Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Six Months After October 7 with No End in Sight

 

Last October 6, Israel appeared on the cusp of a new era of recognition from the Muslim world, close to a peace deal with Saudi Arabia that would move it to the center of a realigned Middle East after years on its fringes. The historic conflict with the Palestinians that had defined its existence for most of its 75-year history appeared to have finally receded into the background.

That all changed the next day when Israel experienced the greatest challenge to its sense of security and its belief in the strength of its military since the surprise joint attack by Egypt and Syria which launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

British Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis said last week, “It has been six months since October 7, 2023. Who would have believed then that the war would not yet be over, and the hostages would still not be back home?”

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu publicly set two objectives when the war in Gaza started, to destroy Hamas and bring home the hostages. Yet despite his repeated pledges to achieve “total victory,” both of those war goals are still out of reach.

Six months after Hamas’ bloody attack on October 7 temporarily brought Israel the world’s sympathy, it is now closer to being a global pariah state than ever before.

The long-anticipated Israeli peace deal with Saudi Arabia has been put on indefinite hold.

The Palestinian question has been revived as a serious regional issue after having been almost totally ignored as irrelevant during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Israel’s close alliance with its main ally, the U.S. is now in crisis, and a large chunk of Israel’s territory has been rendered unlivable by the attacks on its northern and southern borders.

Tens of thousands of displaced Israelis from the Gaza periphery and the northern border have been evacuated from their homes. While some have moved back to communities in the south, few have been able to return to their homes in the north, and are still living in hotels or the homes of other family members.

ISRAEL IS DIVIDED, ISOLATED, AND STILL BOGGED DOWN IN GAZA

Six months later, Israel finds itself still bogged down in Gaza, divided domestically, isolated internationally, and increasingly at odds with the United States, its closest ally.

Furthermore, the risk of a broader regional war touched off by a miscalculation in the simmering conflict between Israel and Hezbollah along the northern border is increasing as the intensity of the fighting in Gaza cools down.

Israel is also bracing for retaliation by Iran or one of its proxies for the Israeli airstrike on a building in Damascus, Syria, that killed three Iranian generals.

For Israel’s political leadership, the October 7 attack challenged the belief that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians could be managed with a mix of security measures and economic incentives, rather than through an Oslo-style negotiated peace agreement. During Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s long tenure as prime minister, he believed that the continued divide of Palestinian leadership between the Palestinian Authority, in control of the West Bank, and Hamas in control of Gaza, enabled him to avoid the painful compromises that would have been needed to negotiate a two-state solution. Meanwhile, Netanyahu delivered on his promise that Israel would continue to thrive economically, politically, and militarily by effectively managing the terrorist threat in the West Bank and on its southern and northern borders.

When Israel declared war against Hamas immediately following the October 7 attack, it stood unified at home and enjoyed broad backing from around the world, especially the president of the United States. But that unity of purpose is largely gone, and support from other nations has disappeared.

The sharp divisions among members of Netanyahu’s war cabinet over how to establish priorities for achieving the competing war aims of rescuing hostages and destroying Hamas have spilled into public view, deepening the sense that Israel’s leaders are fighting among themselves while trying to guide the nation in fighting its enemies simultaneously on multiple fronts.

At the same time, Netanyahu has failed to reveal his plan for the governance of postwar Gaza, while rejecting the U.S.-proposed establishment of a Palestinian state and refusing to give the Palestinian Authority any security responsibility in Gaza.

Relations between Israel and the two neighbors with whom it has longstanding peace agreements, Egypt and Jordan are badly strained. Pro-Palestinian protesters have taken over the streets of Western capitals and major U.S. cities, while openly calling for Israel’s destruction. A surge in antisemitism has shocked and alarmed Jews around the globe who no longer feel safe in the communities in which they have long lived. This has further strengthened the feeling inside Israel that it can only rely on itself for its security.

THE CRUCIAL BATTLE AWAITING ISRAEL IN RAFAH

Netanyahu has identified Rafah in southern Gaza as the site of the decisive battle against Hamas, but he now faces strong opposition to launching that battle from the United States, over fears for the safety of more than a million displaced Palestinian civilians from across Gaza sheltering there, which now seems to be President Biden’s chief concern.

Since the war in Gaza started, the Israeli military has claimed many tactical achievements. It says that around 40% of Hamas’ tunnel system has been destroyed, 18 out of 24 of its battalions have been dismantled, most of its large supply of rockets has been used up or destroyed and many senior Hamas commanders have been killed. As a result, the Israeli military now has freedom of action in most of Gaza.

The main remaining Hamas threat consists of its four virtually untouched battalions in Rafah and another two which are still active in the central part of Gaza.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly boasted that he has approved the Israeli military’s plans for its operation in Rafah, but has not yet given the military an order to carry them out. Netanyahu claims that final victory over Hamas is near, and can be achieved in just two more months of fighting, but polls show that a majority of Israel’s population remains unconvinced that is true.

Meanwhile, Hamas shows no signs of surrendering and has proven that it is capable of returning to areas of Gaza as soon as Israeli troops withdraw from them.

Despite Netanyahu’s denials, mounting tensions with the Biden administration are making it difficult for him to order the start of the final battle for Rafah. The U.S. has warned Israel that it would be crossing a red line if it operates in Rafah without a credible plan to keep the civilian population safe, which U.S. officials say Israel has not yet presented to their satisfaction. But Netanyahu insists that Israel is determined to destroy Hamas in Rafah, even if it must do so without American approval.

ISRAEL’S MILITARY PREPARED TO KEEP FIGHTING

The Israeli military’s Chief of Staff General Herzi Halevi said Sunday that, despite the withdrawal of almost all of Israel’s maneuvering ground forces from the Gaza Strip, the war against Hamas is far from over. He said that the IDF would know how to return to fighting in the event of a temporary truce as part of a hostage deal with Hamas, and that returning the hostages to Israel is a more urgent matter than any other war goal.

“We are fighting this war differently from its predecessors,” Halevi said in a statement to the press marking six months since the October 7 attack.

“The war in Gaza continues, and we are far from stopping. Senior Hamas officials are still in hiding. We will get to them sooner or later. We are making progress, continuing to kill more terrorists and commanders and destroy more terror infrastructures, including last night,” he stated.

“We will not leave Hamas brigades active in any part of Gaza. We have plans and we will act when we decide. At the same time as the offensive effort continues, we are allowing the introduction of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Hamas is trying to create a crisis in Gaza by trying to take control of the humanitarian aid and preventing its distribution. It is also pressing for an end to the war [before it is defeated] and to return and regain its control over Gaza,” Halevi said, “which we will not permit to happen.”

“Therefore, we continue to eliminate Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities, to bring about… stability to the region,” Halevi continued.

Halevi also pledged to “continue our efforts, intelligence and operational, to return all the hostages as quickly as possible. As chief of staff, I feel a responsibility to return them, and so do the other commanders of the IDF and its soldiers.”

He said that hostage negotiation talks should be “done responsibly and carefully. . . The IDF is strong enough to know how to pay even a difficult price for the return of its sons and daughters. . . We have a moral duty to them and the IDF will also know how to come back and fight with strength.”

“When we went to war at the beginning, we knew and said that it would last a long time, to achieve the goals. We have made very significant achievements in fighting in Gaza, but the goals have not yet been fully achieved, the return of all hostages, the return of all residents of the north and south to their homes in safety, and the dismantling of Hamas in the entire Gaza Strip, in a way that will allow for a government that is not Hamas to rule in Gaza,” he stated.

NO SIMPLE SOLUTIONS AVAILABLE

“This reality is extremely complex and there are no simple solutions. We conduct the war with responsibility and determination. We must not be delusional,” Halevi added.

Israel is facing “a multi-front war,” he said. “There is no reason to panic, but there is also no room for complacency. We must be aware of the situation, and always be ready,” Halevi stated.

“IDF troops are prepared and operating in all arenas, in the south, in the north, in [the West Bank] and in more distant arenas. The IDF also knows how to deal with Iran, in attack and defense,” he warned. “We prepared for this; we have good defensive systems. We know how to act powerfully against Iran in places near and far. We work in cooperation with the U.S. and other strategic partners in the region.”

He said that since the beginning of the war in Gaza, “Iran has tried to disavow and hide from direct involvement in it, but we know that it activates, directs, finances and transfers knowledge to all its proxies in the region, from Hezbollah, through Judea and Samaria to Yemen.”

“Iran does not only threaten Israel but the entire Western and Arab world. Iran is a global problem; it was and remains the big problem,” he added.

HARD LESSONS LEARNED FROM OCTOBER 7

“October 7 is a watershed in Israeli security. We began to investigate the complex events of this day, we will learn and make decisions,” he told the press.

“The working hypotheses under which we operated, scenarios which we prepared for, the perception of the enemy which we held, it is clear to us that these must change,” Halevi stated.

“The IDF needs to be stronger, and bigger so that what happened on October 7 will not happen again. And of course, these are not the only changes,” he said.

“The decisions we make today have a decisive and critical effect on building the strength of the IDF in the near and distant future,” Halevi concluded.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also said that the intention behind Israel’s withdrawal of most of its troops from Gaza was to prepare for the expected offensive in Rafah.

Gallant claimed that due to Israel’s military successes, Hamas has “stopped functioning as a military organization in the areas of Gaza where Israel had been operating.

“The achievements of the 98th Division and its units are extremely impressive, targeting terrorists, destroying enemy targets, warehouses, weapons, underground [sites], headquarters, communication rooms,” he said.

“The forces have left [Gaza] and are now preparing for their future missions. We saw examples of such missions in action at the al-Shifa [Hospital], and we are still preparing to deal similarly with Hamas’ remaining battalions in the Rafah area.”

“We will [ultimately] reach a situation where Hamas does not control any part of Gaza. . . and no longer poses a risk to the citizens of Israel,” he added.

ONLY ONE ISRAELI BRIGADE STILL INSIDE GAZA

With the withdrawal of the IDF’s 98th Division from the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, only the IDF’s Nahal Brigade remains in Gaza, consisting of a force of several hundred soldiers, compared to the deployment of 30,000 to 40,000 Israeli troops at the height of the fighting in Gaza. The Nahal Brigade is currently stationed strategically at the Netzarim junction on the Gaza main north-south highway, effectively dividing Gaza in two.

In recent months, the 98th Division was instrumental in eliminating thousands of terrorists in Khan Younis and destroying over 18.6 miles of tunnels, many of which were of strategic importance to the Hamas leadership. During its battles in Khan Younis, the 98th Division pioneered a novel approach, by advancing simultaneously both above and beneath the ground, yielding significant results in gathering intelligence on Hamas.

Israeli military spokesmen insisted that the withdrawal from Khan Younis had been planned for several weeks and was not linked to the recent increase in pressure from the United States on Israel’s military activities in Gaza.

MAKING ROOM IN KHAN YOUNIS FOR MORE DISPLACED CIVILIANS

The withdrawal from Khan Younis will also open up more safe territory for housing the displaced civilians from northern Gaza who may also have to leave Rafah when Israel does eventually launch a large-scale raid there. It will also allow the residents of Khan Younis who fled the more recent fighting to return to their homes.

The withdrawal from Khan Younis follows a previous reduction of Israeli forces in Gaza back in January, with the departure of the 36th Brigade, including the Golani Brigade.

Taken together, these withdrawals mark the beginning of a planned less intensive phase of Israeli military operations in Gaza, which began in the northern portion of the strip, and now has reached the south.

THE THIRD PHASE OF THE WAR IN GAZA HAS STARTED

This third phase of the war calls for swift strikes followed by a rapid relocation of troops, designed to create opportunities for unexpected, intelligence-guided attacks that will catch Hamas terrorists off guard. The most successful of these attacks was carried out at the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. The two-week-long operation by the IDF’s 162nd Division resulted in the elimination of approximately 200 terrorists who had returned to the complex following the IDF’s earlier departure. Additionally, around 500 arrests were made, including several high-ranking commanders, who, under questioning, yielded a vast amount of useful information.

Israeli military leaders changed their strategy in response to the fact that the conflict in Gaza is now a guerilla war, in which large, static formations of Israeli troops merely serve as convenient targets for the hit-and-run tactics that Hamas is now using. The new strategy reduces the vulnerability of Israeli troops to terrorist-style attacks and provides maximum maneuvering flexibility to Israeli military commanders.

As a result, Hamas is now moving much more carefully in its efforts to reestablish its former military and civil authority over Gaza in the wake of the Israeli troop withdrawal. Its leaders are aware that the remaining troops of the Nahal Brigade stationed at the Netzarim junction, and other IDF units located just outside Gaza’s border, are poised to move swiftly to reach any site of renewed Hamas military operations in Gaza, including Rafah, in less than an hour. Furthermore, all of the Israeli intelligence, air power, and ground artillery resources that were employed during the fighting in Khan Younis will remain in place, to support future IDF operations throughout Gaza.

The Israeli military retains the capability to return to Khan Younis very quickly if that is deemed necessary, while continuing its preparations for operations targeting Hamas’ remaining four brigades in Rafah, and also in Deir al-Balah, located in the heart of Gaza, whenever the Israeli war cabinet issues the necessary orders.

A NEW STRATEGY WITH ITS OWN RISKS

However, the new strategy does come with its own set of risks, such as the potential re-activation of underground rocket launchers by terrorists or efforts to restore parts of their tunnel network, in the areas from which Israeli troops have withdrawn. For example, within hours of the IDF’s pullback from Khan Younis, five rockets were launched toward Israel, but they did no damage thanks to the Iron Dome system. Israeli military commanders reacted quickly, which resulted in the rapid discovery and elimination of the rocket launching sites.

Meanwhile, defense minister Gallant also said that Israel “has completed preparations to respond to any scenario that may unfold with Iran” in response to the Tehran government’s threats of revenge for Israel’s attack on an Iranian consular building in Damascus that killed three senior IRGC generals, including the commander of the Quds Force in Syria and Lebanon, Hassan Mahdawi.

ANTICIPATING IRAN’S RETALIATION

According to a CBS News report, the U.S. is expecting Iran itself to carry out a “significant” retaliation using its Shaheed suicide drones and cruise missiles, most likely directed against some Israeli diplomatic target, and also perhaps against a U.S. target as well. To forestall such an Iranian attack, Biden administration officials claimed last week that they had not received any prior notice of the Israeli air strike.

Two senior Iranian officials have told the New York Times that Iran has placed its military on high alert and has decided to respond directly to the Israeli air strike on Damascus in order “to create deterrence.”

The likelihood of such a retaliation was also discussed in last week’s phone call between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, “The president was clear, very clear, that Israel can rely on the United States to assist in defending against the threats posed by Iran.”

HOW BIDEN’S GAZA POLICY HAS EVOLVED

Early in the morning of last October 7, when President Biden first learned of the Hamas attack on Israel, he called Netanyahu to offer America’s support, and later that day issued a forceful statement from the White House state dining room declaring, “The United States stands with Israel… We will not ever fail to have their back,” and called his administration’s support for Israel’s security “rock solid and unwavering.” He also ordered U.S. defense and intelligence officials “to make sure Israel has what it needs” to defend itself.

On October 18, less than two weeks after the initial Hamas attack, Biden paid a personal visit to Israel to demonstrate America’s support while pointedly reminding Netanyahu that “democracies like Israel and the United States are stronger and more secure when we act according to the rule of law.” The hidden objective of Biden’s trip, as one U.S. official said, was to convince Israel’s leaders “to think this through” before embarking on an all-out war of elimination against Hamas in Gaza, which American military leaders believed was probably beyond Israel’s capabilities.

At that time, U.S. officials thought that, one way or the other, the war in Gaza would be over quickly, within a matter of weeks, or, at worst, a couple of months. But now, six months later, the war in Gaza continues, albeit at a somewhat reduced intensity, with no end in sight. President Biden finds himself frustrated and furious that Netanyahu remains determined to keep fighting to finish the job of destroying Hamas and retrieving the 130 Israeli hostages still in Gaza, no matter what it takes, including an attack on Hamas’ last strongholds in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where over a million displaced Gaza Palestinians are now living on humanitarian aid in squalid tent camps.

Meanwhile, President Biden’s public commitment to support Israel’s right to self-defense has become a liability to his re-election campaign, as his rallies are frequently disrupted by pro-Palestinian protestors. Increasing numbers of Democrats are demanding that Biden either stop sending U.S. weapons to Israel, or impose much harsher restrictions on their use in Gaza, while Republicans are criticizing him for publicly second-guessing Israel’s military strategy in fighting a war for its survival, and issuing thinly veiled threats to cut off the crucial U.S. arms shipments before Hamas is destroyed.

WHY BIBI MUST STAND UP TO PRESSURE FROM BIDEN

Ordinarily, any such public threat issued by a United States president would be irresistible to an Israeli prime minister, but in this case, Netanyahu knows that he has no other choice but to go forward with the war to destroy Hamas, and specifically, the planned definitive assault on Rafah, because of the overwhelming demand for it by the Jews of Israel, who are still recovering from the trauma of the October 7 attack.

Hope for achieving a negotiated end to the war was raised by a temporary ceasefire agreement and the return of almost half of the Israeli hostages in exchange for the release of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons between November 24 and November 30. But the ceasefire collapsed when Hamas stopped returning the hostages it was holding and resumed its rocket attacks on Israel.

Netanyahu reacted by resuming the full Israeli ground assault on Gaza, while responding to the growing Biden administration concerns about the plight of Gaza’s civilians by taking several measures to re-open border checkpoints to expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid.

But the American pressure on Israel to cancel its plans to complete the destruction of Hamas by mounting an assault on Rafah has continued to intensify. In late November, White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters, “We’ve been clear with the Israelis that we don’t support them moving forward with operations in the south unless they have a plan to deal with the now-increased level of civilians there.”

On February 11, Biden publicly said that Israel was losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza.

NETANYAHU SAYS ISRAEL IS READY TO ATTACK RAFAH ON ITS OWN

In March, when visiting American Secretary of State Antony Blinken again publicly urged Israel not to invade Rafah, without a viable, U.S.-approved plan in place to protect the displaced civilians now sheltering there, Netanyahu’s defiant response was, “We’ll do it by ourselves, [if we have to].”

The low point in recent U.S.-Israel relations came on March 25, when the U.S. abstained for the first time on a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire that was not directly tied to a hostage release, enabling it to pass. It prompted a furious Netanyahu to cancel a face-to-face meeting between U.S. and Israeli officials in Washington that Biden had requested to again discuss Israel’s plan to attack Hamas in Rafah.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, and both sides scaled back their angry rhetoric. Biden administration officials admitted last week that some progress had been made in scaling back the scale of the fighting in Gaza, with the withdrawal of most of the Israeli troops, a reduction in the number of Israeli air strikes, and an increase in the number of trucks entering Gaza carrying humanitarian aid. Another large delivery of U.S. weapons to Israel was announced, and Israel agreed to send another delegation to Cairo to resume negotiations over another ceasefire for the exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian security prisoners, despite Hamas’ continued refusal to soften its demands for an end to the war in Gaza on its terms, which remain unacceptable to Israel.

U.S. STILL COMPLAINING ABOUT CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

But this past Sunday, Kirby was still delivering the same warnings to Israel about its conduct of the war in Gaza. In a nationally televised news interview, he expressed a “growing degree of frustration that we’ve had with the way these operations are being [executed] and the way that the Israelis are acting on the ground in terms of civilian casualties.”

Kirby also said that “frustration” was at the core of President Biden’s message to Netanyahu in their strained half-hour phone conversation last week. While Kirby acknowledged that Netanyahu had pledged to take steps to improve the situation for civilians in Gaza, which he welcomed, he insisted that Israel has “got to do more,” or risk endangering its current crucial supportive relationship with the U.S.

Tensions were further increased by Israel’s mistaken air strike on April 1 on a convoy of three vehicles carrying humanitarian aid belonging to the World Central Kitchen non-profit, killing seven of its workers. Israeli leaders publicly accepted responsibility and apologized, but that was not enough for President Biden. He said that he was “outraged and heartbroken” and for the first time openly threatened a negative change in U.S. policy toward Israel.

According to a White House summary of the April 4 phone call between Biden and Netanyahu, the president “made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers. He [also] made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

BIDEN’S FIRST PUBLIC CALL FOR A CEASEFIRE

Biden also told Netanyahu that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was “unacceptable” and he publicly called, for the first time, for an “immediate ceasefire.”

Despite these explicit warnings, the White House offered no details about how it would assess whether Israel had complied with Biden’s demands, or how U.S. policy could change if the White House determined it had not done so.

“If we don’t see changes from their side, there will be changes from our side,” Kirby said. “But I’m not going to preview what that might look like.” Among the changes Biden wants to see, Kirby said, are “a dramatic increase in humanitarian aid getting in, additional crossings opened up, and a reduction in violence against civilians.”

“Today’s call [between Biden and Netanyahu] was focused on humanitarian assistance, civilian casualties, and that includes humanitarian aid workers,” Kirby said. But “you can’t talk about Rafah and the possibility of operations going after those Hamas battalions in Rafah without also talking about the humanitarian situation down there, which is dire.”

ISRAEL OPENING ASHDOD AND THE EREZ CROSSING FOR AID DELIVERIES

In reaction to Biden’s thinly veiled threats, Netanyahu’s government agreed to a long-standing U.S. demand, the opening of both the port of Ashdod, about 25 miles north of Gaza, the main northern border crossing into Gaza at Erez for aid deliveries. Israel also promised to improve its “deconfliction” system to avoid any more unintentional Israeli attacks on transports carrying humanitarian aid inside Gaza. The White House welcomed the moves, but also demanded that they “must now be fully and rapidly implemented.”

But despite their harsh criticism of Israel’s policies in Gaza, Biden and his senior aides still insist that U.S. support for Israel remains strong, especially in light of the threat of an escalation in Israel’s shadow war with Iran and Hezbollah in response to the Israeli air strike last week in Damascus on senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

“Our support for Israel’s self-defense remains ironclad,” Kirby said. “They face a range of threats, and the United States isn’t going to walk away from helping Israel defend itself. That said … the president does and still believes that the manner in which they are defending themselves against a Hamas threat needs to change.”

COMPARING TRUMP TO BIDEN ON POLICY TOWARD ISRAEL

Biden’s increasingly harsh criticism of Israel and his refusal to hold Iran ultimately responsible for the anti-Israel and anti-American attacks by its proxies across the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the staunch support that Israel enjoyed from his predecessor, Donald Trump, when he was president, as well as Trump’s policy of applying “maximum pressure” through renewed sanctions against Iran.

Trump had made support for Israel a key element of his presidency’s foreign policy in the Middle East. He also brokered the 2020 Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. It offered a promising alternative to the failed efforts by previous U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama to reach a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based upon the two-state solution.

It is also ironic that Trump has also faulted Israel for losing the public relations war with Hamas in the mainstream media while clearly winning the shooting war on the battlefield in Gaza. Trump had been largely silent on the issue until last month, when, in an interview with the newspaper, Israel Hayom, he urged Israel to “finish up your war” as quickly as possible. He also said, “Israel has to be very careful, because … you’re losing a lot of support,” echoing the same concern that Biden voiced on February 11.

TRUMP WARNS THAT ISRAEL IS LOSING THE PR WAR

Trump expanded on those comments in a radio interview last week with conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt, in which he reiterated that he is “100 percent with Israel,” but concerned that, because of the “optics” of the ongoing conflict in Gaza, Israel is “losing the PR war.”

Trump criticized the Israeli military for releasing graphic videos of its attacks in Gaza perhaps in an effort to restore Israel’s deterrent. “They’re releasing the most heinous, most horrible tapes of buildings falling. And people are imagining there’s a lot of people in those buildings … and they don’t like it. And I don’t know why they released. . . wartime shots like that. … To me, it doesn’t make them look tough.”

He said that his advice to Prime Minister Netanyahu would be to “get it [the war in Gaza] over with,” and “get back to normalcy [as soon as possible].”

Trump acknowledged that Israel “has to have a victory [over Hamas, but] “I’m not sure that I’m loving the way they’re doing it. … and it’s taking a long time.”

Trump’s close friendship with Netanyahu during his presidency was badly damaged when the Israeli prime minister publicly congratulated Joe Biden upon winning the 2020 presidential election. Even though diplomatic protocol gave Netanyahu no other choice, Trump took the move personally as a betrayal of their friendship, and as a lack of gratitude by Netanyahu for all that Trump had done for Israel during his presidency.

In addition, just days after the October 7 attack, Trump said at a campaign rally that Netanyahu was responsible for the fact that, “Israel was not prepared.”

BIDEN STILL PUSHING HARD FOR A TWO-STATE SOLUTION

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is assuming that the success of its search for some kind of deal to end the war in Gaza and a return of the remaining hostages that Hamas took on October 7 is inevitable. Biden also claims that it will lead to the long-sought two-state solution, as well as a broader alliance of pro-U.S. Arab states with Israel, including Saudi Arabia, to counter the pernicious influence of Iran and its terrorist proxies in the region. Biden’s U.S. ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, said in an interview with Yediot Achronot that “I don’t think we [the U.S.] can accept an alternative where there is no [hostage] deal. . . We have to keep pressing. And I understand that time is not on the hostages’ side.”

Lew expressed the naive belief that a negotiated resolution to the war in Gaza would serve as a cure-all for all of the problems facing the region. “If you look at the geopolitical components, whether it’s Hezbollah and Lebanon or Saudi Arabia. All of the pieces come together more easily if there is a deal to return the hostages along with a ceasefire,” the American ambassador said.

Lew also rejected the idea that the Biden administration’s increasingly harsh public criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza, and its decision on March 25 to allow a U.N. resolution calling for a ceasefire to pass, has prompted Hamas to harden in its negotiating position due to the impression that Israel is losing America’s support. “No one cares more about Hamas believing that there must be a release of the hostages than the U.S.,” Lew declared. “We wouldn’t do anything to harm that [perception]. . . Any description of our position as if it has changed is simply incorrect.” But unfortunately, that does not appear to be Hamas’ point of view.

The bottom line is that there is still no end in sight to the war in Gaza, or any reduction in Israel’s determination, in the wake of October 7, to end the threat from Hamas once and for all. At the same time, the threat of a major escalation in the second front of the war in the North is now greater than ever.

WILL NETANYAHU BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR THE OCTOBER 7 ATTACK?

Meanwhile, the plight of the hostages and the anguished cries of their families have resonated deeply with the Israeli public. Some hostage families were among the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets last week calling on the government to resign. It was the largest anti-government demonstration since the war in Gaza began.

Netanyahu’s popularity has plummeted since the outbreak of the war. As prime minister, he is ultimately responsible for the major intelligence and security failures that enabled the October 7 attack to occur, and for the long-term strategy under which Israel’s leaders mistakenly believed that the threat from Hamas in control of Gaza could be successfully managed. Yet Netanyahu has rebuffed calls to resign or to launch a public investigation into what went wrong, as was done following the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when an overconfident Israeli military was also caught by surprise.

The Israeli offensive has caused mass destruction across Gaza and inflicted heavy losses on Hamas. Israel claims to have killed some 13,000 Hamas fighters and dismantled the group’s military capabilities across most of Gaza.

Yet the Hamas leadership in Gaza, while in hiding, is still intact, as are Hamas’ four operational battalions in Rafah, while Netanyahu is under increasing pressure from his domestic critics, including members of his emergency war cabinet, and the Biden administration, which now publicly admits to running out of patience with him.

NETANYAHU STILL AT ODDS WITH BIDEN’S POSTWAR POLICIES

Netanyahu has presented a deliberately vague proposal calling for open-ended Israeli security control of Gaza, with the cooperation of unnamed local Palestinian partners in administering Gaza’s day-to-day affairs. But that plan is incompatible with the repeated calls by the Biden administration for control over Gaza, once the war is over, to be returned to a thoroughly reformed Palestinian Authority.

Furthermore, Netanyahu remains vehemently opposed to the next stated goal of Biden’s Middle East strategy, a renewed international effort to establish an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, even though clear majorities of Israelis and Palestinians no longer believe that a two-state solution is feasible or desirable.

Meanwhile, there is little appetite among the former donor nations to contribute to the reconstruction of Gaza without a stable security and political agreement in place to prevent another war there.

NETANYAHU STILL INSISTING ON A DEAL FOR HOSTAGES

At the start of his cabinet meeting this week, Netanyahu said that any ceasefire deal must include the release of hostages still being held in Gaza.

He also warned that “Giving in to Hamas’ demands will allow it to repeat the crimes of Oct. 7 again and again, as it has promised to do.

“We will never forget the terrible crimes of the monsters of Hamas, which still holds 133 of our abducted brothers and sisters. To date, we have returned 123 of the abducted, and we are committed to returning them all home.”

Netanyahu added, “I made it clear to the international community: there will be no ceasefire without the return of abductees. It just won’t happen. This is the policy of the Israeli government, and I welcome the fact that the Biden administration clarified the other day that this is still its position as well.”

He also said: “I would like to clarify one more thing: Israel is not the one preventing a deal. Hamas is preventing a deal. Its extreme demands are aimed at bringing about an end to the war and leaving it as it is. To ensure its survival, its rehabilitation, and its ability to endanger our citizens and our soldiers. Surrender to Hamas’ demands will allow them to try to repeat the crimes of October 7 again and again, as they promised to do.

“Hamas hopes that the pressure from outside and inside will make Israel surrender to these extreme demands. It will not happen. Israel is ready for a deal but Israel is not ready to surrender. Instead of international pressure being directed at Israel, which only causes Hamas to harden its positions, the pressure of the international community should be directed against Hamas.”

“Citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu continued. “There is no more just war than this war, and we are determined to [achieve] complete victory. To return all our abductees, to complete the elimination of Hamas in the entire Gaza Strip, including Rafah, and to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel.”

Netanyahu also declared, “This war revealed to the world what Israel always knew, that Iran is the one behind the attack against us on many fronts since October 7 through its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.”

THE OTHER ARAB STATES ARE WATCHING

According to veteran Jerusalem Post reporter, Herb Keinon, the Arab states in the Persian Gulf are also watching carefully to see whether the U.S., under President Biden, will keep his public promises since the day the war began to stand by Israel as America’s long-time, trusted, and closest ally in the region.

But if Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states see Biden succumbing to the political pressure from pro-Palestinian Democrats to “throw Israel under the bus,” by forcing it to halt the war in Gaza before Hamas is destroyed, “then,” Keinon predicts, “they will adjust their strategic calculations accordingly.”

During their rough phone conversation last week, after which Biden put out a statement warning that a reassessment of the U.S. policy of unlimited U.S. support for Israel might be imminent, Netanyahu made it clear that he got the message, by agreeing to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza through the port of Ashdod and by re-opening the Erez crossing for the first time since October 7.

The Gulf states also got the message. They can see how Biden is trying to force Israel to fight Hamas in Gaza with one hand tied behind its back, while the U.S. continues to permit Iran to encourage its terrorist proxies, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis to use its weapons to attack Israel as well as the international shipping of its Western allies.

MEDIA REPORTING ON GAZA THROUGH A NARROW LENS

Keinon also notes that the anti-Israel international media is also playing a key role by depicting the war in Gaza through a very narrow lens as a battle between Israel and Hamas in which too many civilians in Gaza and humanitarian workers are being killed by Israel, while downplaying the fact that Hamas is violating the international conventions of war by deliberately using them as human shields.

“But if you widen the lens,” Keinon writes, “this is a battle not only between Israel and Hamas but also between the moderate camp in the Middle East and the radical one supported by Iran. If Hamas survives because the U.S. has tied Israel’s hands, then the radical camp is emboldened.

“That is a disaster for Israel but also a disaster for others in the moderate camp — Saudi Arabia, the UAE [United Arab Emirates], Bahrain, Egypt, and even Jordan’s King Abdullah — whom Iran and its proxies also threaten.”

ECHOES OF THE FIGHT OVER THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

He also notes that this is not the first time that Israel and the pro-Western Arab nations of the region find themselves in a confrontation with a Democrat American president who refuses to hold Iran accountable for the mischief it has been making.

Back in March of 2015, Prime Minister Netanyahu traveled to Washington at the invitation of the Republican Speaker of the House to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress asking it to reject the dangerously flawed Iranian nuclear deal that President Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, had negotiated. That speech triggered a surprisingly nasty antisemitic reaction by Obama’s Democrat supporters who openly accused American friends of Israel of harboring treasonous dual loyalties. In retrospect, that episode was a very mild preview of the antisemitic demonstrations we see today by the liberal Democrat apologists for Hamas who are openly calling upon Biden to abandon Israel by denying it the weapons and diplomatic support it needs to fight for its life.

Even though the prime minister lost the fight with the Obama White House over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, according to Ron Dermer, who was Israel’s ambassador to Washington at that time, Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was critical in convincing the moderate Arab countries that they could trust Israel to stick with them in an alliance against Iran, which led to the signing of the Abraham Accords five years later.

BY STANDING UP TO OBAMA NETANYAHU SHOWED ISRAEL’S INDEPENDENCE

Dermer wrote in a 2020 magazine article that the leaders of those Arab states realized that if Israel’s prime minister was willing “to stand up for what he believes in,” even if it meant a confrontation with an American president, then Israel was really was an “independent force” in the region that could be relied upon in any test of wills against Iran.

“I can tell you as a fact that the speech dramatically accelerated contacts beneath the surface between Israel and many Arab states,” Dermer wrote, adding that when the Arab countries saw Israel leading the charge against the Iranian nuclear deal, against then-president Obama’s wishes, they concluded that it was a country with whom it was worth forging a strong partnership.

Those same Arab states, including the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, are carefully watching the current test of wills between Netanyahu and Biden over Gaza again, to see whether the Israeli prime minister still has the guts to stand up against another weak-kneed American president, and whether Biden’s word to a longtime American ally can be relied upon in the face of domestic political and antisemitic pressure on him during a re-election campaign from the progressive wing of the Democrat Party.

Meanwhile, the Republican Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, made that same point in a tweet condemning Biden for threatening to abandon Israel. “Biden should not undercut our ally amidst an existential threat by conditioning our support,” Johnson wrote.

A Wall Street Journal editorial also took President Biden to task for his harsh criticism of Israel even after its prime minister, president, and defense minister publicly apologized for a mistaken air strike that killed seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen while trying to deliver humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Instead of giving Israel’s leaders credit for taking responsibility for the fatal “error that is a tragic and inevitable part of war,” the editorial accused Biden of using it to “pander to the anti-Israel faction in his party. . . by harshly condemning Israel, lecturing it and then blaming it (not Hamas) for the larger humanitarian disaster in Gaza.”

BIDEN’S CRITICISM OF ISRAEL IS SENDING HAMAS THE WRONG MESSAGE

According to the editorial, “the message Hamas will take away is clear: Keep rejecting hostage deals, do whatever you can to worsen the humanitarian catastrophe, and watch Mr. Biden blame and pressure Israel to compromise on its war aims.”

The editorial also noted that “Mr. Biden also seems to have forgotten his own mistaken missile strike,” which he ordered in retaliation for an ISIS-K suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. troops during the botched withdrawal Biden ordered from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. It turned out that the target that was hit by the U.S. Hellfire missile struck a car at a family home in Kabul, killing 10 civilians, including seven children. But unlike the Israeli government, which apologized almost immediately after the seven aid workers were killed in Gaza, senior Biden administration officials engaged in public denials for weeks before admitting that the Pentagon had made what it called a “tragic mistake.”

Biden has also publicly endorsed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s recent public call for early elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu’s government during the middle of a major war, while the White House actively tries to prevent Israel from defeating Hamas in Rafah, which would be the fastest and most satisfactory way to end the war in Gaza for good.

In light of these developments, a second Wall Street Journal editorial last week recalled a quip from the late Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis who said that while it is dangerous to be America’s enemy, it can be fatal to be its friend. That is particularly true of the leading Democrats who used to be Israel’s supporters, but who have now turned against it by trying to pressure Israel into undermining its duly elected government, automatically ending the war against Hamas before it is defeated, and leaving Israel vulnerable to another devastating October 7-style attack sometime in the future.

That editorial identifies Israel’s latest Democrat “sunshine ally” as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who added her signature to a letter to President Biden signed by 40 House Democrats urging him to stop transferring any more American offensive weapons to Israel “until a full investigation into the airstrike [which killed the seven World Central Kitchen aid workers] is completed.” Do Pelosi and her fellow Democrats really think that after Israel’s prompt public apology for making that mistake, there is anything more of substance to be learned from such an investigation?

DENYING WEAPONS TO AN ALLY AT WAR IS A BETRAYAL

The editorial also notes that “denying weapons to an ally in the middle of a war is the definition of betrayal,” and that “Democrats have a history of abandoning friends in hard times.” That includes the decision by Congressional Democrats to cut off U.S. aid to South Vietnam in 1975, and the disastrous Biden botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, which left the locals in those countries who fought in those wars alongside American troops at the mercy of their enemies.

Free Beacon conservative columnist Matthew Continetti calls Biden’s demand last week for an “immediate ceasefire” a “cynical, opportunistic, and counterproductive” move that amounts to requiring “Israel [to] appease Hamas at the negotiating table.”

The key element that is missing, according to Continetti, is “a sense of moral clarity in this conflict,” starting with the simple understanding that, “Hamas is evil. Hamas could end the war it started by surrendering its cadres and releasing its prisoners. Hamas refuses. Hamas would rather sacrifice the civilian population of Gaza on the altar of its genocidal ambition and suicidal desires. Hamas brutalizes children, abuses captives, steals food, fires its rockets indiscriminately, wears no uniforms, and hides behind schools, hospitals, and mosques.”

In contrast to the supporters of Hamas, whose objective is “isolating Israel diplomatically and undermining its right to exist,” Continetti identifies “the political heroes of this moment [as] the men and women who have retained the ability to make clear distinctions between Israel and Hamas, between freedom, equality, and the rule of law and violence, terror, and fear.”

SENATOR FETTERMAN AN UNLIKELY DEMOCRAT HERO FOR ISRAEL

One of his more unlikely heroes is John Fetterman, the Democrat Senator from Pennsylvania, who no longer calls himself a progressive and who has broken with his anti-Israel fellow Democrats by declaring that, “Hamas only deserves elimination.” While admitting that the war in Gaza “is the sum total of daily, raw tragedies,” Fetterman observes that, “the vast majority of the harshest criticism and all responsibility for this war belongs to Hamas.” As a result, Fetterman’s conclusion is refreshingly simple and straightforward: “Stand with Israel.”

According to Micah Goodman, an Israeli author and philosopher, externally, Israel is now facing a “Catch-22” style dilemma, in which it wants to be loved by the West, but needs to be feared by its enemies in the Middle East to ensure its long-term existence.

Internally, the political stress lines in Israel’s emergency national unity government are growing more serious, challenging Netanyahu’s considerable abilities as a political survivor and his public credibility as Israel’s national leader.

NETANYAHU NOW FACING SERIOUS POLITICAL TROUBLE

The streets in Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim are once again being blocked regularly by the opponents of Netanyahu’s coalition and the families of the hostages who have joined forces in an effort to bring down the government, even though the war is not yet over in Gaza.

Gideon Sa’ar, who has pulled out of the government, and Benny Gantz who is still in the government, have joined the call by Senator Chuck Schumer for early elections with the goal of replacing Netanyahu, whose longtime reputation as Israel’s “Mr. Security” has been badly tarnished in the eyes of Israeli voters by the egregious strategic and intelligence failures which made the October 7 attack possible.

Furthermore, the long-term cohesion of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition after the Gaza war ends is now in serious doubt in light of the recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling doing away with the long-standing exemption of yeshiva students from mandatory army service.

AN OPPORTUNITY TO RETHINK ISRAEL’S WAR GOALS

Meanwhile, as the war in Gaza reaches the six-month mark, there is a real question as to what is likely to happen next. The recently completed withdrawal of most of Israel’s ground troops from Gaza can either be seen as a necessary respite for the soldiers to refit and recover before going into combat again, or a chance for Israel’s leaders to seriously rethink their objectives for the war in Gaza before launching the long-dreaded final battle to destroy the last four remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah.

Israel’s long-discussed military plans to attack Rafah remain up in the air due to continuing objections by senior Biden administration officials who claim that the orderly evacuation of the more than one million displaced civilians now in the area will take up to four months rather than the four weeks that the Israeli plan calls for.

While Hamas has not yet been finally defeated, it is badly wounded, and it will take years for it to recover from its huge material and manpower losses in Gaza since October 7. Hamas’ arsenal of rockets has been seriously depleted and its massive tunnel network has been compromised and partially destroyed. Much of Gaza’s civilian housing stock now lies in ruins. As a result, many Israeli residents in the South who fled their homes after October 7 are beginning to feel safe enough to return.

IS IT TIME FOR ISRAEL TO TAKE ON HEZBOLLAH?

Meanwhile, there is another front to this war, in the North, against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which arguably now poses a greater threat to Israel’s security than Hamas does. After six months of low-level conflict making normal life in northern Israel untenable, Israel could attack Hezbollah in Lebanon as a legitimate act of self-defense, without posing the same kind of risk to its crucial relationship with the United States over Gaza, or to its remaining legitimacy and good standing in the eyes of the international community. Furthermore, Israel’s defeat of Hezbollah, or an international agreement forcing Hezbollah to pull its forces back from the Israeli border, is necessary to permit the safe return of over 90,000 Israeli citizens who have fled their homes in the North. Until that happens, Israel’s war that started on October 7 will not truly be over.

In addition, a temporary respite from active fighting in Gaza will give Israel and the Biden administration a badly needed cooling-off period during which they can work out their current differences over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, explore long-term solutions to Gaza’s post-war security and self-government problems, as well as try to develop a new joint strategy for dealing with the multiple threats from Iran.

IMPORTANT BUT DIFFICULT DECISIONS NEED TO BE MADE SOON

It is also unlikely that as long as serious public differences remain between the positions of Israel and the Biden administration, Hamas’ leaders would agree to the compromises necessary for a ceasefire and hostage exchange deal. As long as they feel relatively safe from Israeli attacks, they will likely prefer to wait and see whether Israel will be able to go through with its plans to wage the final battle in Rafah that it has talked about for so long without destroying what remains of its crucial informal alliance with the United States.

Important decisions about the future of the war in Gaza must be made soon, because the Biden administration, the Israeli public, and the world community are fast running out of patience. There are no easy solutions apparent, and the longer it takes for the necessary decisions and trade-offs to be made, the less likely it will be that they will result in a satisfactory outcome for Israel, especially for the remaining hostages in Gaza, and their increasingly desperate family members. Hashem Yerachem.

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