Amid fear of being pulled into escalating conflict, U.S. peppers ally to explain gameplan
As Israel prepares to expand its Gaza campaign, it has Washington's worried voice in its ear, pushing it to define its objectives.
It's a reflection of Americans' fears they could be pulled into a spiralling Mideast conflict by any missteps in the coming days.
Biden administration officials confirm that they've been urging their ally to contemplate a series of potential outcomes as Israel prepares an anticipated ground offensive.
White House spokesman John Kirby on Monday was using the terminology of preparing for complex and unpredictable situations.
"We are asking [Israel] what their answers are to the kinds of questions that any military ought to be asking itself, as it conducts operations," Kirby told reporters.
"'Have you thought through the branches?'" — meaning, unintended consequences.
"'Have you thought through the sequels?'" — that is, not the immediate aftermath, but what comes later.
"We are in active conversation with them about that," he said.
The U.S. is more concerned about the Israeli war plan than it lets on in public, according to a succession of stories in The New York Times.
The Times reports that U.S. President Joe Biden and senior aides have urged Israel to delay moving into Gaza to buy time for hostage negotiations.
That's atop another report describing U.S. concerns about a push from Israel's defence minister with the potential to drastically escalate the war.
The paper said Yoav Gallant has been urging for a pre-emptive strike against Iran's powerful Lebanon-based proxy militia Hezbollah, without success as the U.S. and others in the Israeli government warn against it.
U.S. reportedly asks Israel to delay ground offensive to allow hostage talks
Featured VideoWith U.S. citizens among those being held by Hamas, the Biden administration has reportedly asked Israel to delay an anticipated ground offensive to allow more time to negotiate the release of hostages.
Meanwhile a Times columnist with connections to Biden, Thomas Friedman, repeated that the U.S. president has been urging his Israeli allies to see beyond their immediate rage and think three steps ahead.
He wrote that Biden has failed to persuade the Netanyahu government to think through the potential implications of a ground offensive without, at least, offering residents of Gaza any hope of a better political future without Hamas.
In a column titled, "Israel is about to make a terrible mistake," he warned that a ground war without any talk of future Palestinian statehood could trigger a global conflagration.
Then, on Monday evening, The Times put it in the bluntest possible terms: reporting that the Biden administration fears Israel lacks achievable military objectives in Gaza, citing senior U.S. sources.
In Washington, on Monday, several Middle East experts shared their fears.
At separate think-tank events, observers said Washington's biggest worry is the war pulling in Hezbollah, then Iran, and, finally, the U.S.
"This potential for a greater regional conflict takes a situation that's already horrible and could turn it into a complete nightmare," said Daniel Byman, an adviser to the State Department, a former U.S. government staffer, and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
At a different event, another analyst said the most pressing U.S. objective of the moment is containing the war.
"Biden's approach has been to hug Israel, and to try to push it where he thinks it [should] be," said Natan Sachs, director of the Brookings Institution's centre for Middle East policy.
"He has … tried to steer Israeli goals and policy."
Sachs says he doubts the conflict will lead to U.S. boots on the ground, but would not be surprised to see American naval firepower used; two U.S. carrier strike groups are already mobilized for Israel's defence.
Sachs says people must understand the Israeli mindset right now, following the murderous Hamas attacks of Oct. 7.
He says Israelis are determined to ensure their country never suffers a repeat and it doesn't matter how many international campus protests burn Israelis in effigy.
Israelis, he said, will take whatever measures they deem necessary to prevent their children from ever again being burned by Hamas.
Unfortunately, he added: "This does not mean that Israel has an answer [to that]."
He and several colleagues voiced their fear that the Israeli government hasn't defined a longer-term strategy beyond attacking Hamas.
What questions could Israel be weighing?
A former CIA counterterrorism and counterintelligence official cited two challenges that military firepower alone will not resolve.
One is maintaining relationships with surrounding Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan, whom, she said, will be essential in establishing any post-Hamas governance. Another is reducing the political rage in Gaza that allowed Hamas to thrive.
"You can't destroy an idea," Emily Harding, now deputy director of the international security program at the CSIS.
Another former U.S. official said Washington has been pressing Israel to articulate clearer goals like: How will you separate Palestinian civilians from their current leadership? Who will rebuild the Gaza government, if Hamas is destroyed?
"I don't sense the Israelis are very receptive to that right now. They are still so shocked, stung, by Hamas's terror," said Jon Alterman, former State Department official, now director of the Middle East Program at CSIS.
"They're talking about crushing, crushing, crushing. Without giving Palestinians a more desirable course to take.
"You're seeing Americans, all up and down, saying, 'Look, we've been [fighting counter-terrorism] for decades. You have to think more deeply.'"
In a speech in Israel last week, Biden alluded to this. He said the United States, in its fury, made grievous errors after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At home, Biden is now facing pressure on two fronts.
He has progressives fuming that he's been too pro-Israel and some Arab-Americans warning they might not show up to vote for him next year.
His critics on the right say hasn't supported Israel enough. One Republican senator chided him for continuing to talk about Palestinian statehood, accusing him of prioritizing "the creation of a terror state for the people who elected Hamas."
"Israel doesn't just have a right to defend itself; Israel has a right to destroy its enemies. We should back Israel to the hilt, not try to 'restrain' them," Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted over the weekend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.
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