israel military official told the Times that contacts between the US and Qatar indicate that about 50 dual-citizen hostages could be released, independent of a larger deal for all the hostages.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday but did not directly respond to questions about the US seeking a delay in the Israeli ground invasion.
“There are many, many Israelis who are hostages and, of course, hostages from other nationalities. So we’re working to do everything we can, using whatever levers, partnerships, relationships we have to get them out. Israel is doing the same,” he said. “But in terms of what we’re talking to Israel about with regard to their military operations, it really is focused on both how they do it, and how best to achieve the result they seek.”
However, while US officials said they prefer the ground operation be delayed, they also stressed the need to avoid giving the impression that Washington is controlling Israel’s actions, as that could pull the US into a direct conflict with Iran or its proxies in the region, according to the Times.
Even so, Blinken told NBC the US expects a “likelihood of escalation, escalation by Iranian proxies directed against our forces, directed against our personnel.”
The State Department has begun pulling out nonessential diplomatic staff from Iraq as a precaution.
CNN also reported Sunday that a delay could help hostage negotiations. The US television network cited two sources who were briefed on the discussions, without elaborating.
“The [administration] pressed Israeli leadership to delay because of progress on the hostage front” and the need to get trucks of aid into Gaza, one person familiar with the discussions was quoted as saying.