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US President Biden plays high-risk poker with Israel’s Netanyahu

Credit: The Turbulent World

US President Joe Biden doesn’t fit the mould of a high-risk gambler.

Yet, gambling is the crux of his velvet glove dealings with Israel. With one eye on Israeli politics and the other on presidential elections in the United States in six months, Mr. Biden is walking a tightrope.

The stakes and the costs couldn’t be higher.

At its core, despite the administration’s escalating verbal criticism of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the suspension of an arms shipment to Israel, Mr. Biden is sticking to his bearhug approach towards Israel with a twist rather than taking coercive steps that could force Mr. Netanyahu’s hand.

The administration’s refusal to endorse a full-scale Israeli ground offensive in the southern Gazan enclave of Rafah, criticism of Mr. Netanyahu’s war tactics that have failed to destroy Hamas and the prime minister’s insistence on not planning for a post-war administration of the Strip, and close coordination with Mr. Netanyahu’s rivals in his war cabinet and the opposition, aims to tighten the noose around the Israeli leader’s neck.

The strategy, initiated in early April with opposition leader Yair Lapid’s visit to Washington, may have begun to produce results.

In the most frontal assault to date on Mr. Netanyahu’s policies from within the prime minister’s Cabinet, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant this week publicly challenged the prime minister to come forward with a plan for Gaza’s post-war administration and to disavow Israeli military rule of the war-ravaged Strip.

Echoing unidentified military officials quoted in Israeli media, Mr. Gallant warned that in the absence of Israeli planning for the day the guns fall silent in Gaza, “only two negative options remain: Hamas’ rule in Gaza or Israeli military rule.”

Military officials have insisted that their failure to destroy Hamas and the group’s ability to resurface in parts of Gaza evacuated by Israeli troops was due to Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to devise a strategy for the day the war ends.

Backed by the Biden administration and supported by his fellow war cabinet member, Benny Gantz, Mr. Gallant said he opposed Israeli rule. Mr. Gallant demanded that Mr. Netanyahu publicly forswear the Israeli administration of the Strip.

“I call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip, that Israel will not establish military governance in the Gaza Strip, and that a governing alternative to Hamas in the Gaza Strip will be raised immediately,” Mr. Gallant said.

A senior US official was quick to say that the Biden administration “share(s) the Minister of Defense Gallant’s concern that Israel has not developed any plans for holding and governing territory the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) clears, thereby allowing Hamas to regenerate in those areas. This is a concern because our objective is to see Hamas defeated.”

Israeli military officials have downplayed the impact of Mr. Biden’s suspension of a shipment to Israel of high payload 2,000 and 500-pound bombs and threat to halt the supply of other offensive weapons.

The Israel Defense Forces “has weapons for the missions it is planning. And also for the missions in Rafah, we have the weapons we require,” said military spokesman Daniel Hagari.

Even so, Mr. Biden’s submission to Congress of a US$1 billion weapons package for Israel aimed to alleviate concerns in the Israeli military and encourage senior commanders to stand up to Mr. Netanyahu and appease the president’s pro-Israeli critics that include donors and members of his Democratic Party as well as potentially undecided pro-Israel voters.

The bulk of the weapons, including tank ammunition, tactical vehicles, and mortar rounds, have yet to be produced and will not be delivered for months at the earliest.

At the core of the dispute over post-war planning is a cornerstone of any future resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Palestinian self-rule and independence, a notion that Mr. Netanyahu rejects.

In separate statements in recent days, Mr. Netanyahu insisted that the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel “would be a reward for terrorists” and that he would “not replace Hamastan with Fatahstan,” a reference to Al Fatah, the backbone of President Mahmoud Abbas’ internationally recognized, West Bank-based Palestine Authority.

Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that Israel maintain security control of Gaza and the West Bank indefinitely and argued that there’s no point in drafting a post-war plan before Hamas is completely defeated.

“Indecision is, in essence, a decision. This leads to a dangerous course, which promotes the idea of Israeli military and civilian governance in Gaza,” Mr. Gallant said.

An aide to Mr. Gallant warned that “this current trajectory serves the interest of the most radical elements in the Israeli government — (National Security Minister) Itamar Ben Gvir and (Finance Minister) Betzalel Smotrich — who fantasize about full Israeli control over Gaza and rebuilding of settlements.”

To make the point, Mr. Ben Gvir this week told thousands of Israeli settlers, ”We in the Cabinet demand war now. Demand to enter Rafah. Demand targeted assassinations… Without liberating Gaza there will be no solution. The solution is to return home…to the Land of Israel…to liberate, to colonize and also to bequeath. (Gaza) has always been ours and will stay ours.”

Contrary to Messrs. Netanyahu and Ben Gvir, Messrs. Galant and Gantz, as well as the Biden administration and the overwhelming majority of the international community, favor the Palestine Authority taking control of Gaza.

Despite the Authority’s loss of credibility under Mr. Abbas in the eyes of Palestinians, control of Gaza would recreate the Strip and the West Bank as one entity under Palestinian administration that could evolve into an independent Palestinian state.

It would also potentially help pave the way for Arab participation in a possible international peacekeeping force in Gaza and negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Biden administration hopes that it would open the door to a Middle East mega-deal involving Saudi recognition of Israel and tighter US-Saudi military and nuclear cooperation.

In gambling on his ability to tighten the noose around Mr. Netanyahu’s neck, Mr. Biden is not only risking his chances of winning a second term in office.

Even though Israel has reduced its Gaza kill rate eight months into the Gaza war, tens of Palestinians daily still pay the ultimate price for Israel’s refusal to end the war and Mr. Biden’s failure to put his foot down firmly.

In addition, even if Mr. Biden succeeds in cornering Mr. Netanyahu, the prime minister’s potential successors, whether that is Mr. Gallant, Mr. Gantz, or Mr. Lapid, envision a future emasculated Palestinian entity.

That is a far cry from Palestinian aspirations for a state that is fully independent and exercises full sovereignty over its territory.

To be sure, undermining Mr. Netanyahu is a worthwhile endeavor. Even so, Mr. Biden could discover that his gamble may produce results that were not worth the risks.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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