Biden’s Influence Turns Israel’s Ground War Plans Into ‘Something Different’

Last Saturday, with Israel still in shock from the deadly attack by Hamas a week earlier, the military said it was preparing “coordinated strikes from the air, sea and land” to eradicate the group in Gaza.

(Bloomberg) — Last Saturday, with Israel still in shock from the deadly attack by Hamas a week earlier, the military said it was preparing “coordinated strikes from the air, sea and land” to eradicate the group in Gaza. 

But by midweek, military spokesmen were suggesting that a ground offensive “might be something different from what you think.” It could start later and last longer, unfolding in unexpected ways, they said. 

In between was a series of unprecedented visits by top US officials, including the secretaries of state and defense and President Joe Biden. Wrapped in their embrace of Israel’s pain after the deadliest attack in decades and promises to send warships and weapons was a message of caution about how to respond.

The US shares Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas’s military infrastructure in Gaza. That’s only possible with a ground invasion, since the group, designated by the US and EU as a terrorist organization, has spent decades building networks of tunnels and other emplacements. 

But the US influence is already shaping the way that assault will be conducted – particularly how to limit casualties among the 2 million civilians who live in Gaza – and the government’s planning for what happens when it’s over, according to Israeli officials and people close to the government.

Three senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the role and influence of the US in this war against Hamas are deeper and more intense than any exerted by Washington in the past. 

The US has grown increasingly concerned that Israel’s invasion could draw in Iran-backed Hezbollah. That could open a second front in the war and sparking a broader conflict that would draw the US in further and demolish the Biden administration’s efforts to stabilize the region by making peace between Israel and key Arab countries.

“President Biden is focused on reducing the chance of this war spreading to another front,” Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said in an interview. “This is his main goal.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after Biden’s visit that an agreement had been reached on “cooperation that will change the equation in all theaters.” On Air Force One on the way back to Washington, Biden said he’d spoken with the Israelis about various “alternatives” regarding the ground war because of concern over civilian casualties and an expansion of the conflict.

In an Oval Office address Thursday night, Biden appealed to Americans to support Israel and Ukraine, arguing that Hamas and Russia “both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.”

Israelis teared up watching Biden’s statements and warm hugs of survivors. But his sympathy was paired with a warning. 

“Justice must be done,” Biden said. “But I caution that, while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

In a first, Biden and Blinken sat in on Israel’s war cabinet meetings, helping Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and opposition leader Benny Gantz assess and plan. 

The night before Biden’s visit, there was a deadly blast at a Gaza hospital. Arab governments quickly embraced Hamas’s claim that Israel was behind the attack and protesters took to the streets across the Mideast. But Biden endorsed the Israeli account which blamed a failed rocket launch by a militant group. 

Even as the US has sent two aircraft-carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean and put troops on alert, Biden and other officials have underlined the importance of limiting civilian casualties. In Tel Aviv, the US president pushed Netanyahu’s government to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, where civilians are trapped with dwindling supplies of food and water and subject to regular Israeli airstrikes. The first shipments from Egypt could come as early as Friday, according to US officials.

“Biden is determined that there is a need to defeat Hamas, but he also wants to keep the strategic alliances and peace treaties between Israel and Arab countries and widen them, to deepen the American leadership in the Middle East,” said Major General (Reserve) Amos Gilead, a former top Defense Ministry official. “That’s why the humanitarian dimension is so important.”

US officials have said they hope to continue efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, though the war with Hamas threatens to derail them. That deal would include US security guarantees for both countries. What has emerged this week with the US is a de facto version of such a pact, a top Israeli official indicated.

Michael Oren, a former ambassador to Washington for Netanyahu, said Biden is pushing Israel to use more caution both when it goes into Gaza on the ground and as it responds to increasing attacks from Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“This puts Bibi in a difficult position,” Oren said. “The bill for this one will come due the day after the war,” he said. The US will likely press Netanyahu to bring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into Gaza and restore efforts for a two-state solution, he said.

On Wednesday, Cohen suggested that Israel is likely to seek to create a buffer zone around Gaza, rather than occupying the territory completely.

The plan for the war is closely held and still in formation but the initial goal is reflected in the fact that Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians to evacuate the northern part of the strip, which includes Gaza City. 

“It’s an impossible situation. Israel wants to provide security to its citizens and restore deterrence and in order to do so, it seems for Israel unavoidable that it will continue to kill a lot of civilians,” said Mairav Zonszein, senior analyst on Israel at the International Crisis Group.

Still, Netanyahu’s government is receptive to the US message, according to Manuel Trajtenberg, executive director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank. Israeli troops will stage a ground operation into the north where Hamas is headquartered and where they will likely hold the ground, with a more surgical approach in the southern part, he said.

“Israel needs legitimacy for a long time because this is not going to be a short operation,”  he said.

Israel is likely to send in specialized forces trained in urban warfare, backed by regular troops and with close air support, to go from door to door to door and try to eliminate or capture Hamas leaders, according to Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official responsible for military cooperation in the region.

“Israel’s generals are under no illusion that they can ‘wipe out Hamas,’” said Bilal, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. 

–With assistance from Tony Capaccio.

(Updates with Biden’s Oval Office speech in 10th paragraph)

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