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  • Oded Raanan and Gedaliah Afterman

“The US And Israel Must Discuss the ‘Day After’ in Gaza – Now”

Michael Singh, a former senior White House and United States National Security Council official, stresses that Israel cannot delay setting political objectives for the next phases of the conflict, which he expects will last for years. Currently the Managing Director of the Washington Institute, he asserts that the US’s role in the present phase of the war is primarily to maintain dialogue with all sides, hear their demands – and then try to square the circle


Israeli troops in Gaza
 Israeli troops in Gaza. Military operations are already making way for the diplomatic phase of the conflict | Source: IDF website

“The current Israeli military operation in Gaza will likely soon give way to a counter-terrorism-focused phase with a much lighter footprint, and then, sometime in the next few weeks, the diplomatic and regional element of this conflict will become much more prominent. Consequently, the questions regarding the ‘Day After’ will be the big challenge going forward: What type of military operations will Israel lead? What role, if any, will the Palestinian Authority play in Gaza? And is the ultimate destination for this process a two-state solution, or a different configuration altogether? It's vitally important that the US and Israel have these discussions – now.”

 

Since Hamas forces stormed out of the Gaza Strip on 7 October 2023, killing over 1,200 Israelis and taking over 200 hostages, the United States has offered Israel unwavering military and diplomatic support – sending two carrier groups to the Middle East and a non-stop supply of munitions, as well as shielding Israel from harmful resolutions in international forums. This has come at a significant price for its relations with the region and, arguably, also its global interests.

 

"The public and private disagreements between the US and Israel reflect two close partners dealing with an extraordinarily difficult and tense situation"

 

Michael Singh, Managing Director and Lane-Swig Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Studies and a member of the Board of Directors of the United States Institute of Peace, sees the recent conflict as both upending and reaffirming US approaches towards Israel and the broader Middle East. He argues that both the US and Israel need to quickly acknowledge and internalize that the conflict will be “a long war with multiple, different phases, which we’re going to be spending years on.”

Michael Singh (Photo: Washington Institute)
Michael Singh (Photo: Washington Institute)

 

The former Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs at the White House and Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, who is intimately familiar with the machinations of Capitol Hill foreign policy-making, offers insight into the way the war is viewed in Washington DC, on tensions and divisions between the allied governments, and how a superpower approaches a war whose ripples are felt throughout the entire Middle East.

 

A resilient partnership under stress

The question of the “Day After” in Gaza has also inevitably led to tensions between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government. In a visit to Israel on 9 January 2024, Secretary of State Antony Blinken explicitly stated that Israel must allow residents of northern Gaza to return to their homes and urged Israel to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the Strip.[1] Israel has so far largely refused to consider repopulating northern Gaza – primarily for security reasons and as leverage for releasing Israeli hostages held by Hamas, but also because of stiff opposition within Netanyahu’s coalition towards any concessions to the Palestinians.[2]

 

Unlike some commentators, Singh does not identify a crisis broiling between the two allies. “The relationship between our two countries is based on two things: shared values and shared interests. In both cases, I don’t think anything has fundamentally changed,” he claims.

 

“On the topic of the ‘Day After,’ there are disagreements both between the sides and within the sides. First and foremost, there's little to no consensus on these matters within Israel. But no less importantly, there's also less consensus on them within the US. So the types of public and private disagreements we are seeing between the US and Israel now reflect two close partners dealing with an extraordinarily difficult and tense situation, where each side’s interests overlap but are not necessarily identical.

 

"For two politicians who come from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, we've actually seen pretty good cooperation between Biden and Netanyahu"

 

“However, this is entirely to be expected. I served as a US official during the Second Intifadah, the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, and previous iterations of conflicts in Gaza – part of that time at the US embassy in Tel-Aviv – and disagreements were the case then as well. So, to me, this is nothing new.”

 

What Singh does find novel is the steadfast support President Biden has provided Israel so far. “Admittedly, I’ve been surprised by the extent of President Biden's support for Israel and how long it's been sustained,” he says. “There's a lot of pressure on him to demand a ceasefire – from the world as well as from certain quarters in the US, especially from his left flank. But he's resisted – frankly, for longer than I would have expected.

 

“That's not to say that the US and Israel won't reach a point where disagreements become more significant, and maybe we're getting closer to that point.[3] Coordination on immediate, tactical matters is one thing; discussions about the ‘Day After’ are bound to be more contentious. But for two politicians who come from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, we've actually seen pretty good cooperation between the US and Israel under Biden and Netanyahu.”

 

This cooperation is, however, often publicly overshadowed by both sides’ public rhetoric. Netanyahu has several times denied reports that US demands have steered Israeli policy and has used them to proclaim[4] that he can withstand any external pressure – supposedly aiming to boost his domestic standings, which have plummeted[5] since the October 7th massacre. The Biden administration, in turn, has also at times issued forceful rebukes of Israel’s actions in Gaza.[6]

 

Singh sees this tit-for-tat as a performance by both sides meant for domestic consumption. “The Biden administration has a political imperative to demonstrate to its domestic and international audiences that it's not simply offering unreserved support for Israel, but that it's also concurrently delivering a message of restraint, a message that it's important to respect the laws of armed conflict, and so forth,” he explains. “However, the nature of the US-Israel relationship is that far more robust conversations on these issues are being held behind closed doors and almost never reach the public – which is as it should be.”


Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, 9 January 2024
Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, 9 January 2024. American demands are often met with stiff opposition from Netanyahu's coalition | Official State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy (public domain)

The regional solution

Regional cooperation remains the cornerstone of any diplomatic and security solution to the ongoing conflict, according to Singh. To achieve this, he believes that the US, Israel, and Arab states need to reach “some kind of mutual understanding” about the burning issues – not just to conclude the war in Gaza, “but to ensure that we end up in a better place mutually than we started.

 

“Gaza is a very small territory with a large population, and even under the best of circumstances – if it had constructive leadership and people who wanted to make peace – it's not going to be sustainable or successful without integration with the region,” he points out. “It follows that Gaza’s reconstruction is going to have to be addressed within a regional framework.”

 

However, he is aware that past approaches are now dated. “The US is keenly tuned to the fact that the center of political gravity in the Arab world has shifted since the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’” says Singh. “In the past decade, the Gulf states – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Qatar – have risen in the prominence and influence, at the expense of formerly dominant states like Egypt and Syria. This presents new opportunities, but also difficulties.

 

“If we want to succeed in tampering down this conflict, or even resolving it, those big Arab states must be willing to work with Israel as key partners, in the same way that in the past we would have involved Jordan and Egypt,” Singh argues. “Luckily, Arab-Israeli relations have dramatically improved in recent years, largely thanks to the Abraham Accords. Consequently, there’s a much greater prospect of securing Arab states’ participation and investment in resolving this conflict.” However, while Washington views Arab-Israeli normalization since 2020 as “a new and powerful asset,” he claims its officials are still struggling to understand how best to use it.

 

"America’s partners in the Gulf will likely condition increased cooperation with Israel on it and US both paying more attention to the Palestinians"

 

For the former senior White House official, the United States’ role in the current phase of the conflict is not to craft a solid plan of action, but rather to maintain constant dialogue with all sides, hear their demands and needs, and then try to square the circle. “Israel will have any number of near-term requests and imperatives with respect to Gaza and West Bank security, and it will seek Arab participation in that – especially on reconstruction and economic investment, and perhaps also on the security side,” he anticipates.

 

“However, that's going to be difficult to achieve because America’s partners in the in the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will most likely condition increased cooperation with Israel on the Israeli and US governments both paying more attention to the Palestinian issue.[7] There's eventually going to have to be a bit of a compromise in both Washington and Jerusalem on that score.”

 

Nevertheless, Singh admits he is currently skeptical about the chances of engaging Arab states in solving the Gaza problem. “To the extent Saudi Arabia, UAE, and others have an interest in trade and in security cooperation with Israel, we hope that gives them an interest in playing a role in resolving this conflict, because it serves as an obstacle to achieving them,” he says. “But do they currently have such an interest? Looking at their statements so far during this conflict, I'm far from certain they’re ready to make such a big investment.

 

“At the end of the day, everyone wants Gaza to be someone else's problem, not their own. Consequently, I predict that it'll again fall upon the US to play a leading diplomatic role in crafting a solution. But if the region won't buy in and participate, it can't be successful.”

 

Singh is less optimistic regarding the possibility of a diplomatic solution for Israel’s escalating skirmishes with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. “Israel has a very difficult problem with Hezbollah, and my expectation is that will come to a head sometime in the next few weeks,” he says.

 

“If the organization eventually backs off – which I think is more likely than a full-scale conflict – it will have done so because it is deterred; that is, because Hezbollah understands that the cost of an outright military conflict with Israel would be devastating. It’s unlikely that this outcome will be the result of border negotiations – remember, Hezbollah is not prepared to recognize Israel’s existence – and offering territorial concessions to this entity in response to its threats would be misguided.”

 

The global geopolitical context

A well-worn adage of American foreign policy is that while the US can attempt to ignore the Middle East while crafting its global strategy, the Middle East will eventually once again demand its attention. Hamas’s attack on October 7th seems to be the latest proof of this maxim, but Singh nevertheless asserts that, despite diverting considerable resources to the region since October 7th, the US remains primarily focused on the Indo-Pacific theater. “That's where we see the real threat to American interests,” he emphasizes. “The big picture hasn’t changed in this respect.

 

“Having said that, making foreign and national security policy isn't just about choosing where you want to focus your attention and resources. While very few American policymakers would say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a core interest of the United States in the Middle East, I think we're seeing that it nevertheless has a lot of capacity to interfere with what we hope to achieve in the region. The real challenge going forward is dealing with this issue, while ensuring that it doesn't prevent you from carrying out your main strategy.

 

“But it’s also imperative to point out another important aspect regarding our support of Israel. US foreign policy is also about defending our partners and allies; about maintaining our credibility and deterrence by honoring these obligations. For Washington, this is crucial and cannot ever be regarded as ‘inconvenient,’ because that will embolden our adversaries.

 

SU troops load military cargo onto a C-17 Globemaster at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, en route to Israel, on 15 October 2023
SU troops load military cargo onto a C-17 Globemaster at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, en route to Israel, on 15 October 2023 | Photo: SrA Edgar Grimaldo (public domain)*

“Why are we helping Ukraine? Because we believe it's incredibly important that Russia and China understand that we will stand up to territorial aggrandizement of the sort that the Russian invasion of Ukraine represents. That we will stand up against this type of aggression by a neighbor even for a country that, while not a treaty ally, is a fellow democracy.”

 

His analogy carries over to Israel, too: “If Iran or Hezbollah attack Israel, are we going to make a statement at the UN? Sanction them? Of course not. If that happens, other priorities in the world will not matter – the US is going to defend Israel, even if it entails a direct military intervention and confronting Hezbollah. I think that's the key point here.”

 

For Singh, the US’s deep involvement in the conflict and its attempts to prevent a regional spillover should serve also to disprove the common trope that Washington is growing increasingly uninterested in the Middle East. “The US always gets accused by its regional partners of ‘withdrawing’ or ‘disengaging’ from the Middle East, but I don't think that’s the view in Washington,” he argues. “As a strategic imperative, we have to put greater emphasis on the Indo-Pacific – and that has implications for the attention and resources we're able to devote to other regions.

 

“Since President Obama launched the ‘Pivot to Asia’ in 2012, the US’s Middle East strategy is to try to build up the capabilities of our allies and partners in the region. We’ve ceased treating the Middle East merely as a series of conflicts to be contained or resolved; instead, we now engage with our regional partners as collaborators in addressing wider issues like the rise of China, climate change, and others. I don't think that the current conflict changes this trajectory.”

 

"When conflicts [in the Middle East] break out, all eyes turn to the United States to solve the problem, and China's given a free pass [...] Then, when the dust settles, Biejing will again be busy making deals in the region"

 

Yet tensions between the US and its Arab allies and partners are predictably heightened nowadays following the broad military and diplomatic support the US has provided Israel during the Gaza conflict. Simultaneously, they also touch upon another thorny issue from Washington’s perspective – the growing superpower competition with Beijing in the Middle East.

 

“When conflicts [in the Middle East] break out, all eyes turn to the United States to solve the problem, and China's given a free pass,” Singh argues. “Beijing just makes irresponsible statements at the UN Security Council in an attempt to curry favor with the global South, without taking any real responsibility. Then, when the dust settles, it will again be busy making deals in the region.

 

“This trend underscores American frustration with many of our Middle Eastern partners. I think that, moving forward, the United States will want to say to them – ‘If you view us as indispensable in resolving these kinds of conflicts, then we expect more cooperation in helping us deal with our security issues. This must be a two-way street.’ However, I’m skeptical that such a move will succeed.”

 

A new mentality

What does the US take away from the past three months of the conflict? Singh identifies three main lessons:

 

“First – you must deter your adversaries, which will hopefully spare you from having to fight them. But deterrence is not a passive activity or a matter of words; it's a matter of presence and of action. I still believe the best way to avoid a war in the Middle East is to sustain an American presence here, one which is sufficient to make our adversaries worry – and, if need be, sometimes use that presence in a very robust way against them.

 

“My criticism of the Biden administration at this point is not so much that we're being spread too thin or that we're too focused on the Middle East, but that we're not acting forcefully enough in response to attacks against our forces in the region. And that is ultimately what risks getting us tied down here. I think it’s important that we be able to strike back much more sharply against Iran and its proxies.

 

“Ultimately, then, deterrence is the most important thing, and that's actually something that Israel believes strongly in as well. As a result, I think in the long run we won’t look back on October 7th and ask, ‘How do we go to war and defeat all of our adversaries?’ Instead, we’ll ask, ‘How do we restore deterrence so we don't have to fight this sort of war again?’


 “The second lesson is the need to bolster our efforts to recruit additional countries for the sake of both international legitimacy and burden-sharing. The threat to shipping in the Bab el-Mandab Strait is a case in point: it’s an international problem, with the Houthis attacking ships seemingly at random, even those with no connection to the US or Israel.


American guided-missile destroyer USS Carney shoots down Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea, on 19 October 2023
American guided-missile destroyer USS Carney shoots down Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea, on 19 October 2023 | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aaron Lau (public domain)*

“Fortunately, the Biden administration been able to establish Operation Prosperity Guard, a multinational security taskforce to deter or prevent attacks against vessels.[8] The coalition's military response to the Houthi attacks on freedom of navigation since the last weekend, and any future responses, are entirely justified and warranted. That freedom is a core American interest in the Middle East and in the world, and indeed is one of the reasons we have a global navy. The US cannot afford to allow a terrorist group to assert control of a key commercial waterway, and frankly, neither can any other country around the world. Responding firmly and decisively is an international responsibility, but one which requires US leadership.


“Third and finally – there is no doubt that Ukraine, much more than Gaza, demonstrates the price we're paying for long years of under-investment in our defense industrial base, and in Western defense industrial base more generally. We need to expand it at home and in Europe, because while we aren't stretched thin now, if a crisis erupts in Taiwan while we still had other conflicts going on, the US would be at a considerable risk of lacking sufficient munitions or platforms to deal with it – and that's just not acceptable.

 

"We need to adopt a kind of wartime mentality with respect to our defense industrial base now, rather than sustaining the current peacetime mentality"

 

“The US can't just wait for the big conflict to break out, as we admittedly have done many times in the past, like the Second World War. We need to adopt a kind of wartime mentality with respect to our defense industrial base now, rather than sustaining the current peacetime mentality.

 

“Admittedly, that's much easier said than done, because it entails a big financial investment in defense, which so far Congress hasn't been willing to make. I honestly don't have an answer as to what will be necessary to change that mentality.”

 

Oded Raanan  serves as the editor-in-chief of "The Arena" magazine, published by the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy & Foreign Relations at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), Israel.


Dr. Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Programme at the Abba Eban Institute.


Notes:

[1] Jennifer Hansler, "Blinken tells Israeli government that Palestinians must be allowed to return to homes in Gaza," CNN,  9 January 2024. https://edition.cnn.com/2024/01/09/politics/blinken-israel-gaza-war-talks/index.html

 

[2] "US condemns far-right Israeli ministers’ call for Palestinians to ‘emigrate’ from Gaza," France24, 3 January 2024. https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20240103-us-condemns-far-right-israeli-ministers-call-for-palestinians-to-emigrate-from-gaza

 

[3] Barak Ravid, "Scoop: Biden in "frustrating" call told Bibi to solve Palestinian tax revenue issue," Axios, 28 December 2023. https://www.axios.com/2023/12/28/biden-netanyahu-call-palestinian-authority-tax-revenue

 

[4] Itamar Eichner and Yuval Karni, "Netanyahu: 'Ben-Gurion was a Great Leader, But Ultimately He Bowed to US Pressure", Ynet, 12 December 2023 (Hebrew). https://www.ynet.co.il/news/article/sk3ywpb8a


[5] "After tumbling in polls, Netanyahu clings to power and aims to improve political standing during war," PBS News Hour, 3 January 2024. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/after-tumbling-in-polls-netanyahu-clings-to-power-and-aims-to-improve-political-standing-during-war

 

[6] Kevin Liptak and Jeremy Diamond, "Rifts between Biden and Netanyahu spill into public view," CNN, 12 December 2023. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/12/12/politics/biden-israel-losing-support-netanyahu/index.html

 

[7] Lee Harpin, "Saudi ambassador to UK offers continued hope for normalisation deal with Israel," Jewish News, 9 January 2024. https://www.jewishnews.co.uk/saudi-ambassador-to-uk-offers-continued-hope-for-normalisation-deal-with-israel/


[8] Jim Garamone, "Ryder Gives More Detail on How Operation Prosperity Guardian Will Work," US Department of Defense, 21 December 2023. https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3624836/ryder-gives-more-detail-on-how-operation-prosperity-guardian-will-work/


* The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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