More strains in US-Israel ties after cease-fire talks fail and Rafah military operations start

Brian Katulis
Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy

Brian Katulis
  • Gaps between the United States and Israel widened as month-long efforts to secure a cease-fire and hostage release came up empty and Israel stepped up its military campaign in southern Gaza.

  • A more strategic fissure between Israel and the US looms over the horizon: the lack of a shared endgame once the military conflict is over.

The Biden administration’s efforts to work with Egypt and Qatar to achieve a temporary cease-fire and hostage release fell short once again as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Bill Burns headed home following intensive diplomacy aimed at bridging gaps between Hamas and Israel. Last week began with raised hopes that a cease-fire deal was at hand; news reports declared that Hamas had accepted the terms. But those hopes were dashed in a matter of hours, when Israel asserted that the Hamas statement wasn’t connected to what the Israeli side had proposed. The divide between the two combatants remains wide and difficult to bridge through diplomacy. Each side is committed to the other’s military defeat. So the war continues.

A series of recent policy moves and statements by Biden administration officials and Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet underscored a growing divide between the two governments. The Biden administration held back the delivery of thousands of bombs to Israel due to concerns over what it sees as a lack of planning to protect civilians and address the ever-worsening humanitarian situation throughout Gaza. In an interview with CNN on May 8, President Joe Biden said that he would stop sending offensive weapons to Israel if the latter went ahead with its planned military operation in Rafah, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, where hundreds of thousands had fled. And at the end of the week, the Biden administration released the results of a report that suggests Israel likely violated international law in its military operations; the report itself is inconclusive because the authors say the evidence was incomplete.

These moves prompted an angry and defiant response from Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said his country would “fight with [its] fingernails” if forced to stand alone. The shifts in the Biden administration to highlight Washington’s growing concerns about the lack of protections for civilians in Gaza and the worsening humanitarian crisis also prompted a strong backlash from the Republican Party less than six months before the 2024 election.

Israel has ordered evacuations in Rafah, prompting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee, many of whom had already fled other parts of the Gaza Strip. Israel also stepped up military operations in Rafah as well as in northern Gaza, where it had conducted attacks months ago, a possible sign that it had no clear plan to maintain security and prevent the return of Hamas and other militant groups after initially clearing areas. These fast-moving events of the past week after the collapse of diplomatic efforts cast a pall over the wider plans the Biden administration had to promote a broader regional de-escalation and normalization efforts. The national security advisors of the two countries spoke on the telephone on Sunday and planned another in-person meeting to share mutual concerns about the next phase of military operations in Gaza.

The turbulence in US-Israeli ties over the past week may be a harbinger of things to come if Israel moves into Rafah in a large-scale military operation, particularly one that doesn’t seek to enhance protections for civilians and address the growing humanitarian crisis.

A bigger gap looms on the horizon between the United States and Israel: the lack of a consensus about the desired end state in the days and years after the military conflict is over. The Biden administration is quietly working with partners across the Middle East to develop plans for the governance and reconstruction of Gaza, but Israel has not yet offered a clear vision of what it seeks in a post-war settlement. In both the short term and long term, there may be more bumps ahead in US-Israeli ties if both countries don’t work together to bridge the emerging divides.

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Israel invades Rafah, while Hamas and Israel negotiations at standstill

Nasir Almasri
Graduate Fellow, Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs

Nasir Almasri
  • As Israel-Hamas negotiations falter, the Israeli invasion of Rafah deepens the already catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

  • Israel claims it can “stand alone” despite intense reliance on the United States; and without greater external pressure, neither Israel nor Hamas has much incentive to budge.

Last Tuesday, Israeli troops launched the opening phase of an invasion of the city of Rafah, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. They seized the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, blocked the entry of food and aid, ordered the displacement of over 400,000 Palestinians to other parts of Gaza that Israel’s military had already devastated, and intensified aerial bombardments. Yet despite the already catastrophic humanitarian situation, Israel and Hamas appear to be at a political standstill regarding negotiations, while Israel claims that Rafah is the “last” Hamas stronghold, even as its forces simultaneously re-intensify their offensive in the north.

On the one hand, Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades appear to be fairly intact. And while it’s impossible to precisely estimate Hamas’ overall strength, the group has demonstrated its ability to engage in protracted conflict as well as to regroup and initiate combat in places where Israel has long claimed control (most recently in Jabaliya, in the north). Nor has it significantly shifted its demands for a complete Israeli withdrawal, prisoner swaps, reconstruction, or ending the siege of Gaza. Hamas also maintains public support for its continued fight against Israel, though it has declined somewhat since October. On the other hand, Israel’s current war cabinet does not appear imminently threatened, despite massive protests in Tel Aviv calling for a cease-fire and the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign. This is likely because Benny Gantz and others in the Israeli opposition, despite leading in the polls, cannot muster sufficient votes to assemble an alternative coalition to that of Netanyahu. Indeed, his war cabinet intends to expand the Rafah operation soon.

Because each side has little incentive to change course, external pressure is necessary to break this deadlock. Pressure on Israel is mounting: The Biden administration withheld certain weapons shipments to Israel due to its operations in Rafah and suggested, in a report to Congress, that Israel may have violated international human rights law — though the investigation drew no definitive conclusions. The US Central Intelligence Agency also appears at odds with Israeli officials over cease-fire negotiations. In addition, the United Arab Emirates rejected Israeli calls for an Emirati role in managing Gaza under Israeli occupation after combat ends. Finally, three Israeli whistleblowers recently detailed the grotesque conditions of torture to which Palestinian men have been subjected at a military detention center in the Negev desert.

Yet the increased pressure on Netanyahu and the Israeli war cabinet remains insufficient to force a change in Israel’s political calculus. Indeed, Netanyahu pushed back on his American allies, suggesting that Israel can “stand alone” if necessary, while Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari noted that “the army has munitions for the missions it plans.” Ultimately, even greater pressure from the United States is crucial to bring about a lasting cease-fire.

Withholding weapons from Israel is a tactical move

Joseph L. Votel
Distinguished Senior Fellow on National Security

Joseph L. Votel
  • The Biden administration’s decision to withhold unguided bombs from Israel over the looming Rafah offensive was not taken lightly, but it was a tactical (and mostly symbolic) move to push the Israeli government to modify its approach in Gaza in the near term.

  • The withhold itself is unlikely to impact current military operations as Israel probably has the equipment to wage this campaign; moreover, billions of additional dollars in security assistance will flood into Israel in the coming weeks and months to help the country address the diversity of threats it faces in almost every direction.

This past week, the Biden administration withheld unguided bombs from Israel over the country’s looming Rafah offensive. The stated reason was to prevent these munitions from contributing to the further suffering of displaced Palestinians in the Rafah area. This action was taken out of apparent frustration by the administration at what it views as a lack of focus on the dire humanitarian situation in southern Gaza. The consistently reported large number of Palestinian casualties as well as the inconsistent delivery of humanitarian aid drove this decision. The increasing outcry by some lawmakers and American citizens (especially on college campuses) over the outsize impact this war is having on the Palestinian population is a significant factor as well. The withholding is a tactical move by the White House to employ a lever designed to compel the Israelis to modify their approach in this critical campaign phase. Some are characterizing it as a significant change in the United States’ policy toward Israel. It is not.

This is not the first time a US president has exercised his authority to stop or delay the provision of weapons and military articles to Israel. President Ronald Reagan did it on several occasions when he assessed Israeli military actions did not align with US policy objectives. Sales and provisioning of US arms, equipment, and munitions always come with caveats to ensure employment in the intended manner and in a way that comports with international law.

Pure and simple, this is a tactical policy move to attempt to modify Israel’s conduct in its now seven-month-long campaign. Whether this was a good policy idea or not is debatable. On the one hand, Israel is a nation at war after a vicious attack on its citizens and sovereignty after Oct. 7. Many can agree that it is in America’s interest to see Israel defeat Hamas and we should provide Israel with the tools it needs and latitude to do what it must. On the other hand, the US has a responsibility to ensure that the arms and munitions it provides to partners are not used to cause unnecessary suffering by innocent civilians or violate international law. Many could argue — correctly — that this sets us apart from states like Russia or China, which exercise few qualms about how their military aid (or technologies) are employed.

While I am confident this decision was not taken lightly, it is, in fact, a tactical (and mostly symbolic) move to push Israel to modify its approach in the near term. The withhold itself is unlikely to impact current military operations as Israel probably has the equipment to wage this campaign — or else Israeli forces would not have initiated the current limited operations in Rafah. Moreover, billions of dollars more in security assistance will flood into Israel in the coming weeks and months to help the country address the diversity of threats it faces in almost every direction.

The challenge for many observers is that two ideas compete simultaneously. One is the absolute need for Israel to dismantle Hamas’ war-making capability so another Oct. 7 can never happen again. The other is the need to protect millions of Palestinians displaced by the war. The administration’s decision to withhold this shipment of munitions is an attempt to try to balance both requirements. Whether that is enough remains to be seen.

Pakistan still roiling from last year’s assault on the establishment

Marvin G. Weinbaum
Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies

Marvin G. Weinbaum
  • A year on from the events of May 9, 2023, which pushed Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and the military establishment headlong into conflict, Pakistan remains deeply polarized politically and divided ideologically.

  • Attempts to crush Khan politically and diminish his movement may have backfired, bolstering his popularity and anti-military narrative; further moves in this direction, including a potential ban of the party, could have major consequences not only for the country’s fragile democratic system but also for its stability.

Pakistan marked the first anniversary of the May 9 riots last week, and the country appears to be as deeply polarized politically and divided ideologically as ever. The mob attacks on key military installations nationwide that day are seen by some as a failed coup attempt, a “black day” in Pakistan’s history, while others view them as a “false flag” operation to justify a decisive crackdown on the political opposition. What is uncontested is that the events of May 9 dramatically altered relations between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the military establishment, pushing them headlong into conflict. Spearheading this confrontation are PTI party leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army chief Gen. Asim Munir, with both using every means at their disposal, determined to bring the other down.

Over the past year, Khan and his PTI were brought to what was thought to be near extinction. Not only did Khan’s party seem to be on the verge of disintegration due to the widespread defection of prominent members, but military courts aggressively pursued riot suspects, resulting in mass arrests and trials of party activists and key PTI leaders. Meanwhile, Khan, purportedly the mastermind behind the attacks, facing charges of financial misconduct and abuse of power, remained imprisoned.

Yet these attempts to crush Khan politically and diminish his movement may have backfired. The incarcerated former prime minister has used his claims of victimization to bolster his popularity. He has managed to transform his image from champion of a lost cause to comeback contender. A defiant Khan has pushed an anti-military narrative that resonates across the country. Scorning the Army chief and the military establishment, Khan’s message has dominated airtime, and his presence on social media has been commanding. The national polls on Feb. 8 and the post-election legal maneuvers, which he perceives as having denied him a rightful return to power, have rejuvenated his campaign against corruption and a politically interventionist military.

Any remaining hopes of dialogue and possible reconciliation between Khan and the military establishment now seem much diminished, and the prospect of an irreversible showdown has grown. The military refuses to engage without a public apology from Khan and has called upon him to abandon what it terms the “politics of anarchy and hate.” Citing the events of May 9, the military has vowed “unyielding justice” against those deemed as threats to the state. Declining to apologize, Khan demands that the military end “the absurd tradition of interfering in politics” and has labeled its latest statements against the PTI as “unconstitutional and illegal.” The PTI and opposition parties have promised countrywide protests in solidarity with Khan and in support of demands for his release from prison.

The military courts have yet to deliver a verdict on the May 9 accused, primarily due to concerns over potential challenges in civilian courts that may favor the PTI. Many judges have broken their silence, criticizing security agencies for interfering in their proceedings, a charge currently under review by the Supreme Court. The growing divide between the military establishment and the judiciary helps explain why, despite demands for the formation of an independent judicial inquiry committee to investigate the May 9 riots, such a body has not yet been established.

To provide legal cover for the military establishment’s maneuvering, the government has announced plans to introduce legislation that would make life significantly worse for the PTI, and possibly even ban the party. These actions could be consequential not only for the country’s fragile democratic system but also for its stability. Khan has warned that continued efforts to shut him out of politics could result in tragic events akin to those that accompanied Pakistan’s split in the 1971 Bangladesh War. With the country so divided and emotionally charged, it cannot be ruled out that anger over Khan’s treatment could serve as the catalyst for widespread unrest by the masses frustrated by economic conditions that — together with aggrieved Baloch and Pashtun nationalists and opportunistic militant Islamic zealots — could threaten the integrity of the state. This is an outcome that neither PTI loyalists nor the military establishment, for all their differences, would want to see.

Research assistant Naad-e-Ali Sulehria contributed to this piece.

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Photo by AFP via Getty Images

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