In a December 8 story that seems to have received little attention in western press coverage of Israel’s expanding military campaign in Gaza was this nugget of information: Israel’s military expects combat operations to continue until the end of January, “followed by a three-to-nine-month lower grade insurgency.” Reported by the Jerusalem Post, an English daily whose correspondents appear to have good ties to the Israel Defense Forces, this prediction likely rang alarm bells in the Biden administration. The White House is well aware of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to do whatever it takes to “destroy” Hamas. But beyond doubting that this goal is feasible, US officials likely have concluded that Israel is not capable of pursuing its campaign in Gaza without killing many more Palestinian civilians, or is not ready to do so. With the threat of disease and starvation growing as Gazans flee to the south in a nearly hopeless search for safety, the prospect of a major crisis in US-Israel relations is growing. Thus while Israeli leaders applauded the White House’s veto of last week’s United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, they know that the Biden administration supports a wider political and diplomatic approach that Israel’s current government—as Netanyahu has stated—totally rejects.
On December 12, President Joe Biden showed clear dissatisfaction with the Israeli government and Netanyahu. In remarks to donors, Biden reportedly said that Israel is losing support around the world because of how it is conducting the Gaza war. He also reportedly said that Netanyahu “has to change” and that the Prime Minister rejects the two-state solution on which the president has staked his approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This gap between the US and Israeli positions on the Gaza crisis is partly a consequence of the contradictory signals that the White House sent Israel in the first weeks following Hamas’s October 7 assault. In addition to Biden’s “bear hug” of Netanyahu—a leader for whom he has little love—US officials, including the President, signaled a kind of muddled ambivalence when it came to pressing Israel to limit the ferocity of its bombing campaign.
In addition to Biden’s “bear hug” of Netanyahu—a leader for whom he has little love—US officials, including the President, signaled a kind of muddled ambivalence when it came to pressing Israel to limit the ferocity of its bombing campaign.
Still, it seemed that the November 24-December 1 truce might open the door to a wider diplomatic initiative led by the United States and backed by its Arab allies. But the efforts of the White House to prevent the resumption of hostilities failed for many reasons, not least of which was Israel’s determination to “finish the job.” Fearing the worst, the White House secured a promise from Israel that it would take new measures to limit civilian casualties. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s December 7 statement, however, that “there does remain a gap between…the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground” underscored the administration’s unhappiness with Israel’s ensuing assault on southern Gaza. And it pointed to a far bigger problem, namely the White House’s failure so far to secure an Israeli approval of a postwar plan for Gaza that involves the Palestinian Authority. For Washington, Netanyahu’s singular and relentless focus on military tactics represents a strategic nightmare.
National Rage and Political Evasion
There are at least two related reasons why Netanyahu’s government has steadfastly avoided any hint of an ultimate political strategy toward Gaza.
First, there is the impact of the continuing hostage crisis on the Israeli public. The vivid testimonies coming from some of the 105 hostages who were freed during the humanitarian pause have filled Israel’s media, magnifying the outrage generated by the October 7 atrocities. Shocking accounts of Hamas’s use of sexual violence against women and men has steeled the resolve of Israelis to support the war. That it took some two months for UN agencies and other international groups to clearly condemn the reported assaults and to call for investigations has only reinforced Israelis’ view that they should circle the wagons and defy international pressures for a ceasefire. With the furious public fixated on revenge, Israel’s government has felt no pressure to articulate any agenda beyond destroying Hamas.
Second, by creating a five-member war cabinet—including opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, a former general whose son was killed on December 7 in Gaza—Netanyahu has restricted decision-making to a small group that has only one game plan for which he, of course, is the chief spokesman. But while this arrangement may allow Netanyahu to survive another day or week, or perhaps months, it has not prevented ultra-hardline members of the larger cabinet to issue calls for expelling Palestinians from Gaza. The Prime Minister’s spokesman has denied that Israel has any such intentions. But in light of the war cabinet’s reluctance to address the “day after” question—not to mention the reality that some 1.8 million Gazans have fled their homes—Arab officials have expressed growing fears that Israel is pursuing a new Nakba. That Vice President Kamala Harris has warned that “under no circumstances” will the United States tolerate the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza suggests that the Biden administration shares these worries.
Against the background of Israel’s expanding operations in northern and southern Gaza, the administration has been trying to mobilize regional support for a plan to place postwar Gaza under the control of a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority.
Indeed, against the background of Israel’s expanding operations in northern and southern Gaza, the administration has been trying to mobilize regional support for a plan to place postwar Gaza under the control of a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority (PA) so that, in Blinken’s words, “we can get on the path to a just, lasting and secure peace for Israelis and Palestinians.” Seeing such an effort as a step toward some kind of Palestinian statehood (a goal that President Biden has repeatedly endorsed over the past six weeks), Netanyahu has categorically rejected any notion of putting Gaza under the PA’s supervision. Yet his failure to clarify the ultimate goal of Israel’s military campaign is feeding concerns in Israel that despite explicit reassurances of staunch US support for the military campaign—most recently telegraphed in the White House’s decision to bypass Congress in resupplying Israel with 14,000 rounds of tank munitions—the United States and Israel are on a collision course.
The Government Should “Stop Playing Politics”
Concerns over such a clash have prompted calls from Israeli opinion leaders for Netanyahu’s government to articulate a “day after” agenda. While as might be predicted, some of these calls have come from the left or center left, more conservative figures have chimed in. Writing in the Jerusalem Post on December 8, one such commentator, Yaakov Katz, reminded his readers that in addition to warnings from Harris and Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III cautioned Israel that by pursuing military operations killing thousands of civilians, Israel may drive Gazans into the hands of Hamas and thus courting “strategic defeat.” According to Katz, such US statements demonstrate that “while the US has held off on calling for a comprehensive cease fire…there is no doubt in Jerusalem that such a call is growing closer”—and with it, a potential clash over the fundamental question of where Gaza will fit into a revived peace process. To avoid or at least minimize this clash, Katz argued that “Israel needs to put forward a plant for the ‘day after’ that “includes some sort of diplomatic engagement with the Palestinian Authority.” At the same time, Katz contended that Americans need to undergo their own transformation by not creating unrealistic expectations about a two-state solution in the absence of “an Anwar Sadat-like leader on the Palestinian side.”
Katz apparently does not feel that Netanyahu can be trusted to prevent such a clash, as the Prime Minister is only “playing politics.” But given the still-enormous gap between US and Israeli positions on the future of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, it is difficult to imagine how the author’s call for Israel to “coordinate with the US” on devising a common plan would amount to little more than an exercise in kicking the can down the road. This, of course, is what the author advocates. But it is far from clear that the Biden administration ultimately will be prepared to put a band aid on what is a deepening diplomatic wound between the United States and Israel.
Despite or perhaps because of these clashing visions, it appears that Israel’s war cabinet has concluded that it is time to begin fashioning some kind of diplomatic-political strategy. Commenting on the subject, one Israeli analyst noted that while Netanyahu recently has formed a committee to decide on strategies for postwar Gaza, “devising a feasible plan that can gain acceptance in this current government will be a significant challenge.”
For Israel, the United States, and the region, the other important “day after” could be on the morning following new elections and the subsequent formation of a new Israeli government.
That is putting it mildly. Giving a committee the task of settling on strategies for Gaza after the war feels more like a bureaucratic evasion than a serious effort to come to grips with another fundamental strategic question at hand. It may well be that this Israeli government will not be able to seriously address this challenge. For Israel, the United States, and the region, the other important “day after” could be on the morning following new elections and the subsequent formation of a new Israeli government. But the lasting tremors of October 7 could produce a government that is as far right as the current one. Regardless of when this other day after happens, it is clear that the United States and Israel are at loggerheads.
An Endless Insurgency?
However real, the brewing conflict between the United States and Israel has been obscured by a basic contradiction in the Biden administration’s approach to the Gaza conflict. On the one hand, it seems evident that the administration expects Israel to deal Hamas a decisive military blow that will make it possible, with the backing of Arab states and the international community, to pursue new efforts to broker Palestinian-Israeli peace. On the other hand, the calamitous effects of Israel’s military campaign on Gaza’s civilian population have created a diplomatic dilemma for the administration that it cannot tolerate much longer. Thus it is possible that sooner rather than later the White House will support a revised ceasefire plan at the United Nations.
It is precisely this prospect that has impelled Israel to accelerate its military operations in the hope that it can dismantle Hamas’s military and political infrastructure before US patience runs out. Yet, even if it achieves this goal, Israel may face a Hamas insurgency that could last months, if not years. It is hard to imagine how this expectation can be squared with any serious strategy for addressing the political future of Gaza. Moreover, as several analysts have argued, while Israeli leaders hope that Gazans will blame Hamas’s leaders for the current catastrophe as much as if not more than they blame Israel, the continuing onslaught may spur many more young Gazans to join Hamas, thus spawning a guerilla campaign that could have Israeli soldiers fighting and dying in an endless battle. Such an outcome would represent a victory for Hamas or whatever group succeeds it, especially if it unfolds in the maelstrom of a wider regional war.
While Israeli leaders hope that Gazans will blame Hamas’s leaders for the current catastrophe as much as if not more than they blame Israel, the continuing onslaught may spur many more young Gazans to join Hamas.
For the United States and its Arab allies, the possibility of this unwarranted scenario is as real as it is unacceptable. To avoid it, the Biden administration might try to fashion a diplomatic achievement, perhaps by brokering a breakthrough in Israeli-Saudi relations. It may be that the prospect of normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia will shake up Israel’s traumatized polity in ways that open the door for the kind of solutions not currently on the horizon. But if there is going to be an Abraham Accords Round Two—one that is about real peacemaking rather than the joys of celebrating Chanukah in Dubai—President Biden will have to back an Israeli-Palestinian game plan that may cause unprecedented tensions in the US-Israeli strategic partnership.
This article has been republished with permission from Arab Center Washington DC.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
photo : U.S. President Joe Biden attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.