December 20, 2023

IntelBrief: U.S Split with Netanyahu Widens Over Gaza’s Future


Bottom Line Up Front

  • Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s opposition to Palestinian statehood and refusal to consider the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza has put some distance between Israel and the Biden administration on policy matters for what happens the day after the fighting stops.
  • Despite agreeing with Washington that Israel should not re-occupy Gaza after the current conflict, Netanyahu insists that Israel retain a security role in the Strip “indefinitely.”
  • U.S. officials see Netanyahu’s opposition to Palestinian statehood as an obstacle to ending perpetual violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • Many perceive Netanyahu as opposing U.S. pressure to keep his right-wing-leaning coalition in office.

A U.S.-Israel rift is widening over post-war security and political arrangements in the Gaza Strip, assuming Israel succeeds in dismantling Hamas’ military and governance infrastructure there. Its vital military and financial support for Israel positions the United States to wield significant influence on the country’s leaders, including longtime Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Since the first days of Israel’s post-October 7 offensive in Gaza, U.S. officials in public comments and direct talks have urged Israeli leaders to abide by the laws of war and undertake every effort possible to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties. Until recently, the Biden administration has largely refrained from public critiques of Israel’s war effort. More recently, it has begun to call on Israel to reduce the intensity of combat in Gaza to focus on more targeted operations. In November, U.S. officials were instrumental in pressing Netanyahu to accept a seven-day truce, which saw the release of 80 Israeli and 25 foreign hostages from Gaza and increased the flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza civilians. U.S. officials are cautioning Israel against widening the war by carrying out its threat to attack Lebanese Hezbollah if the group refuses to withdraw from the Israel-Lebanon border in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended a 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

U.S. diplomats have been holding preliminary discussions with partner countries in Europe and the Middle East, as well as with UN officials, about a potential interim security force and governing administration for Gaza. However, several influential Arab states have indicated reluctance to contribute peacekeeping forces to such a mission. Israeli leaders have said publicly that Israel does not seek to re-occupy Gaza – a position aligned with Washington’s own preferences. Israel evacuated the enclave in 2005, although it imposed a strict blockade of the territory, and the United Nations General Assembly still considers Israel to be occupying Gaza. However, to the apparent frustration of U.S. officials, Netanyahu muddied Israel’s stance by stating on November 6 that “for an indefinite period [Israel] will have the overall security responsibility” of the Strip. It appears that Israeli leaders want to at least retain the ability to send Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops into Gaza to prevent Hamas or other militants from regrouping to launch rockets or other attacks on Israel. The United States has voiced concern over Israel’s approach to urban warfare, urging the IDF to adopt a more intelligence-driven approach and calling the duty to protect Palestinian civilians a “moral duty and a strategic imperative.” There has been a slight change in the European position as well, more recently, with calls for a cease-fire emanating from some of Israel’s staunchest European allies. Over the weekend, U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron and German Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock called for a cease-fire, referencing the civilian casualty count.

Policy differences between the Netanyahu government and the Biden administration on Gaza’s post-war future became more apparent in December over the eventual governing structure for the Strip and, by extension, the roadmap for a final status settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. On December 12, Netanyahu said in a video address that he was grateful for U.S. support for Israel’s effort to dismantle Hamas but that there was “disagreement about the day after” Hamas is defeated. Still, within the Israeli war cabinet, there have been some fissures emerging, with Minister Benny Gantz criticizing those who engage in “manufactured disputes” related to the conflict in Gaza, particularly those that harm relations with the United States and the Biden administration. U.S. President Joe Biden and his senior aides have insisted that post-war Gaza be governed by Palestinians and led by a “reformed” Palestinian Authority (PA), which currently administers the West Bank. The PA ruled Gaza until 2007, when Hamas – flush from victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections – forcibly expelled the Authority’s administrators and security forces from the Strip. PA President Mahmoud Abbas told journalists in December he would be willing to return to Gaza in exchange for international guarantees supporting the formation of a Palestinian state. Bucking Washington, Netanyahu has vowed to block the restoration of PA rule in Gaza, repeating the Israeli right’s longstanding criticisms of the PA, likely a reflection of the Israeli prime minister’s desire to appeal to his domestic political base. On December 12, he insisted he would “not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism, support terrorism and finance terrorism.” U.S. officials agree that the PA is corrupt, that aging PA President Abbas lacks vision for the PA or the Palestinian people, and that the PA has sometimes failed to prevent attacks on Israelis in the West Bank. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other U.S. officials have not identified an alternative to restoring PA governance in Gaza, and they perceive Netanyahu’s opposition to the return of the PA as an obstacle to stabilizing the enclave over the long term.

Netanyahu’s attacks on the PA appear to represent an effort to resist U.S. and international pressure to negotiate a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. This solution would inevitably establish an independent Palestinian state, which would presumably include Gaza. Although Netanyahu has at times in his career indicated potential support for the “two-state solution,” in the aftermath of the Hamas attack, he and his allies have rejected the notion of Palestinian statehood. Over the weekend, Netanyahu said he was “proud that [he] prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state.” The stance reflects the longstanding belief of many in Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the broader Israeli right that a Palestinian state is likely to come under the sway of pro-Hamas or other militant leaders and pose a threat to Israel’s security, no matter what security guardrails are designed. On background, Israeli officials have told journalists that “a two-state solution after what happened on October 7 is a reward to Hamas.” Israeli fears of Palestinian threats since October 7 may make Netanyahu’s opposition to a Palestinian state a viable tool for reversing his fledgling popularity, which has fallen to remarkable lows over his failure to prevent the Hamas attack. Netanyahu also apparently calculates that withstanding U.S. pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians could be a political asset for him domestically.

Despite Israeli agitation against Palestinian statehood, international officials, including President Biden, see that outcome as the only way to resolve the seemingly intractable conflict. They argue that Palestinian resentment has burgeoned over the past several years as key Arab states in the Persian Gulf, joined by Morocco, Sudan, and possibly soon Saudi Arabia, have normalized relations with Israel before a Palestinian state was established. The Israel-Arab pacts – brokered by the United States – defied the Saudi-led 2002 Arab peace initiative that conditioned normalization with Israel on, among other points: “establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” Indicating he will continue to press Netanyahu to alter his position, on December 12, President Biden told supporters: “Netanyahu is a good friend, but I think he has to change.…You cannot say there’s no Palestinian state at all in the future.” Echoing that comment, the official readout of a December 15 meeting with PA President Abbas stated that U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan “reemphasized President Biden’s longstanding vision for a more peaceful, integrated, and prosperous Middle East region, and ultimately a path to a two-state solution that provides for equal measures of justice, freedom, and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.” Yet, despite extensive American support for Israel, U.S. leaders might lack the leverage to compel Netanyahu to align his positions with theirs, leaving Washington with few options other than to hope for the collapse of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.