The Biden administration is reportedly concerned that Israel lacks achievable military goals for its operations in Gaza, leading US officials to believe that the IDF is not yet ready for a ground incursion.
US officials have held marathon meetings and phone calls with their Israeli counterparts to discuss the ground operation, which many thought the IDF would have launched by Monday — 17 days after the October 7 Hamas massacre, in which over 1,400 people were slaughtered in Israel and roughly 220 were taken hostage into Gaza. In the interim, the IDF has maintained a near-constant aerial bombardment it says is targeting Hamas terrorists and infrastructure, which the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says has left thousands dead.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has held near-daily phone calls with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, during which the former has urged the importance of carefully considering how IDF troops conduct the incursion in Gaza, where terrorists will operate from tunnels and densely populated areas, The New York Times reported Monday, citing unnamed US officials.
In a Sunday interview with ABC’s “This Week,” Austin said the ground invasion Israel plans to launch could well take longer than it took for the US to remove the Islamic State from power in Mosul, Iraq, when he was the head of the US Army’s Central Command.
“Urban combat is extremely difficult. It goes at a slow pace,” he said. “This may be a bit more difficult because of the underground network of tunnels that Hamas has constructed over time and the fact that they have had a long time to prepare for a fight.”
US officials told The Times on Monday that Israel must decide whether it wants to eliminate Hamas terrorists through a combination of surgical strikes and targeted raids by special forces, as the US did with Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers in Mosul in 2017, or to launch a more expansive ground invasion, as US troops did with Iraqi and British forces in Fallujah in 2004.
An Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Sunday that cabinet ministers have repeatedly pointed to Fallujah as an example of the kind of operation they want to see the IDF launch in Gaza.
Both strategies would result in heavy losses, though the Fallujah model would be far bloodier for both soldiers and civilians, the US officials told The Times, adding that many in the Pentagon accordingly prefer the Mosul blueprint. But even in that battle, 9,000 to 11,000 civilians were killed, according to the Associated Press.
The US officials told The Times that they’ve walked away from their conversations with Israeli counterparts feeling like they have not yet seen an achievable plan of action for accomplishing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated goal of eradicating Hamas.
The report came two days after a senior diplomatic official told The Times of Israel that the US and several European countries were pressuring Israel to hold off on launching a ground incursion to allow for more time to negotiate the release of the over 220 hostages in Gaza. Four have been freed thus far following efforts by Qatar and Egypt.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the Biden administration also wants time 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.
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.”
Biden administration officials have made similar claims publicly as well.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Monday that several senior US Army officers who have experience in “the sorts of operations that Israel is conducting and may conduct in the future” have been dispatched to advise the IDF.
“We have asked several officials with relevant experience simply to help Israeli officials think through the difficult questions ahead and explore their options. The IDF will, as always, make its own decisions,” a Pentagon spokesperson added.
The advisers include Lt. Gen. James Glynn, a Marine three-star general who was involved in operations during the US fight against Islamic State in Iraq, Axios reported.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that Israel should already be devising a strategy for who will rule Gaza if the IDF completes its stated mission of toppling Hamas.
It appeared to be the first time that Washington publicly urged Israel to think about its broader strategy, after officials speaking anonymously earlier said Biden and administration officials have privately been pressing Netanyahu and his aides to come up with one, in order to avoid making the same mistakes that the US made after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which led to it being bogged down in Mideast wars for over a decade.
Israeli officials have said publicly that they are currently focused on eradicating Hamas and are not thinking about what might come afterward.
On Monday, The Times of Israel learned that the IDF believes it must begin its ground offensive sooner rather than later in order to achieve the government’s stated objectives.
The military has told the government that it is fully prepared for a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, and believes it can achieve the goals set out for it, even at the risk of heavy casualties to soldiers, and amid ongoing attacks by Hezbollah in the north.
But the military fears that the government may never give the order to begin the ground offensive, or postpone it for a lengthy period.
Should the army need to move its focus to the northern front instead of Gaza, it is confident that it could pivot within just a few days. The IDF has already heavily bolstered the Lebanon border, but most forces remain near Gaza, ahead of the expected ground offensive.
Regarding the 220 confirmed hostages held by Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip, the military has been preparing for the possibility of rescue operations amid the ground offensive, according to information seen by The Times of Israel.
The army is concerned that further hostage releases by Hamas could lead the political leadership to delay a ground incursion or even halt it midway. Still, the IDF believes that an offensive may actually pressure Hamas to release further hostages.