Some Biden aides pushing for end of current phase this year

White House ups pressure on Israel to end ‘high-intensity’ fighting in Gaza soon

Officials say visiting Sullivan urged Israeli leaders to scale down military ops Hamas in coming weeks; Biden tells Israel: Go after Hamas but ‘be more careful’ with Gaza civilians

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)

The United States wants the Israel-Hamas war to end “as soon as possible,” the White House said Thursday, as visiting US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan pressed Israel on moving away from its ferocious military campaign and instead focusing more on pinpoint operations.

Meeting top Israeli officials in Tel Aviv, Sullivan said the Biden administration wants the Israel Defense Forces to wrap up the current phase of “high intensity” fighting in Gaza within weeks, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

Israeli leaders, however, continued to vow that the IDF would push ahead with the military offensive in the Gaza Strip until the terror group’s defeat.

There’s an understanding that the IDF will remain active in Gaza well beyond the end of the current phase, but Sullivan made clear that the US expects a “major rollback” in the intensity of the fighting within weeks, the Israeli official said, confirming reporting by the Walla news site.

Asked for comment on the matter, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby says during a briefing that Sullivan “did talk about the possible transitioning from what we would call high-intensity operations — which is what we’re seeing them do now — to lower intensity operations sometime in the near future.”

“But I don’t want to put a time stamp on that. The last thing we want to do is telegraph to Hamas what they’re likely to face in the coming weeks and months,” Kirby added.

A second Israeli official told The Times of Israel that some Biden officials have been pressing for the current phase of the IDF’s operations to wrap up already by the end of 2023.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosts US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The New York Times also reported that the US is pushing for Israel to end large-scale fighting by the end of the year. According to the report, the administration wants the next stage of fighting to rely on smaller groups of elite Israeli troops who will enter populated areas of Gaza to carry out specific missions to locate and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and dismantle Hamas tunnels before withdrawing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office responded to the report saying the premier “made it clear that Israel will continue the war until we complete all of its goals.”

In its readout issued on Sullivan’s meetings with Netanyahu and members of Israel’s war cabinet, the White House said the US national security adviser was briefed in detail on the IDF campaign in Gaza, “including its objectives, phasing and setting conditions for shifts over time from high-intensity clearing operations to lower intensity surgical operations against Hamas remnants.”

Following Kirby’s comments, Biden himself again urged Israel to take more care to protect civilians in Gaza.

“I want them to be focused on how to save civilian lives — not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful,” Biden told reporters after an event at a medical research center near Washington.

During his meetings in Tel Aviv, Sullivan also told Israeli officials that starting serious talks regarding the “day after” in Gaza will help buy the Biden administration more time to continue supporting the war, Walla reported, citing a senior US official.

Earlier in the day, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Sullivan in public remarks before their meeting that the IDF’s war against Hamas in Gaza will take “more than several months.” Gallant did not speak of different stages in the war when he made his comments.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Tel Aviv on December 14, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Sullivan arrived in Israel as tensions grew between Jerusalem and Washington over the war, with the US warning of dwindling support for the campaign even as Israeli leaders vow not to stop until Hamas is destroyed. While in Israel earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the war cabinet that it does not have months to wage war against Hamas.

The ongoing conflict in Gaza was sparked by the devastating Hamas-led massacres in southern Israel on October 7, when Palestinian terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took some 240 hostages. Israel declared war on Hamas in response, vowing to topple the terror group and bring back all of those abducted.

The fighting has killed more than 18,600 people in Gaza, many of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, whose numbers cannot be independently verified. That figure likely includes Hamas operatives and Gazans killed by errant Hamas rockets.

Israel says it has killed at least 7,000 Hamas fighters and arrested hundreds more, and has taken measures to protect civilians, including publishing maps of safe zones.

“I think we all want it to end as soon as possible,” Kirby told reporters, adding that it “could end today” if Hamas would back down, but “that doesn’t look likely right now.”

Kirby said that Washington was “not dictating terms” to Israel and that the timeline given by Gallant was “consistent” with what Israeli officials had previously said. But while in Israel, Sullivan asked “hard questions” of Israeli officials about the course of their offensive against the Palestinian enclave, according to Kirby.

Sullivan himself told Israeli television that he and his team held “intense, detailed conversations” with Netanyahu and the war cabinet on when the IDF will transition away from high-intensity fighting in Gaza to focus on lower-intensity fighting that would include targeting Hamas’s top leaders.

“Israel is going to continue to conduct its military efforts to go after Hamas for some time because, for example, they’re going to continue to hunt the top leaders of Hamas, [Yahya] Sinwar and [Muhammad] Deif and [Marwan] Issa, and we don’t know exactly how long that will take,” Sullivan said in an interview with Channel 12 news, referring to three top Hamas leaders in Gaza.

“So the issue really is when does Israel shift from the high-intensity military operations that are underway today to a different phase of this conflict, one that’s more precise, more targeted, more driven towards things like those high-value individuals?… We had a very constructive conversation about these phases.”

Asked about Gallant’s comments that more than a few months would be needed to dismantle Hamas, Sullivan said, “What I heard Minister Gallant say today was that the fight against Hamas will go on for months. And against any terrorist group that continues to have leaders who are the authors of the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust, it’s going to take time until those leaders are found and dealt with, and that could take months, obviously.”

“The issue here is about when the transition from a high-intensity operation to a different phase of this campaign takes place, one that will look different and operate differently on the ground and have different impacts on the civilian population of Gaza. That’s what we really discussed today,” added Sullivan.

Pressed on whether the US might “pull out a stop sign,” Sullivan replied: “I’m not here to lecture or dictate. Israel is a friend and a partner. We sit down and we consult and we talk as friends. President Biden talks to Prime Minister Netanyahu as a friend… We work through what we see as being the strategic and tactical advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action. And we offer our input.”

He said that input was based on three factors. “One, what is going to help lead to the end of Hamas as a military or terrorist threat to Israel? Full stop. Two, what is going to ensure that the civilian population of Gaza, which has nothing to do with Hamas, is supported and protected? And three, how do we put Israel and the United States in the strongest possible position to deal with the wider set of adversaries we face in this region? That’s what we sat down to discuss today,” he said, “and there was a wide degree of convergence on both the strategic objectives and on some of the steps we need to take from here to achieve them.”

Israeli soldiers in the Jabalya refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip, on December 12, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

On the hostages, Sullivan does not go into specifics but said the US and Israel were looking to “explore what is possible on another phase of hostage releases.”

The US, he said, was “determined to stop at nothing to ensure that every last one of them gets safely home to their families.”

The Palestinian Authority can ‘re-activate’ 3,500 of its 15,000 ex-security force members in post-war Gaza, a Palestinian official tells ToI.

After meeting Israeli leaders, Sullivan will travel on Friday to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, US and PA officials told The Times of Israel.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson told The Times of Israel that Sullivan “will discuss ongoing efforts to promote stability in the West Bank, including through efforts to confront terrorism, support for the PA Security Forces through the US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, ongoing efforts to revamp and revitalize the PA and initiatives to hold extremist settlers accountable for violence against Palestinians.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shake hands prior to their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 30, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP)

During the Channel 12 interview, Sullivan was asked about the differing US and Israeli visions for post-war Gaza, with Biden speaking of a revitalized Palestinian Authority and Netanyahu opposing a PA role.

Sullivan said the US view “is that ultimately governance of the West Bank and Gaza needs to be connected, and it needs to be connected under a revamped and revitalized Palestinian Authority.”

Pressed on what exactly this means, Sullivan said that “it will require reform. It will require an updating of how the Palestinian Authority approaches governance. It will require the participation of other countries in the region to contribute financial resources and other forms of support.”

He said consensus can be achieved on this “if all of us approach it in good faith.”

Ultimately, he elaborated, “The goal should be to have a West Bank and Gaza connected under common leadership that does not represent any form of terrorist threat to Israel. And we are determined to arrive at that.”

He said the Israeli government has been prepared to discuss the issue: “We had some of these conversations today about what the question of governance and civil administration looks like, the question of security and the question of reconstruction. And in each of those areas, there’s work to do to get to clear answers going forward.”

“At the heart of those answers has to be the aspirations of the Palestinian people themselves. But it also has to take into account Israel’s security needs, and we’re determined to do both of those.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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