Biden, Bibi, and the ‘Day After’ in Gaza (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- March 11, 2024)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. President Biden says Bibi Netanyahu “is hurting Israel more than helping Israel”. Does Netanyahu even know how to end this increasingly disastrous war?

A. Israel’s prime minister remains dedicated to the goal of ‘total victory’ in Gaza. That means, regardless of the fate of the Israeli hostages, ongoing insistence by Netanyahu on the conquest of Rafah in the southern Strip and the elimination of Yihya Sinwar and the Hamas leadership, wherever they are. That could take months and radically exacerbate an already critical humanitarian situation in the southern Strip that has drawn heavy international condemnation of Israel.

Worse, whereas the conquest of Rafah and elimination of Hamas’s remaining organized military framework is feasible, the IDF has not yet even ascertained the location of Sinwar and his colleagues.

Q. Nevertheless, Netanyahu has presented his formula for the disposition of the Gaza Strip and its population on the day after . . .

A. Indeed he has--reluctantly and in response to Biden administration pressure and not because he anticipates a near end to the conflict. Netanyahu wants to treat the conquered Strip like Area B of the West Bank: self-government under Israeli security control. But whereas in the West Bank civil rule is under the PLO-led Palestinian Authority, in Gaza it will be handled, according to the Netanyahu plan, by local clans and possibly additional unnamed Palestinians who are neither Hamas nor the PA.

That scheme sounds vaguely familiar. Déjà vu? Wasn’t this tried in past decades in the West Bank?

A. Yes, and it repeatedly failed. Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan tried to base Israeli rule on West Bank mayors after 1967. Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon promoted the model of “Village Leagues” in the late 1970s. In both cases PLO/Fateh pressure, including assassinations, thwarted these initiatives.

Currently in Gaza, the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (CoGAT) is reportedly trying to recruit local clan leaders, with extremely limited success. The moment IDF units withdraw from land they have conquered in the northern Strip, Hamas returns--it emerges that not all its fighters were rooted out of their tunnels by the IDF--and intimidates or forcibly recruits the few who dared to collaborate.

This means that in the absence of a viable Israeli plan for Gaza’s future, wherever the IDF thins its forces residual Hamas units and officials are liable to restore their rule. This is one paradoxical outcome of Netanyahu’s strategic failure in Gaza. After all, in the course of the decade preceding October 7, Netanyahu believed in encouraging Hamas to rule Gaza on the highly mistaken assumptions that it was bent on constructive economic and social development, not war, and that its existence would prevent the emergence of a two-state solution. Now Netanyahu appears by default to be restoring Hamas rule. . .

As for recruiting clans in Gaza, note that two-thirds of Gazans are the descendants of 1948 refugees who lack roots and a strong clan structure in the Strip. Then too, over the years there has developed a Gazan middle class that shuns the clan heritage. Finally, yet again we confront the near-total absence of a strong civil society foundation in Palestinian society, particularly in Gaza.

We recently saw what can happen when CoGAT tries to bring humanitarian food supplies into the Strip with the help of local non-Hamas Gazan merchants: a total loss of control and over 100 dead Gazan civilians, all blamed on the IDF.

Q. Yet Netanyahu’s scheme is being echoed by ‘old friends’ from the American neo-conservative community. More déjà vu?

A. Absolutely. Meet (again) Elliott Abrams, Lewis “Scooter” Libby and John Hannah, all former national security officials under the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney administration, now appearing on behalf of the International Trust for Gaza Relief and Reconstruction, JINSA (the hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) and the Gaza Futures Task Force. Having worked their destructive magic in Iraq two decades ago, Abrams and company now offer it for Gaza: deradicalization programs for schools and mosques (reminiscent of that disastrous de-Baathification effort in Iraq); an ‘advisory council’ of closely-vetted local Gazans; hiring professional security contractors, etc.

It is amazing how disastrously failed policies reappear in similarly disastrous Middle East circumstances, as if nothing went wrong previously. The Biden administration and a lot of serious Israeli security professionals are not likely to approve of renewed village leagues and neo-con sponsored mercenaries.

But what happens if Biden loses and Trump wins the November 2024 US presidential elections? Conceivably, then, the Gaza settlement schemes of Israel’s messianic right led by ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich will return to the fore, in concert with the delusions of the indefatigable neo-con Abrams--who actually bragged to me some 20 years ago that US-sponsored elections in Iraq would inspire a democratic revolution in neighboring Iran.

Q. Meanwhile, Biden to the rescue?

A. The Biden administration scheme for the day after in Gaza remains the only sane proposal. But it faces huge obstacles.

Biden wants to ‘revitalize’ the West Bank-based PLO/PA and draw on a residual infrastructure of PA-salaried officials in Gaza to set up a Palestinian government in the Strip that would either replace Hamas or incorporate a defanged Hamas. But the PLO-PA under a failing and very unpopular Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is in complete disarray.

Accordingly, Washington is reportedly pressuring Abbas to appoint a new prime minister with enhanced authority to compensate for Abbas’s advanced age and failing health. Mohammad Mustafa, a close confidant with American backing who heads the Palestine Investment Fund, has been mentioned. Current Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has obligingly resigned to make room. But others close to Abbas oppose the appointment.

(More déjà vu. Note that the American idea of upgrading the PA prime minister’s role was already tried and failed years ago, when Abbas himself was appointed with the idea of drawing authority away from then President Yasser Arafat. That fiasco ended with the resignation of Abbas; it was only resolved when Arafat died.)

Meanwhile, a recent meeting in Moscow of no fewer than 14 Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has failed to produce any sort of agreement on a post-war unity government under the PLO. And Abbas has gone on record demanding that, as a condition for serving in his government, Hamas endorse the two-state solution and the principle of non-violent struggle against Israel: a non-starter for Hamas.

PM Netanyahu, not surprisingly, rejects both a PA government for Gaza and the two-state solution that Biden endorses for the long term. Here Netanyahu has at least temporary backing by a majority of Israelis who are bitterly skeptical in the aftermath of October 7, which soured them on the notion that any Palestinians could be Israel’s partners in a solution.

Netanyahu not only has no viable war aims; he has no exit strategy for Gaza. Nor is he in a hurry. As long as the IDF is in Gaza, Netanyahu has an excuse for delaying new national elections or even formation of a national commission of inquiry to look into the embarrassing conceptual and policy mistakes that led under his rule to the historic disaster of October 7.

Q. So Biden faces serious obstacles in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. And the war goes on. What are the administration’s options?   

A. One is to create facts on the ground. The administration is moving ahead with construction of a dock on Gaza’s Mediterranean shore to offload large quantities of humanitarian aid in the hope of reducing the acute nature of Gaza’s human disaster. In a blatant slap at Netanyahu, last week the administration hosted War Cabinet member (and head of Israel’s largest opposition party) Benny Gantz for a series of high-level meetings in Washington, followed by London. Here Biden was clearly trying to distance himself from Netanyahu while continuing to maintain a pro-Israel stance.

Another Biden option is to recruit greater international pressure on the Netanyahu government to offer ceasefire concessions, mitigate Gazan humanitarian suffering, and accept a PLO-oriented two-state solution for Gaza. Here the administration operates on fertile ground: Israel’s international isolation is growing by the day; in the weeks ahead, South Africa will push a UN General Assembly resolution to expel Israel from that body. And the reputed Saudi Arabian ‘payoff’ of normalization for Israel if it endorses the two-state solution is frozen and can presumably be withdrawn under pressure from Washington.

In the backdrop, there is growing grass-roots US electoral pressure on Biden to radically soften administration support for the Israeli war effort. Netanyahu’s approach to the war is becoming a genuine liability for the American president. Biden apparently wants to address Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to make his case that Netanyahu’s strategy for Gaza is leading Israel toward disaster.

Q. Bottom line?

A. We have already noted that Netanyahu’s current lack of a war strategy enables Hamas to reappear wherever the IDF withdraws--in the Israeli-enforced absence of any alternative actor. Here it bears noting: in his own intransigence, Netanyahu’s biggest ally is Hamas intransigence. Even the ceasefire-facilitators--the US, Egypt and Qatar--currently acknowledge that it is primarily Hamas that is holding up a hostage-for-prisoner-exchange and a halt to the conflict.

Meanwhile, US-Israel relations are slipping into crisis mode.

As if all this were not worrisome enough, Hamas apparently is hoping for a radical escalation in overall Middle East unrest and conflict, beginning in Jerusalem, during the month of Ramadan that commenced March 10-11.

What the conflict and its ramifications for Israel and the US will look like a month from now is anybody’s guess