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White House sharply diverges from Israel in long-term goal of war

In a visit to Israel, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan laid out new terms for what Washington wants to see in Gaza. It looks different from what Israel wants

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023.

Israeli Government Press Office (GPO)

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023.

Another major tactical disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem spilled into public view on Thursday during U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s visit to Israel. 

The purpose of Sullivan’s visit, according to several senior Biden administration officials, was to urge Israel to shift its strategy in Gaza — and soon. 

“The issue really is, when does Israel shift from the high-intensity military operations that are underway today to a different phase of this conflict, one that’s more precise, more targeted, more driven towards things like those high-value individuals?” Sullivan said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 News.

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Thursday, John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, echoed Sullivan’s language: “[Sullivan] did talk about possible transitioning from what we would call high-intensity operations, which is what we’re seeing them do now, to lower-intensity operations sometime in the near future.” Kirby declined to share a more specific timeline for a possible transition of that nature, but The New York Times reported that President Joe Biden would like to see such a change within the next three weeks. 

That’s a very different timetable from what Israeli officials are relaying publicly. 

“It will require a long period of time. It will last more than several months, but we will win and we will destroy them,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said of Hamas, while standing next to Sullivan before their meeting. Benny Gantz, the former Israeli defense minister who sits on the country’s war cabinet, offered a similarly long-term assessment to reporters on Thursday night: “There will be a long, difficult, necessary process, at different levels of force — days, and months, and years,” said Gantz.

A senior Biden administration official, speaking to reporters on Thursday, touted Biden’s influence with Israeli leaders throughout the war. 

“I think the Israelis had ideas for the military campaign very early which we found problematic,” the official said, “and I think the president’s visit [to Israel] very early in the crisis discussed that in some detail, and the ground campaign was adjusted based upon some of our advice, some of our recommendations.” 

Now, the official said, Israel faces an “inflection point” as it shifts from “major clearance ground operations, which have been ongoing,” to “a more targeted, surgical, intelligence-driven longer-term effort against high-value targets, specific military infrastructure, things like that.”

This is wholly different from how Israeli leaders, who continue to vow that they will eradicate Hamas, have publicly described their view of the war in Gaza. The language used by U.S. officials suggests that Israel must shift its focus to Hamas’ leaders, and not to defeating the entire terrorist group. 

“Hamas leaders will never be given any sanctuary or any quarter because it is Israel’s right to go after the leaders that planned and executed the October 7 attack, but it would look much different, I think, from what you are seeing now,” the senior U.S. official said, again declining to offer a timeline. 

The Biden administration has not laid out any consequences that Israel might face if it does not follow U.S. recommendations regarding the war. But it’s not the first time the two governments are at odds this week. This policy shift comes amid a clash between Biden and the far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is skeptical of pursuing a two-state solution — the only outcome acceptable to the White House. Washington has also in recent days taken action against violent Israeli settlers in light of a feeling that Israel is not sufficiently dealing with violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. 

Whether Israel follows Washington’s lead, or whether the two countries publicly come to a head, remains to be seen.

Still, Israeli officials expressed continued gratitude for Washington’s support. 

“My American friends,” Gantz wrote in a post on X on Thursday. “Israel is thankful for your continuous support during these difficult times.”

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