INTERVIEW: U.S.-Israel Friction — Less Than Meets the Eye?

By Reuvain Borchardt

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, right, and members of their delegations take part in a bilateral meeting at the Munich Security Conference last month. (Thomas Kienzle/Pool via AP)

Jonathan Schanzer discusses the public sniping between the Israeli and U.S. governments over the war in Gaza, particularly a possible Israeli incursion into Rafah.

Schanzer is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

He previously worked as a terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department, where he followed and froze the funding of Hamas and al-Qaida. Jonathan has previously held research positions at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Middle East Forum. He has written hundreds of articles on the Middle East and U.S. national security, and four books on geopolitics and terrorism in the Middle East.

My take is that the two men are actually far more aligned than is being reported. They don’t want to see the war expand right now beyond Gaza, they would like to see Hamas defeated, they’d like to contain Hezbollah aggression, they’d like to contain unrest during Ramadan, and they would like to prevent a humanitarian crisis from emerging out of Rafah. There are going to be differences of opinion about exactly how all of those things are achieved. And I think that’s where we are watching some friction. But overall, I believe the U.S. and Israel still see the big picture in similar ways. 

I think a lot of it is, unfortunately, political theater. 

The United States is now in the thick of our election cycle. It’s no great surprise that the Democratic Party is not all-in with Israel as it relates to this war, or perhaps even other issues, as well. And so elements of this administration are putting some distance between the U.S. and the Israelis. I think what they are trying to do is to show more balance after several months of really throwing their weight behind the Israeli war against Hamas. So that includes the executive order targeting violent settlers, it means a little bit more tough talk about Netanyahu, in particular, and maybe members of his cabinet. 

But when you zoom out and look at the big picture, it’s not as if the U.S. has withdrawn support for the Gaza war effort. The opposite, in fact. 

What we’re seeing right now is a negotiation over a possible Israeli incursion into Rafah. The Israelis have been doing incredible work in preventing civilian casualties throughout this war, particularly when you look at comparative studies of civilian casualties in other urban war zones. 

But there is an ongoing discussion about how to move 1.4 million Palestinians out of harm’s way, so that Israel can conduct the final stage of its ground maneuvers in Rafah without having Hamas use these people as human shields.

It’s still not clear exactly what the Israeli plan will be. We have seen reports of the Israelis trying to set up some areas along the coast of Gaza that would put civilians out of harm’s way. There’s obviously also talk about the Egyptians shouldering some of this load. But it’s not settled yet. This ongoing dialogue with the United States, despite what we hear, is actually helpful to the Israelis, as they try to figure out what is feasible, with the clock ticking toward the start of Ramadan on March 10.

Jonathan Schanzer

That is very common. It’s certainly not new to U.S.-Israel relations. The U.S. Defense Department and the Israeli Defense Ministry have very close ties and see very much eye to eye. However, the State Department is an organization that typically holds a dimmer view of Israel, and is generally more inclined to engage in blistering criticism from time to time. But, as I said, this is par for the course. These are things that we would expect coming out of the various arms of the U.S. government.

I’ll also note that the Treasury Department has been issuing round after round of sanctions against Hamas, in support of Israel and in support of longstanding American policy that views Hamas as a terrorist organization. There are signs that other arms of the U.S. government have also mobilized to counter Hamas in whatever ways they can.

But there is a balance that I think we need to understand. There is a lot of anger out there in the Arab world about this war. Whether that’s justifiable is a whole other discussion. But we see this fury from several Arab populations. The administration wants to placate them, and it also wants to placate voters who may not feel comfortable with the trajectory of this war. This explains, in large part, some of the rhetoric that we see from the administration.

Yes, that is the big question. 

I think Biden really has not changed his perspective at all as it relates to Israel’s war aims. He has been very consistent throughout this process. His rhetoric has shifted somewhat since January, as our political cycle heated up. The question is: How much does that rhetoric need to shift for him to feel like he’s getting his message across to certain voters? I don’t know the answer to that. And I don’t know if he knows the answer to that. 

Those would be drastic measures, and probably cause a significant rupture in U.S.-Israel ties. And I don’t think that that’s where things are trending, at least right now. If you ask me, there are solutions to these challenges right now that can buy time and prevent disasters in Gaza from occurring. 

For example, working together to come up with a plan to help move the Gazan population out of Rafah ahead of ground maneuvers is in the interest of both countries. And I would hope that they’re going to continue working together in this respect. 

I see a lot of this as posturing and dramatic rhetoric for the sake of narrative. The U.S. is saying, “You cannot go into Rafah without dealing with the humanitarian challenges.” Then the Israelis say, “If you don’t want us to go into Rafah, you need to release the hostages.” Israel is clearly messaging this to Hamas, and to Qatar and the Egyptians, who play a major role in the hostage talks. In short, the Israelis are trying to push for their needs and their interests.  Which they should.

At the end of the day, you could see a situation whereby an agreement is struck for the hostages to be released ahead of Ramadan, and what ensues after that is a month of relative quiet, during which time the Gazan population can be slowly and methodically moved to safer places, enabling Israel to engage in the ground maneuvers. That is still what Israel must do if it is to win the war against Hamas.

This is the way that things could work out for both the U.S. and Israel. A deal struck now that would last through Ramadan would satisfy everyone’s needs and potentially quiet some nerves. 

Of course, things rarely go well in the Middle East. So, we need to think about contingencies. But what I’ve just laid out here is a scenario that would satisfy both Israel and the United States, even as people continue to talk about the challenges that have arisen in the relationship. 

Israeli troops move in the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg/File)

We’ve seen the administration climb down from that tree. 

The Israelis pushed back rather fiercely on it, and the administration appears to understand that it’s a non-starter.

Endorsing a Palestinian state right now would be a failed policy. It’s really hard to overstate how much of a mess that would create. That’s because the Palestinians are barely in control of either territory. The West Bank is hardly an example of good governance. It’s a collapsing state, in and of itself. Corruption, dysfunction, and terror finance are just a few of the problems. So, yes, there are real challenges associated with Palestinian statehood.

It would be an attempt to placate the Arab Street. It would be about giving the Palestinian cause a shot in the arm, and giving the supporters of Palestinians a sense that America is listening to their grievances. But again, it would be a disaster. It would be something that would be done more to scratch an itch, but really not to accomplish the end goal of the Palestinian nationalist movement, which is a functioning, viable state. You don’t have the ingredients for that right now. Not by a long shot. And that is really a major cause for concern amidst this rhetoric.

What a lot of people conveniently ignore now is that the center-right in Israel is also opposed to a Palestinian state. Israelis of all stripes want to destroy Hamas. They see the battle for Rafah as being crucial to that end. Israelis want to get the hostages back, and they don’t want to give too many Hamas prisoners in exchange. The center-right and center-left in Israel are both largely aligned with the current government. They may not like Netanyahu. They may, at some point, need to make some fateful decisions regarding his future. But the policies are essentially the same. 

I have not seen the administration pull back from the objective of total defeat of Hamas. They may not be stressing it as much as they had been in the immediate wake of October 7. But this is because this narrative does not resonate with a subsection of progressive voters that they’re concerned about right now. But I have not seen a retreat from that end goal of destroying Hamas in Gaza.

This interview originally appeared in Hamodia Prime magazine.

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