The Gaza Gap

By Rafael Hoffman

Since the beginning of Israel’s war against Hamas, President Joseph Biden has offered robust material and moral support to America’s ally.

Even as what began as far-left demands for a ceasefire picked up steam in mainstream progressive circles, and some Democrats in Congress supported conditioning Israel military aid, the White House consistently stood behind Israel’s stated war aim to eliminate Hamas.

Still, as the war progresses, increasing reports surfaced pointing to a widening divide between strategies being pursued by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government and those favored by President Biden.

One that emerged in the open is over who will rule post-war Gaza. The Biden administration has worked to minimize daylight on the conduct of the war. Still, no shortage of Washington leaks verify that the White House is urging Israel to scale back its operation and change to more surgical tactics as fighting shifts to the southern area of the strip.

Both sides deny that the distance between the two governments is as significant as media portray it. At the same time, as difficult questions lay ahead about future steps, it is unclear how united that vision will remain.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (center) speaks with soldiers inside the northern Gaza Strip on November 26. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Straddling the Fence

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ brutal attack, Israel initiated an aerial campaign to neutralize rocket fire and soften targets in advance of its ground operation.

About a month later, the IDF entered the strip with massive force, bringing much of northern Gaza under its control in a matter of weeks.

“Hamas was taken by surprise by the magnitude of Israel’s response,” said David Daoud, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). “That didn’t allow Hamas to regain its footing…We’re starting to see results. The rate of rocket fire is down to 14 a day from around 70. Hamas’ arsenal is degraded and their ability to launch or get out in the open is diminished.”

Gaza City is largely in IDF hands. Major fighting shifted to Khan Younis, where Hamas’ leaders are believed to be hiding in the organization’s underground tunnel network. Advances slowed somewhat and Israeli casualties rose as the challenges of urban fighting take their toll.

“The northern fighting went quicker, but they’re hitting realities of clearing tunnels and street fighting,” said Mr. Daoud. “In southern Gaza, Hamas and their allies had time to regroup, and they feel this could be their last stand…Urban combat is a slog of slow attrition, it takes more time.”

IDF forces in Gaza. (IDF Spokesperson)

Israel began transitioning to a new stage of the war, transferring many of its battalions out of Gaza as large-scale operations give way to more pointed attacks. Yet, as the IDF weighs the most effective means of eliminating Hamas, the White House has begun to weigh in on tactics.

“We also have some great thoughts about how to transition from high-intensity operations to lower intensity and more surgical operations,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters on a recent visit to Israel.

The Biden administration continues to push back against critical questions from the press on Israeli strategy, saying operational decisions are the IDF’s to make and that their support for fully defeating Hamas has not wavered.

“When the IDF came out and said, ‘This could take all of 2024,’ there was no objection to that language,” said Mr. Daoud. “The White House has pushed back to some of the irresponsible rhetoric like exiling Palestinians, but in general the U.S. is giving Israel a lot of leeway.”

Strategists termed Israel’s bombing campaign as phase one of the campaign, the ground incursion as phase two, and eliminating remaining pockets of Hamas terrorists as a future third phase. That last phase will look more like Israel’s approach to terrorism in Yehudah and Shomron, where there is no permanent IDF presence, but there are sporadic raids to neutralize threats. Israel’s military leaders warned that it could take another year before the fighting ends.

“There’s a push from the Biden administration to transition to a less kinetic phase, to move the military to phase three. That means retreating to the periphery and mostly managing the situation from there,” said Raphael Cohen, senior political scientist and Director of the RAND Corporation’s Strategy and Doctrine Program. “In the north it’s playing out already to some extent.”  

Some feel the White House is rushing that process in an effort to lower the intensity of fighting.

“They’re calling to move to the next phase of the war before victory’s been achieved in this phase,” said Michael Doran, Senior Fellow and Director at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East. “The U.S. messaging is somewhat schizophrenic. On the one hand, the President and senior officials said repeatedly that they support Israel’s stated war aims. At the same time, they’re demanding changes that hinder military activity.”  

Some of America’s messaging about tactics in Gaza, and more on other fronts, especially the Lebanese border, is aimed at preventing the war from escalating and drawing other Iranian proxies into a regional conflict.

Attacks by Hezbollah in Israel’s north and by Houthi rebels on international shipping led the U.S. and, more so, European countries, to be wary of the risks of spreading the conflict. Most observers think this is part of a very conscious campaign by their sponsor, Iran.

“It gets more people to call for an immediate ceasefire,” said Mr. Daoud. “Iran- backed militias attacking U.S. targets is a way of making America pay the price for its Israel support and to push them to restrain the Israelis.”

Yet, most of the Biden administration’s messaging on Gaza is aimed at lowering the numbers of civilian casualties, which has garnered harsh criticism internationally and in some segments of the American left.

There have been several media reports on dissent cables and letters from employees in various branches of the federal government and the White House itself calling on President Biden to call for a ceasefire. Such coverage gives the impression that the President’s calls for restraint are a response to dissent from within the administration.

Mr. Daoud said that based on his conversations with people in government, these voices have little role in policy.

“I can’t say that the internal dissent is insignificant, but most say it’s exaggerated,” he said. “The federal government is huge; a few hundred people signing a letter might not mean much.” 

Placating the international community, especially allies in the Arab world, likely plays a role in the administration’s desire to shift Israel to a more targeted strategy. Yet, there is broad consensus that the key motivator is domestic politics.

“At the end of the day, this is an election year in the U.S. Whatever the President feels about Israel’s campaign, he wants to attract the progressive vote in November,” said Mr. Daoud. “The price Israel has to pay for America’s full support is to minimize civilian casualties.”

This reality, especially given President Biden’s vulnerable position in national polls, leaves the administration trying to pursue goals that at times conflict.

“There was no way, after October 7, [that] Biden was going to tell [Israel] not to go into Gaza; he realizes this is in America’s interests as well, as do a lot of other Democrats. But the Democrats have progressives who absolutely abhor the administration’s support for Israel’s war effort; they don’t like the basic idea of U.S.-Israeli cooperation,” said Mr. Doran. “Their position became two sets of talking points, one for each side. It’s a way to straddle two constituencies, but it’s not a coherent military strategy.”

Israeli soldiers from the 8717 Battalion of the Givati Brigade operating in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, December 28. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)


Irrespective of motivations, Israel has an obvious interest in keeping the Biden administration on its side as the war continues. If the White House’s key concern remains lowering the number of civilian casualties, there is room for optimism. As Israeli operations progressed, Palestinian casualty rates steadily dropped. It is likely that trend will continue as it transitions to the next phase of its operations.

Dr. Cohen thinks that Israel can satisfy much of what the Biden administration is calling for in Gaza, but that there will still be a difficult road ahead.

“Israel can please Biden and accomplish its goals. They can make sure their attacks have a higher yield and do more in terms of humanitarian aid,” he said. “This will still be a very bloody operation, though. There’s a lot of rhetoric saying this can be a totally surgical campaign. There are ways to make it more surgical, but they need to be realistic about what needs to be done.”

Most estimate that Israel with time will successfully wrest Hamas from power in Gaza. Yet, after that is done, it is near certain that the IDF’s presence will be under threat from pockets of insurgency, which as the United States learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, can be far more difficult to confront. As the U.S.’ recent experiences showed, insurgency is a threat that even large and sophisticated armies cannot necessarily prove victorious over.

Mr. Doran, who served as a White House advisor during the Iraq War, said that defeating insurgency would likely take at least a year, but that it is possible.

“[Israel] needs to fully take over the strip, including all the crossings,” he said. “If they break the Gaza strip into five segments, control movement between them and through all the crossings, they can control insurgency.”

A key ingredient Israel hopes will quell insurgency is decapitating Hamas’ leadership. The IDF has killed many of the terror group’s commanders, but high-level leaders remain in Gaza’s tunnel network and in its political offices in Qatar. Israeli leaders likely hope that once Gaza-based leadership is captured or killed, Hamas will collapse, taking insurgency down with it. There are skeptics to this approach, noting that other groups and radicalized Gazans could carry on a guerrilla war against the IDF without direction from Hamas.

Dr. Cohen felt that cutting off insurgency at the pass was ultimately dependent on what Israel offered Gazans once the heavy fighting is done.

“Whether or not this morphs into long-term insurgency depends on the day-after plans,” he said. “One of the big mistakes [the U.S.] made in Iraq and Afghanistan was that there was no day-after plan. If you can fill the gap with positive governance forces and a path to a better future, there’s a path to minimize insurgency.”  

The Day After

The most open divide between Israel’s government and the Biden administration is over who will rule post-war Gaza. The Biden administration insists that the strip should be led by a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority (PA). Prime Minister Netanyahu repeatedly rejected this approach, citing the group’s present ineffectiveness and its tacit support for terrorism.

The limited clarity that Israel offered on what its post-war plans are is that it is uninterested in occupying the strip but are planning for the IDF to retain security responsibility there for an indefinite period. Recently, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said his government envisions governance provided by an international force where the United States and Egypt would play major roles and Palestinian Gazans would take responsibility for civilian infrastructure.

In theory, such a vision has potential, but few feel it is realistic.

“The best alternative would be a group of moderate Arab countries led by Egypt and financed by the UAE to build schools that don’t teach Hamas ideology and infrastructure instead of terror tunnels,” said Mr. Daoud. “But these countries have no interest. They have nothing to gain, and its hard domestically for them to be seen as Israel’s policemen.”

The United States, too, has essentially ruled out a ground presence in Gaza. Most observers believe Israel is aware that its ideal vision is unlikely to materialize. Discussing the matter in detail could also come with internal political complications for the ruling coalition and expose splits within the government. One such tension was stoked by the plan laid out by Mr. Gallant, which said there would be no effort to encourage Palestinians to emigrate from Gaza or for Israelis to settle there, as hardline coalition members have advocated.

The most significant aspect of the plan Mr. Gallant presented is what is not there, a post-war role for the PA.

Palestinians protest in Chevron. (Wisam Haslmaoun/Flash90)

The White House acknowledges that the present PA, widely viewed as corrupt, unpopular, and barely in control of the areas of Judea and Samaria, is in no shape to take power in Gaza. It was violently ousted from the strip by Hamas over 15 years ago, and the PA’s 88-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas has long judged Gaza too hostile towards him to visit.

Yet, the Biden administration remains dedicated to the idea of reforming the PA into an organization that can not only take power in Gaza but play the peace partner role as it was intended when it was created as part of the Oslo Accords in 1995.

The Biden administration took some steps hinting at what the PA revitalization would entail, like pressuring Israel to release funds held for the salaries of its bureaucratic employees. Yet, few details emerged as to how the organization can be made an effective partner.

“I don’t know what can be done to help the PA,” said Mr. Daoud. “They are not competent to control Judea and Samaria; they could not hold out there without Israel’s security presence. Their biggest problem is that they lack popular legitimacy. I don’t know a way to make that exist.”

All parties agree that revitalizing the PA will be a difficult task and that Mr. Abbas will have to be replaced with a younger figure who is more competent and popular. Yet, doing so has remained a talking point for the Biden administration since no other Palestinian organizations seem like options for governance.

Some argue that the administration’s advocacy of a post-war PA role is not only an unrealistic future vision, but making for a more fraught present.

“The PA is in a state of advanced decay; revitalizing it is a fantasy,” said Mr. Doran. “What the U.S. messaging does, though, is to make Sinwar and Hamas’ other leaders think they can survive the war and end up with a piece of the governance pie afterwards.”

The Biden administration’s repeated mentions of a PA role in Gaza are not an isolated position, but rather seen as essential to the White House’s belief that the strip cannot be stabilized without a comprehensive peace plan aimed at giving Palestinians self-governance in their own sovereign state. Despite scepticism about any broad settlement, Dr. Cohen said even raising money from Arab nations to re-build Gaza would be difficult without an eye towards Palestinian statehood.

“The Arab states have thrown a lot of money into Gaza already only to see it lost in ongoing war,” he said. “A prospect for a long-term settlement is going to be a prerequisite to getting money to re-construct Gaza.”

Peace talks have been dormant for over a decade and a shrinking slice of the Israeli public supports a two-state solution. A Pew survey released weeks before October 7 showed only 35% of Israelis thought “a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully.”

“We don’t know the long-term impacts of October 7 on the Israeli psyche, but if in the aftermath of the second Intifada, there was less willingness to come to terms with the Palestinians, after a day where Hamas killed more people than over that whole period, it stands to reason, there will be even more skepticism,” said Mr. Daoud.

Some suggest that the Biden administration is quietly aware that renewed peace talks between Israel and Palestinian leaders stand slim chances, and that its rhetoric is driven by domestic politics. Amid progressive criticism of President Biden’s Israel support, keeping the idea of Palestinian statehood alive provides cover.

“The two-state solution is a game being played since Oslo and who feels that we’re winning? It was wishful thinking at Oslo and became much more so after October 7,” said Mr. Doran. “Simply put, the two sides are too far apart. The Palestinians are not ready to take what Israel is ready to offer…A lot of the Biden administration’s goals are unstated political goals to defend him in elections. It might be successful in helping get Biden elected, but in Gaza it’s a non-starter.”

Mr. Doran said that Israel, too, knows that the idea of an Arab-led international security force in Gaza is unrealistic but has kept the idea as public policy to placate the Biden administration. He said a more realistic road towards stabilization would be for Israel to empower a class of moderate Gazan technocrats while occupying the strip.

“The only alternative is for Israel to create a new Gazan elite which is beholden to them. The way to do that is for Israel to be the primary authority in distributing all economic aid and vetting Palestinians who will be doing that, hands on,” he said.

With the war still ongoing, little daylight has emerged between the U.S. and Israel. White House National Security spokesman John Kirby recently pushed back against a reporter’s question by saying the administration is “not chipping in from the sidelines here and giving [Israelis] a report card on all their operations.”

Yet, as future stages near, the risk of dissonance could well rise.

“The day-after scenario is where the split happens,” said Mr. Daoud. “The White House has the luxury of playing think tank games. It’s a very different equation for Israelis who have the front line in their backyards.”

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