What Joe Biden Must Tell the Israeli Public

On February 22nd, four months into Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, Benjamin Netanyahu presented his war cabinet with a short document sketching out what, in his view, “absolute victory” looks like. The timing was not surprising. The Israel Defense Forces are poised to attack the southern Gazan city of Rafah, where Israel believes that four of Hamas’s last six battalions are hiding in tunnels and holding what is estimated to be around a hundred still surviving hostages. Netanyahu told CBS on Sunday that, once the assault begins, “the intense phase of the fighting” will be “weeks away from completion.” As for his postwar plan for Gaza, Netanyahu offered a laconic mixture of counter-insurgency and Greater Israel fantasies, to which the hostages’ lives seem subordinated. No surprises there, either.

President Joe Biden purports to have other ideas. He told a reporter in New York this week—while eating ice cream with the late-night host Seth Meyers—that he hopes for a ceasefire deal “by next Monday.” For the past few months, his State Department has projected a postwar vision that includes Saudi Arabia’s normalization of relations with Israel, in return for a process leading to a demilitarized Palestinian state. But the Biden Administration, having underwritten Netanyahu’s tactics, risks being subordinated, too. An attack on Rafah would compound the carnage to which Biden is already considered an accomplice, and it would imperil the effort to lead Arab countries to a kind of military and economic alliance in which the integration of Israel might be feasible.

There is an opportunity cost for Israeli politics, too. Netanyahu’s real opposition, now, is Biden. There are secular leaders in Israel positioned to support an alternative vision for Gaza and the region, and, arguably, to bring Netanyahu down. But dread grips the public, and these leaders currently have no real standing in the absence of a U.S. President detailing a plan, proving the support of Arab allies, and warning Israel of the dire consequences of defying him. Biden might well reunite the Democratic Party, and get himself reëlected, in the process. (In the Michigan Democratic primary on Tuesday, the “uncommitted” vote, protesting Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza, was just shy of the spread between Biden and Trump in 2020.)

Amid the I.D.F.’s proclaimed effort to root out Hamas, an estimated thirty thousand people in Gaza have been killed. The I.D.F. claims that around ten thousand were Hamas fighters (the Gaza Health Ministry does not specify that category)—seventy per cent of the dead are reportedly women and minors. Tens of thousands more, including many children, have suffered serious injuries and amputations. Rafah is a nearly twenty-five-square-mile area, in which refugees from Gaza City and Khan Younis are now sheltering. There are currently around 1.5 million civilians there, most of whom are living in tents—an almost sixfold increase in the population since the war began. (In all of Gaza, at least half the buildings have been destroyed or damaged.) United Nations agencies warn of famine, and note that there is no drinking water or water for showers in many shelters, and that there are many reported cases of hepatitis A, gastroenteritis, diarrhea, smallpox, lice, and influenza. Medical facilities have been raided. The refugees are utterly dependent on the humanitarian aid that is brought in, on average, by about eighty-five trucks.

On Sunday, Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told NBC that the invasion of Rafah should not proceed “unless there is a clear and executable plan to protect those civilians.” Netanyahu’s war cabinet contends that this population can just be moved out of harm’s way. Reserve Major General Tamir Hayman, the managing director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told me that the I.D.F. is developing a plan to move refugees “north,” along the coast, and in a central area south of Gaza City. (“We are speaking of people who have anyway left their places and are living in tents; the difference between a tent in the south or a tent in the center isn’t so great; and the choice is easier [than the original move], and is moreover in the general direction of home,” Hayman said.) But any such plan seems a portent of greater catastrophe.

On Thursday, it was reported that at least a hundred and twelve people were killed, and hundreds more injured, when an aid convoy carrying flour and canned food that was escorted by Israeli troops was thronged by starving civilians in the Nabulsi roundabout, quite near the area Hayman spoke of. First eyewitness accounts suggest that Israeli troops fired on the crowd, and although it is not yet clear how many died from gunfire and how many from being trampled or run over—in the local hospital, most of the injuries were said to be bullet wounds—more such horrors seem inevitable if refugees are forced north. (A spokesman for the I.D.F. initially denied that it was responsible for the deaths, and later said that it is “continuing to investigate” the incident.) Biden announced that the U.S. will be initiating airdrops of food and supplies. In Rafah itself, civilians will be in even greater danger.

The use of air power is how the I.D.F. minimizes dangers to its land forces—of which, as of this writing, two hundred and forty-two soldiers have died. The I.D.F. revealed that, in an audacious raid on February 11th, it rescued two hostages from a Rafah neighborhood. The Gaza Health Ministry reported that at least ninety-four people, including young children, were killed in the aerial bombardment that provided the troops cover.

Nor does Netanyahu’s postwar plan convincingly suggest how the crisis might end. Israel, his document reads, would maintain security control over the Strip, and demilitarize it, insuring that a “southern closure” will prevent “smuggling from Egypt—both underground and above ground, including at the Rafah crossing.” Gazan youth would be “deradicalized.” Civil affairs would be run by “local officials” who have no ties to “countries or entities that support terrorism”—an apparent reference to Egypt and the Gulf states, which would notionally be called upon to invest in Gaza’s rebuilding, a vast project that will cost billions. “The rehabilitation plan will be financed and led by countries acceptable to Israel,” Netanyahu disingenuously claims. No such candidates are mentioned. Neither is the Palestinian Authority.

Clearly, Netanyahu and his coalition allies—including the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, and the internal-security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir—are imagining an expansion of the occupation. Various coalition ministers participated in a mass rally in Jerusalem on January 28th, demanding, amid dancing and singing, continuing the fight. Ben-Gvir taunted Gazans, exhorting “voluntary emigration,” and envisioning Jewish settlers returning to the Strip. A Hebrew University poll suggests that a solid majority of Israelis opposes such resettlement. Netanyahu himself is on record saying that it’s “not a realistic goal,” but he does not say why it is realistic to attack in Rafah and yet expect to bring the hostages home alive, or, for that matter, expect local Palestinian officials to put themselves forward for the administration of Gaza under indefinite Israeli rule.

Biden’s team, not quite as clearly, is seeking a different endgame. It vetoed, on February 20th, a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a permanent truce, yet Biden had said on February 12th (with Jordan’s King Abdullah II by his side) that a multi-week pause in the fighting might be used “to build something more enduring.” What he seemed to be alluding to was a plan, sketched in some detail by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Times’s Tom Friedman, at Davos, in January, that would essentially entail the I.D.F. gradually turning over administration of Gazan cities to a “reformed” P.A., reinforced, in effect, by Egyptian troops and by Saudi and Emirati money. The Sunni states would get a defense pact with the U.S. against Iran and a commitment from Israel to accept a “pathway” toward an eventual, demilitarized Palestinian state.

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