The United States and Israel struggle with conflicting visions of ending the Gaza war

Near the end of a whirlwind trip to the Middle East this week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken finished meetings with the Israeli president and relatives of American hostages held by Hamas, left his beach hotel in Tel Aviv and shook hands with protesters gathered outside.

He looked them in the eye and said there was a new ceasefire agreement on the table for the hostages that Hamas would have to take.

“Bringing your loved ones home is at the heart of everything we are trying to do, and we will not rest until everyone – men, women, soldiers, civilians, young, old – has come home,” he said.

That public display of empathy toward frustrated protesters is something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided since the war began in October. And, of late, he has focused his recent public comments on an impending ground offensive — an invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, “with or without” a ceasefire agreement, the leader said Tuesday Israeli.

While it wasn't the first time Netanyahu had promised to invade Hamas's last stronghold in Gaza, U.S. officials were surprised by the timing of the comment. Threatening an offensive in Rafah can put pressure on Hamas to accept the deal, but only if Hamas leaders think that the release of hostages for Palestinian prisoners and a six-week pause in fighting can eventually lead to a ceasefire. permanent fire and avoid a bloody battle in Rafah. , where more than a million displaced Gazans have sought refuge, officials say.

Nearly seven months into the war, the stated goals and diplomatic efforts of the United States and Israel appear further apart than ever – a gap that continues to widen under the domestic political imperatives of President Biden and Netanyahu.

Biden and his top aides envision a path that involves Hamas releasing about three dozen hostages within a few weeks; the two sides implement a temporary ceasefire which leads to the permanent release of one or more hostages; and key Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, who agreed to take part in reconstruction and security efforts, as well as the normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel.

Israeli officials have recently shown some flexibility on the terms of the ceasefire agreement, saying they will reduce the number of hostages Hamas is expected to release in the initial round to 33 from 40.

Yet even as Israel has relented on these points, Netanyahu has rejected the idea of ​​a permanent ceasefire and doubled down on his public promise to eradicate Hamas and many fighters who he says remain in Rafah – despite a widespread belief among US officials. that his goal is unattainable.

U.S. officials oppose the Rafah invasion and say Israel should carry out precise operations against Hamas leaders, not a large-scale attack. When Blinken met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday, he reiterated the United States' “clear position” on Rafah, said Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman.

The pressures on the Biden administration are also clear. Biden's liberal electoral coalition could fracture as the opposition strengthens its unwavering support for Israel in the war, jeopardizing his chances of defeating Donald J. Trump, the Republican challenger, in November. Students protesting against Biden's policies on American college campuses and the resulting police crackdown have further brought the issue into the spotlight.

And the United States finds itself deflecting criticism from Arab partners and governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and shielding Israel from pro-Palestinian UN resolutions. Amid cries of hypocrisy against Washington, it is clear that Biden's support for Israel will make it harder for him to gain support for American policies aimed at countering Russia and China, particularly in nations of the Global South.

Mr. Blinken is grappling with challenges. On Monday, the first day of his current Middle East tour, in meetings with Arab and European officials in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, he steered discussions toward the release of hostages and plans for post-war reconstruction in Gaza. He made humanitarian aid the theme of his stop in Jordan the following day.

When asked by reporters about Netanyahu's insistence on an offensive in Rafah, Blinken said the ceasefire agreement and humanitarian aid were the “center” of American efforts.

Israeli protesters outside Mr. Blinken's hotel in Tel Aviv were on the same page. They have placed their hopes in the American government rather than their own to end the crisis, which began when about 1,200 Israelis were killed in Hamas-led attacks on October 7 and about 250 were taken hostage. More than 34,000 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli army's retaliatory air campaign and ground invasion.

“SOSUSA, only you can save the day,” the protesters chanted. “Thank you, Biden, thank you, Blinken.”

Biden and Netanyahu also clash over what Americans call a long-term political solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Americans are working on a plan to get Saudi Arabia and perhaps other Arab nations to agree to normalize relations with Israel, but only if the Israeli government commits to a concrete path with clear deadlines for the founding of a nation Palestinian. Netanyahu is against it, as are many Israelis.

However, Biden maintains his overall support for Israel during the war, and has placed no conditions on military aid or arms sales, something centrist foreign policy analysts and former US officials are also calling for.

Netanyahu, who clings to power despite his collapsing international and domestic standing, faces a series of seemingly mutually exclusive choices. He is caught between competing pressures from the Biden administration and far-right members of his governing coalition, whose support is crucial to his government's survival.

His far-right ministers are threatening to resign if the much-publicized Rafah operation is suspended. Bezalel Smotrich, the ultranationalist finance minister, did described the hostage deal on the table as “a dangerous Israeli capitulation and a terrible victory for Hamas.” Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, said Tuesday that he had “warned” Netanyahu of the consequences of not going to Rafah and that he had instead agreed to an “ill-advised deal” to end the war.

The centrists who joined Netanyahu's government in October, bringing broader popular legitimacy to his war efforts, have noted that they will not tolerate decisions based on political considerations rather than national interest.

Israeli public opinion simultaneously desires the return of the hostages and the defeat of Hamas, even if it is divided on the prospect of an outright victory.

A poll commissioned this week by Kan, Israel's public broadcaster, indicated that 54% of respondents favored an initial deal that would see the most vulnerable hostages released during a 40-day ceasefire. Nearly half of those surveyed – 47% – said they would support a comprehensive settlement for all hostages and an end to the war.

“Netanyahu's political future depends on the outcome of the war,” said Nachman Shai, a former government minister and expert on Israeli diplomacy and security. “He can't juggle all the balls.”

For now, Netanyahu's critics say, he is hesitating. Some say he is relying on the Hamas leadership to reject the hostage deal on the table, others that he is being held captive by far-right ministers in his government. Both points of view could be valid.

A political cartoon that appeared Wednesday in Yediot Ahronot, a popular Jewish newspaper, showed Netanyahu sitting at his desk marked “prime minister of Israel,” reviewing the proposal for a hostage deal and declaring: “This will never work with my managers ”.

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