Israel Palestine Conflict

The growing tension between the US and Israel over the political future

David Powell
David Powell
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Before setting off on his fourth trip to the region since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken set out Washington’s priorities.

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In addition to seeking to prevent the conflict from spreading more widely in the region and to ease the impact of war on the civilian population, Blinken said it was “vital” not to put off discussing the future of Gaza once the war is over, even if this meant having “difficult conversations.” And it is clear that some of the most difficult conversations he had during his trip were with the Israeli government.

On the Israeli leg of his regional tour, Blinken repeated US support for the country’s war aim of defeating Hamas militarily and denying it any role in the running of Gaza, given the atrocities that it perpetrated against Israelis on October 7 and its continued holding of over a hundred hostages. But the question of how Israel is fighting that war, how Gaza should be governed once it ends, and the long-term political future for both Gaza and the West Bank are proving to be sources of growing tension between the US and the Israeli government.

Blinken used his visit to Israel to press its leaders to make good on promises to move from all-out air and ground attacks in Gaza to more targeted operations against Hamas fighters and their leadership, and so reduce civilian casualties. He also reiterated condemnation of recent calls by some of the more extreme members of the Israeli coalition government for the “voluntary migration” of Gazans. The US “unequivocally rejects any proposal advocating for the settlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza,” Blinken declared, adding that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had assured him that this was not government policy.

Netanyahu has long sought to evade US pressure to spell out how Israel envisages the post-war future for Gaza, knowing that the issue is a deeply divisive one that threatens the cohesiveness of his coalition cabinet. While the far-right religious nationalists favor a return to Israeli occupation and even rebuilding Israeli settlements there, centrists like Benny Gantz – National Unity party leader, who currently tops the opinion polls in Israel – have for months been demanding an exit strategy from Gaza. On the eve of Blinken’s visit, foreseeing that the US would press Israel on this issue, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant floated a compromise plan under which Palestinians not linked to Hamas would run all civil affairs in Gaza. At the same time, Israel would have overall security control, and an unspecified international force would be responsible for rebuilding.

A Palestinian woman carries a child near the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli strike amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 9, 2024. (Reuters)
A Palestinian woman carries a child near the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli strike amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 9, 2024. (Reuters)

The US also favors the idea of a “revamped and revitalized” Palestinian Authority (PA) returning to run Gaza, having been expelled by Hamas in 2006.

Netanyahu has, up to now, ruled out any such return of the PA, reformed or otherwise, which he claims seeks Israel’s destruction no less than Hamas. National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, however, has said that, while the PA is currently not ready to rule Gaza, it could potentially be reformed, and that Israel was “ready for this effort.”

Blinken came to Israel after visiting several Arab capitals, and the message he brought is one that will have been no less unwelcome to the Netanyahu government than a PA return to Gaza. One of Netanyahu’s priorities when he returned to power a year ago was to expand the peace accords concluded under the Trump administration to more Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia. But Blinken has now publicly warned Israel that further such integration into the region would not happen without it supporting “a path to a Palestinian state.” Such an independent state is something Netanyahu has long fought against. And he is banking on the Hamas atrocities, making such an outcome even less palatable for Israelis today. Last month, he declared publicly his pride in having prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state. Playing on the post-October 7 trauma in Israeli society, he warned that such an attack could have happened on the West Bank if he had “capitulated to international pressures” for a Palestinian state there.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defence, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defence, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

While Israel remains at war, Netanyahu is unlikely to bow to US pressure to make any concrete moves towards a Palestinian state. In any case, the US has not clarified what a “revitalized and reformed” PA means. Blinken’s call for a “path to a Palestinian state” falls well short of the actual establishment of such a state. Netanyahu is a past master at delaying tactics and procrastination when it comes to dealing with US administrations presenting ambitious peace deals, and the vagueness of Blinken’s language gives him ample opportunity to continue doing the same. So Netanyahu no doubt thinks he can see off the Biden administration’s latest vision for a post-war region. But his fate will ultimately be decided by Israelis themselves.

Though Netanyahu uses the war on Hamas as a pretext to delay any elections, he will eventually have to face a reckoning at the hands of Israeli voters. And the polls indicate that they are likely to punish him for his catastrophic policy of allowing Hamas to build up its strength in Gaza to undermine the PA. His image as the man Israelis can rely on to defend them was torn apart by Hamas on October 7. It is likely that President Biden knows this and is looking to work with a different, more centrist Israeli government to push forward his vision of a peaceful region.

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