Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

Will Israel Cross Biden’s Red Lines in Gaza?

 

In response to President Joe Biden’s statement during a broadcast interview with the MSNBC news channel that a new Israeli military operation in the southern Gaza town of Rafah to wipe out the last Hamas battalion-size fighting would cross a “red-line,” Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that he has a red-line of his own. “You know what the red line is?” Netanyahu asked rhetorically in an interview with Paul Ronzheimer, the deputy editor-in-chief of the German newspaper BILD for the parent company of the Politico news site. “That October 7 doesn’t happen again,” Netanyahu declared.

Biden made the threatening statement on March 10, when he was asked by MSNBC reporter Jonathan Capehart: “Do you have a red line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? … For instance, the invasion of Rafah, which you have urged him not to do — would that be a red line?”

While Biden did not mention Rafah, specifically in his response, it was clearly implied when he declared, “You cannot have another 30,000 dead as a consequence [of pursuing Hamas],” mentioning the casualty figure being used by the Hamas-run Health Ministry whose accuracy is now being challenged by some Israeli military analysts.

Biden prefaced that remark by saying, “I’m never going to leave Israel. The defense of Israel is still critical. So there’s no red line [where] I’m going to cut off all weapons so they don’t have the Iron Dome to protect them.”

Biden again stated that “He [Netanyahu] has a right to defend Israel, a right to continue to pursue Hamas, but he must pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken.”

But Biden also doubled down on his personal criticism of Netanyahu, which was revealed during a “hot mic” moment shortly after Biden delivered his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress last week. In response to a request by Colorado Senator Michael Bennett that Biden “keep pushing” Netanyahu to bring more humanitarian assistance into Gaza for its civilian population, President Biden said, “I told him, Bibi, ‘You and I are going to have a [heart-to-heart] meeting.’”

TENSIONS RISING BETWEEN BIDEN AND NETANYAHU

In his interview with MSNBC the next day, Biden added, “In my view, he [Netanyahu] is hurting Israel more than he is helping. It [his strategy] is contrary to what Israel stands for, and I think it’s a big mistake. So I want to see a cease-fire.” Biden also said that Netanyahu should “pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken” by Israel in Gaza.

When MSNBC host Capehart asked the president exactly what kind of meeting with Netanyahu he had in mind in his comment to Senator Bennett, Biden answered cryptically, “I’ve known Bibi for 50 years and he knew what I meant by it.”

When Ronzheimer asked Netanyahu what exactly he thought Biden meant by his red line comment, the Israeli prime minister responded, “I don’t know exactly. . . but if he meant by that, that I’m pursuing private policies against the wishes of the majority of Israelis and that this is hurting the interests of Israel then he’s wrong on both counts. . .”

He added, “These are not my private policies only, they are policies supported by the overwhelming majority of the Israelis,” who recognize the need to destroy all of Hamas’ battalions in Gaza, a claim that has been confirmed by many public opinion polls.

Netanyahu said, “The majority of Israelis understand that if we don’t do this, what we will have is a repetition of the October 7 massacre, which is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, bad for the future of peace in the Middle East. So, the attempt to say that my policies are my private policies that are not supported by most Israelis is false. The vast majority are united as never before. And they understand what’s good for Israel. They understand what’s important for Israel, and I think they’re right.”

FIGHTING AGAINST THE PA AND THE TWO-STATE SOLUTION

The prime minister also insisted that the Palestinian Authority, as it is currently constituted, must not be put in charge of Gaza on the day after Hamas is defeated, as Biden administration officials have repeatedly suggested, because of the PA’s record of support for terrorism.

“Once we destroy the Hamas, the last thing we should do is put in charge of Gaza the Palestinian Authority that educates its children towards terrorism and pays for terrorism,” the prime minister explained.

“[Israelis] also support my position that says that we should resoundingly reject the attempt to ram down our throats a Palestinian state,” Netanyahu declared, in an apparent reference to a disturbing line in Biden’s State of the Union speech, in which the president said, “As we look to the future, the only real solution to the situation is a two-state solution over time.”

“So the attempt to say that my policies are my private policies that are not supported by most Israelis is false, and the vast majority are united as never before. And they understand what’s good for Israel,” Netanyahu added.

He also complained that the public criticism of Israel by Biden and other administration officials was encouraging Hamas leaders to press their demands for a permanent cease-fire and a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, rather than agreeing to the U.S., Egyptian, Qatari, and Israeli-backed proposal for an initial six-week truce and an Israeli hostage for Palestinian prisoner swap.

Biden also suggested during his MSNBC interview that he might go to Israel himself to address the Knesset and the Israeli people directly on his views about ending the Gaza war, in an effort to go over Netanyahu’s head, but when asked by reporters Monday if plans for such a visit were in the works, Biden said: “No, not at this moment.” The president also said that he had no plans to meet with Netanyahu at the moment and that the last time he spoke with Netanyahu was about two weeks earlier.

Now that the long-simmering semi-private dispute between Netanyahu and Biden is out in the open for all to see, many Israelis are concerned that it could lead to a cut-off of U.S. diplomatic and military support for Israel which is vital to the Israeli effort to complete the process of destroying Gaza.

WHY ISRAEL CAN’T AFFORD TO ALIENATE THE U.S.

They include Michael Oren, the American-born and educated former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., who is also a former member of the Knesset, and a widely published Middle East historian and political commentator. In an interview with NBC News over the weekend, Oren noted that Biden’s use of the American veto in the U.N. Security Council three times so far to kill resolutions calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, and the key role the U.S. has played in replenishing the ammunition being used by IDF, continue to be essential to Israel’s fight to eliminate the threat from Hamas once and for all. Oren also notes that Biden’s promise to keep supplying Israel with Iron Dome interceptors is not good enough, because it is a purely defensive weapon against the Hamas missile threat which the IDF has already largely eliminated.

Pro-Palestinian liberal Democrats have been urging Biden to cut off the supply of sophisticated U.S. precision-guided weapons to Israel because of the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza. But such a move might prove to be counterproductive if it forces Israel to go back to using the unguided bombs in its arsenal, which are less accurate and create much more collateral damage than the precision weapons.

Oren also said that Netanyahu is correct when he claims that there is a broad consensus in Israel today that must complete the job of destroying Gaza, even if it means eventually going into Rafah over Biden’s objections because there is no other way to restore Israel’s internal security. If Hamas is permitted to survive the current war in Gaza, Oren predicts that it will ultimately recover from its current losses, and re-emerge from its tunnels under Gaza, rearmed and ready to attack Israel again. Large parts of Israel whose civilian populations have been evacuated due to the current fighting will remain uninhabitable, and Hamas will effectively get away with the mass murder it committed on October 7.

THERE IS AN ISRAELI CONSENSUS ON THE NEED TO DEFEAT HAMAS

Oren also said that Biden is wrong to blame Netanyahu alone for Israel’s current war policy because the Israeli military is currently getting its orders from a national unity government which includes leaders from Israel’s political center and center-left parties, in addition to Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners.

When Benny Gantz, one of the members of the national unity government’s war cabinet which decides upon Israeli military strategy in Gaza, visited Washington, D.C., last week, he tried to explain in a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris why the Israeli army must eventually move in and take over Rafah to finish off Hamas’ remaining fighters and ensure that they won’t be able to recover and regroup.

“Finishing the war without demilitarizing Rafah is like sending in firefighters to put out 80% of a fire,” Gantz told U.S. officials who remain deeply skeptical about the feasibility of Israel’s plans to conquer Rafah without inflicting an unacceptable number of civilian casualties.

While Oren concedes that Netanyahu remains personally unpopular with a large segment of Israel’s population, he notes that five months into the war, with 250 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza, aside from some of the family members of the hostages still in Gaza, there are no cracks visible in the Israeli public’s united support for the destruction of Hamas, because they realize that otherwise, normal life in Israel could never resume.

Oren notes that the current national unity government acted against popular opinion in Israel when it agreed to U.S. demands for the expansion of humanitarian aid to Gaza and that only the Israeli military is currently in a position to deliver that aid to Gaza’s civilians and keep it out of the hands of Hamas.

U.S. TO BUILD A TEMPORARY GAZA SEAPORT

The Pentagon announced that last weekend that a U.S. Army vessel called the General Frank S. Besson had set sail from a base near Norfolk, Virginia, carrying equipment for the construction of a floating pier and a two-lane floating causeway about 1,800 feet in length connecting it to Gaza’s Mediterranean coastline. When completed in about 60 days, by about 1,000 members of a U.S. Army transportation brigade, the pier and causeway will permit the marine shipment of increased amounts of humanitarian aid, and as many as two million meals a day. Current plans call for the aid to be routed through Cypress where the goods will be inspected by Israel. When the shipment arrives at the pier off the coast of Gaza, it will then be turned over to independent international aid groups for distribution to civilians across Gaza. The Pentagon emphasized that none of the American troops involved in building the floating pier would be coming ashore in Gaza or assisting in the unloading of the ships bringing the humanitarian aid.

The chief spokesman for the IDF, Daniel Hagari, confirmed that Israel was coordinating the construction of the temporary pier with the United States and the U.S. Central Command and that the aid brought in through the pier “following full Israeli inspection. . . will be distributed by international organizations until it reaches Gazan civilians in need.”

“Alongside this,” Hagari added, we will continue to fight and dismantle Hamas’ military capabilities.”

Lior Haiat, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said in a tweet that Israel “welcomes the inauguration of the maritime corridor from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip. The Cypriot initiative will allow the increase of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip after security checks are carried out in accordance with Israeli standards.”

However, Jamie McGoldrick, a U.N. humanitarian coordinator, said that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about “What happens after the aid arrives at the harbor. How does it get on trucks and out to distribution?

“The problem we are facing right now is that many of the roads [in Gaza] are not operational, or on the roads that are open, it’s difficult to get through the crowds and congestion,” McGoldrick added.

Another potential issue is the shallow depth of the waters off the Gaza coast, which may prevent larger ships from approaching close enough to the floating pier to offload their cargo of humanitarian aid directly.

NETANYAHU PROMISES TO KEEP THE PRESSURE ON HAMAS

During a Fox News interview on Monday, Netanyahu was asked if a “fractured relationship” had developed between Israel and the U.S. and whether the U.S. was now pressuring Israel to “take its foot off the gas” in its war against Hamas.

Netanyahu answered that, “Ultimately, it’s Israel that has to decide. Our neck is on the line. I’m telling you that we’re not getting off the gas. I’m telling you that we have to take care of Israel’s security and our future. And that requires eliminating the terrorist army. That’s a prerequisite for victory.”

When asked how he would respond to Biden’s warnings against a major Israeli ground assault in Rafah, Netanyahu said, that “would be equivalent to saying, [during World War II] after the Allies fought back, through Normandy [and] through Germany. . . leave a quarter of the Nazi army in place. . . in Berlin, the last stronghold. . . That’s a red line. We can’t let Hamas survive.”

On the positive side, Biden did say in his State of the Union address that, “Israel has a right to go after Hamas. Hamas [could] end this conflict by releasing the hostages, laying down arms, and surrendering those responsible for October 7th.

“But Israel has an added burden because Hamas hides and operates among the civilian population like cowards, under hospitals, daycare centers, and all the like.

“Israel also has a fundamental responsibility, though, to protect innocent civilians in Gaza.”

Biden then added, “This war has taken a greater toll on innocent civilians than all previous wars in Gaza combined. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed most of whom are not Hamas. Thousands and thousands of innocents — women and children. Girls and boys also orphaned. Nearly 2 million more Palestinians are under bombardment or displacement. Homes destroyed, neighborhoods in rubble, cities in ruin. Families without food, water, medicine. It’s heartbreaking.”

ISRAEL SHOULD NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR GAZA’S CIVILIANS

However, a Wall Street Journal editorial made the point that it was unfair of Biden to put the onus of caring for Gaza’s civilian population entirely on Israel, when it is Hamas whose strategy has been to “place civilians in maximum danger and trust the international community to set up Israel to take the blame.

“In war,” the editorial noted, “civilians [are typically allowed to] flee to safety. Only in Gaza has the world decided that all civilians must stay trapped in the war zone, in danger and harder to reach with aid. . .

“Rather than demand that Egypt follows its obligation under international law to accept refugees from the fighting next door, the U.S., United Nations, and aid organizations took up Egypt’s [closed border] position and admonished Israel not to “displace” civilians from Gaza. “No forcible displacement” became Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s mantra, when in reality Palestinians aren’t allowed to leave voluntarily. Only when it can damage Israel does it become the liberal position to close the borders and keep refugees penned in a war zone. . .

“They have been kept in Gaza to serve as ‘Israel’s problem.’ Their presence in such large numbers leads to more casualties, desperate conditions, a longer war, and tremendous challenges for aid distribution. . . All of this is blamed on Israel.”

The editorial also points out that at the start of the war, Biden had a much more realistic understanding of who was responsible for the danger to Gaza’s civilian population. On October 18, Biden said, “Let me be clear: If Hamas diverts or steals the assistance, they will have demonstrated once again that they have no concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people, and it will end. As a practical matter, it will stop the international community from being able to provide this aid.”

But now, the editorial says, because of the pressure from the left wing of his political party, “Mr. Biden blames Israel and says aid must increase, no matter how much Hamas steals.”

BIDEN SHOULD NOT BE USING HAMAS’ FAKE CASUALTY FIGURES

Biden’s statement on the war in Gaza in his State of the Union address has also been criticized for its reliance on the casualty numbers issued by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry.

Writing in the Tablet, Abraham Wyner, a professor of statistics and data science at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania calls the Gaza Health Ministry’s casualty numbers over 30,000 an “obvious fake,” because they lack the natural day-to-day variations that one would expect in tracking the casualties on any real-life battlefield, due to the ebb and flow of warfare.

Wyner suspects that Hamas has been exaggerating the actual casualty figures in Gaza and failing to distinguish between the deaths of civilians and its fighters in an effort to increase the diplomatic pressure on Israel to agree to a cease-fire.

Biden also knows that the Hamas casualty numbers are unreliable. Shortly after the war in Gaza started in October, Biden said, “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed… I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”

But last week, in his State of the Union speech, Biden used Hamas’ unreliable 30,000 casualty figure without any reservations in order to turn up the pressure on Israel to forego its offensive in Rafah, thereby rescuing Hamas from the destruction it so richly deserves by the IDF.

HAMAS IS STEALING THE HUMANITARIAN AID FOR CIVILIANS

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is still complaining that Israel is violating the commitments it has made to President Biden to step up the flow of humanitarian aid entering Gaza for civilian noncombatants. But Israel disagrees. It says that it is allowing enough aid to get through its border checkpoints and that the problem is with the U.N. organization on the Gaza side of the border, which leaves much of the aid undistributed, or allows it to be hijacked by Hamas for distribution to its fighters.

During his State of the Union address, Biden said, “Israel must allow more aid into Gaza and ensure that humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire. . . [and that] humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip.”

But in an interview with NBC News, former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett declared, “The problem is not the amount of aid going into Gaza. The problem is that Hamas is hijacking that aid, robbing that aid, taking it for itself, and then selling it back in the black market in Gaza at about tenfold the price, and many Gazans can’t afford it.

“We are not using this as a negotiations chip or anything of that sort,” Bennett insisted. “The problem is that Hamas is stopping that aid.”

Meanwhile, Biden State Department spokesman Matthew Miller announced that a large American shipment of flour capable of feeding 1.5 million Gazans for five months, which has been held up for over a month in the port of Ashdod, has now been released and is expected to start arriving in Gaza soon.

The shipment was blocked by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich after he learned that it had been earmarked for delivery through UNRWA. That became unacceptable after Israel’s January release of evidence that 12 UNRWA employees actively participated in the October 7 attack, and that roughly 10% of UNRWA’s workforce in Gaza has close ties to Hamas.

According to the new delivery arrangements that the U.S. and Israel have both approved, the flour is to be trucked into Gaza from the port of Ashdod by the World Food Program, which has no known ties to terrorist organizations.

AID DELIVERIES ARE STARTING TO IMPROVE

The State Department spokesman also said that trucks carrying humanitarian aid are now able to move around southern Gaza delivering aid much more freely than in recent weeks, and several truck convoys under the protection of the Israeli military have been able to reach their destinations in northern Gaza, where the distribution of aid ground to a halt last month, due to the breakdown of law and order after Hamas’ defeat in the area.

After a February 29 incident, when dozens of Palestinians were killed, mostly by being trampled to death or run over by trucks, when a large mob rushed a 38-truck convoy carrying aid into northern Gaza, the U.S., Jordan, France, and Egypt began air-dropping packages of food and other essentials into Gaza last week, in a desperate effort to stave off the threat of mass starvation. However, that effort also led to tragedy when the parachutes on one such shipment failed to deploy properly, causing the packages to hit and kill five Palestinians and injured 12 others when they reached the ground going too fast.

Just a couple of weeks ago, hope was running high that an end was in sight for the humanitarian crisis that has been developing in Gaza since the Israeli military started responding to Hamas’ October 7 attack. After lengthy international negotiations in Paris and Cairo, a deal seemed to be falling into place for a six-week-long truce in Gaza which would permit an unrestricted flow of humanitarian aid to safely reach the endangered civilian population. President Biden was so optimistic that he predicted that the temporary cease-fire would already be in effect by Monday, March 4, a week before the unofficial Israeli target date for the ground assault on Rafah, the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan

WHY THE RAMADAN TRUCE DEAL COLLAPSED

The trouble started when Hamas refused to meet a simple Israeli demand: that it provide a list of the names of all of the hostages being held in Gaza, and which ones were alive or dead. Without that information, Israel said that it could not finalize the arrangements for the proposed hostage-prisoner swap. Therefore, Israel refused to send its negotiating team to Cairo for the next round of talks. Hamas responded by renewing its original demands which it knew that Israel could not accept, effectively halting the negotiating process.

Meanwhile, reports circulated in the Arab news media say that Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has decided that he prefers that the fighting in Gaza continue during Ramadan, in the hope of triggering a widespread Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim in support of Hamas. In recent years, the month of Ramadan has often been a period of increased violence between Israelis and Palestinians, often over the issue of Israeli security limits on access by Arab Muslims to the al Aksa mosque on the Har HaBayis.

Egyptian officials said that Sinwar believes Hamas now has the upper hand in negotiations, because of the political divisions within Israel’s wartime government and mounting U.S. pressure on Israel to do more to alleviate the suffering of Gazans.

A statement issued by Netanyahu’s office said that “Hamas is doubling down on its position, uninterested in a deal, and seeks to inflame the region during Ramadan.”

In addition, after the talks in Cairo on a truce deal collapsed, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, in a recorded statement from Qatar, placed the blame for the failure entirely on Israel and announced that none of the hostages it has been holding since October 7 will be released until after Israel agrees to Hamas’ demands for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza.

KEEPING THE HAR HABAYIS QUIET

To help prevent an incident on the Har HaBayis that could trigger such an uprising, Israel’s national unity government decided to impose as few restrictions as possible on West Bank Palestinians seeking to visit and pray at the al Aksa mosque during Ramadan.

Yet a surprising thing happened. The start of Ramadan came and went with relatively little disturbance, and no sign whatsoever that the IDF was about to launch a major operation against Hamas in Rafah.

It is important to recall that in response to Biden’s objections to such an offensive, Prime Minister Netanyahu promised the White House that Israel would remove the uprooted Palestinians now living in tent cities in and around Rafah from harm’s way before launching such an assault, but so far there is no sign of such a movement. One would also expect that the Israeli army would call up some of the reserve troops that it had sent back home after the fighting in northern Gaza wound down before launching the final, decisive battle against Hamas in its last strongholds in Rafah. But that has not happened, either.

Therefore, according to an analysis by Yonah Jeremy Bob, writing in the Jerusalem Post, the most likely explanation is that the IDF has decided to put off its assault on Rafah until after the month of Ramadan is over.

THE LOGIC OF WAITING FOR THE END OF RAMADAN

Such a decision should not come as a surprise, because the Israeli government had already agreed in principle to a six-week truce in Gaza, assuming that the other details could be worked out, which would also have delayed the start of any offensive in Rafah until well after Ramadan was over. It also meant that Israel’s military strategists had decided that it wouldn’t make much difference if the final defeat of Hamas would have to wait until sometime in April or May instead of March.

The delay would also offer Israel several other advantages. It would rob Hamas of the opportunity to play on the religious sympathies of Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Iranian proxy militias in Syria and Iraq because it was being attacked by Israel during an Islamic holy period. It would avoid interfering with the U.S. and various other international players that have been intervening in Gaza in recent weeks to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that has been developing in Gaza. Finally, by practicing relative restraint militarily in Gaza for another month, allowing more time for the truce negotiations, Israel might encounter less opposition to an attack on Rafah from President Biden, whose continued support and goodwill are essential to Israel’s war effort, if Hamas was still resisting a reasonable deal post-Ramadan.

THE FATE OF THE HOSTAGES IS STILL IN DOUBT

But while the delay is unlikely to affect the ultimate outcome of the war in Gaza, unfortunately, it may be bad news for the families of the 134 hostages still in Gaza somewhere, whose chances for survival decrease every day that the fighting continues.

The truce deal that was on the table before the negotiations collapsed envisioned the release of one civilian hostage a day for 45 days in exchange for the release of a negotiated number of Palestinians now in Israeli jails. But perhaps Hamas was telling the truth when it said that it did not know who or exactly where the remaining hostages are, or whether they are still alive.

While Israel believes that it has no choice other than to finish the job of destroying Hamas to safeguard its future security, let us pray to Hashem that it can find a way to do so without the loss of additional hostage lives.

 

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