Frustration with Netanyahu boils over on plans for Gaza after Hamas

Frustration is growing in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war against Hamas and his growing split with President Biden, raising fears that the public tensions could invite increased attacks from Iran and its proxies across the region.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is the most senior official to call out his premier, demanding that Netanyahu decide on a day-after plan for the Gaza Strip after defeating Hamas.

“I call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip, that Israel will not establish military governance in the Gaza strip, and that a governing alternative to Hamas in the Gaza Strip will be raised immediately,” Gallant said in rare, blunt remarks while commemorating Israel’s Memorial Day on Wednesday.

It was the second time Gallant had issued such a direct challenge to Netanyahu, having warned in March 2023 that the prime minister’s pursuit of widely controversial judicial reforms was threatening the security of the country.

The division in the country at that time, some analysts say, fed into Hamas’s calculation to launch its massive terrorist attack on Oct. 7.

Gallant’s latest remarks came at the same time five Israeli soldiers were killed in friendly fire amid a renewal of Israeli military operations in the north of Gaza against a reconstituted Hamas. He also pointed to the need for Israel’s military to focus on the fight with Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has increased in intensity; an estimated 60,000 Israelis have been displaced from communities in the north.

“Israel can’t handle staying in Gaza, it’s a lot of effort, a lot of money, a lot of death and casualties,” said Neomi Neumann, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former head of the research unit at the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We don’t have a good solution, but to stay in the Gaza Strip, this is between the worst things that you can pick. Mind you that we also have another war in the north … So we need to focus there, where the danger is much higher,” Neumann said.

Gallant’s comments echo frustration in Washington that Netanyahu is bucking hard decisions to conclude the war against Hamas.

“We share the Defense Minister’s concern that Israel has not developed any plans for holding and governing territory the [Israel Defense Forces] clears, thereby allowing Hamas to regenerate in those areas. This is a concern because our objective is to see Hamas defeated,” a senior administration official told The Hill.

“So far he seems to be defiant,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill regarding Netanyahu’s actions in the face of demands from President Biden, in particular to hold off a major military operation in the southern Gazan city of Rafah.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a senior member of the Foreign Affairs panel, was critical of Netanyahu’s position.

“If Netanyahu’s plan is permanent occupation of Gaza, that’s a worse plan than I’ve heard from anyone else,” he said.

And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a warning when asked if Netanyahu is an obstacle to U.S. interests in the region.

“I’m hoping that he will not be,” he told The Hill.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” last week, criticized Israel for failing to engage in planning with the U.S. and Arab countries on a solution for Gaza after Hamas’s defeat.

“We haven’t seen that come from Israel,” Blinken said.

“We have the same objective as Israel. We want to make sure that Hamas cannot govern Gaza again. We want to make sure it’s demilitarized. We want to make sure that Israel gets its leaders,” he continued. “We have a different way. And, we think, a more effective, durable way of getting that done. We remain in conversation with Israel about exactly that.”

The Biden administration is pursuing a grand strategy that includes a determination of what authority can govern Gaza post-Hamas, and which is part of a so-called mega-deal of establishing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Included in that is a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel that allows for the release of more than 130 hostages held in Gaza since they were kidnapped on Oct. 7. The administration is betting on a weeks-long cease-fire to allow for Gulf and Arab countries to participate in negotiations for how to stabilize Gaza without Hamas.

Saudi Arabia, while keen on deeper ties with Israel, has said it cannot recognize the Jewish state until there is a pathway to a Palestinian one.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan is headed to Saudi Arabia and Israel this weekend to continue talks on the mega-deal.

Sullivan is also likely to raise serious U.S. concerns about Israel’s military operations in Rafah, where its seizure of a key crossing with Egypt, used for humanitarian aid deliveries, and its deepening offensive operations in the city prompted unprecedented action from Biden last week: holding back a shipment of heavy bombs to Israel.

“We need to consider the tactical battlefield situation in Gaza in light of the bigger strategic picture,” Sullivan told reporters Monday at the White House, explaining Biden’s position.

“Israel’s long-term security depends on being integrated into the region and enjoying normal relations with the Arab states, including Saudi Arabia,” he said earlier.

Biden has sought to balance unprecedented support for Israel’s security needs while grappling with domestic blowback over the massive Palestinian civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip.

While Biden held back a shipment of heavy bombs for Israel over his opposition to a large-scale military offensive on Rafah, the administration has preserved the vast majority of weapons deliveries to Israel.

The president this week transmitted to Congress for review a $1 billion arms sale proposal for Israel’s long-term needs.

“Even before being the ranking member of the committee, the hardest decisions that one makes as a member of Congress is when human lives are at stake,” said Meeks, who has the power to hold or delay the weapons sale from proceeding as the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel.

The $1 billion sale is for armaments likely to be delivered within two to three years, Meeks pointed out. Even as Biden and Democrats are trying to limit U.S. weapons that can contribute to Palestinian civilian deaths and wide-scale destruction in Gaza, they are hyper-aware of the threat posed by Iran and its proxy groups, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

The U.S. helped lead an international coalition to defend Israel from an unprecedented attack from Iran on April 13, with cooperation from Jordan, France, the United Kingdom and reportedly Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries as well. The combined air defense succeeded in shooting down nearly all of Iran’s 300 drones, ballistic and cruise missiles.

But the continued success of such a coordinated defense is not guaranteed if relations are strained further between the U.S. and Israel, and by extension Arab and Gulf countries. Discussing Gaza’s future is viewed as necessary to preserve regional cooperation.

“The U.S. has a strong interest in having a Day After plan proposed by Israel and agreed by Jerusalem, Arab capitals and key international organizations,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, posted on the social platform X.

“This requires leadership, creativity, vision and quiet diplomacy. Failure to achieve this risks consigning both the people of Gaza and the soldiers of Israel to endless and sadly unnecessary war.”

Gallant, in his remarks earlier this week, reinforced the importance of the U.S. and Israel projecting strong ties.

“There are some disagreements, yet I emphasize — in this war too, the United States was the first to stand by us, in actions, not [just] in words, and the U.S. continues to stand by us now,” he said.

“We solve our disagreements behind closed doors, not via interviews or tweets.”

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