Cosmopolitics by Elise Labott
Cosmopolitics by Elise Labott
Yes, this is the US-Israel "come to Jesus" moment"

Yes, this is the US-Israel "come to Jesus" moment"

The US is finally admitting that Israel doesn't have a coherent strategy for the war in Gaza or the day after.

There's been quite a dramatic shift in tone from the Biden administration regarding the potential assault on Rafah.

Until recently, the White House was reluctantly going along with the Israeli raid into Rafah to root out the last bits of Hamas. Not anymore.

Speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Monday for the first time in a month, President Biden told him that an assault on Rafah would be a “mistake” and unnecessary to neutralize the final remnants of Hamas.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters the US believes there are “viable ways” for Israel to win the war without a full-scale assault on Rafah, which would be disastrous for both Palestinians in Gaza and deepen Israel’s international isolation.

So what happened?

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Aid agencies and advocacy groups are warning about the humanitarian catastrophe that could unfold in the event of a military incursion into Rafah, located on Gaza's southernmost edge with a population well over a million Palestinians. It's worth noting that many Palestinians sought refuge in Rafah at the behest of Israeli authorities for safety.

But this is about more than Rafah. The Biden administration is finally admitting that Israel does not have a coherent strategy for either the war in Gaza or the day after.

This is the “come-to-Jesus” moment President Biden has been talking about.

In inviting an Israeli delegation of military, intelligence, and humanitarian officials to Washington, the US is hoping to get Israel to reassess and recalibrate. Sullivan's cryptic talk about “clear strategic endgames” is code for stabilizing freshly cleared territories, bringing in humanitarian aid, and planning for the Palestinians to realize a political future. This is how the US believes Israel will ultimately sideline Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government has sketched out a vision the day after in Gaza that resembles the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces move into the cities and operate at will. It’s pretty clear the US and Israel are talking past each other.

Over the course of the war, Netanyahu has taken Biden’s advice, like when he negotiated a temporary ceasefire with Hamas that saw more than 100 hostages released. Maybe his agreement to dispatch the Israeli team to D.C. shows a hint of willingness to listen to American concerns and examine alternatives to invading Rafah.

Or, maybe, Netanyahu is just humoring Biden. Addressing the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset a day after the call, Netanyahu recapped his discussion with Biden on Monday and said he "made it clear to the president in our conversation, in the clearest way, that we are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah.”

"We are of course subject to increasing international pressure,” he added. “which we push back in order to complete the goals of the war.”

In my opinion, the negotiations in Doha, aimed at securing the release of more than 100 hostages being held in the Gaza Strip in exchange for a six-week ceasefire, represent a last-ditch effort to prevent an invasion of Rafah.

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As I wrote last week, the Biden administration's approach could be characterized as passive-aggressive, trying to thread between criticism and restraint. While expressing displeasure and calling for ceasefires, the administration has been hesitant to impose consequences on Israel, such as conditioning U.S. military aid to humanitarian access Israel's military actions in Gaza, even though they are talking more about doing so.

Last week, Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant signed a letter of assurances to the Biden administration, committing Israel to use U.S. weapons in compliance with international law and to allow U.S.-supported humanitarian aid into Gaza. This action was prompted by a national security memorandum issued by President Biden in response to concerns raised by some Democratic senators regarding Israel's military actions in Gaza.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been tasked with certifying the letter's credibility by March 25, with the possibility of suspending U.S. weapons transfers to Israel in case of failure to obtain certification.

Biden may finally relent and get tougher if Israel indeed launches an assault on Rafah that includes an aerial bombardment. But by then, it would be too late.

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