Joe Biden’s administration concentrates on Israel’s eventual end to high intensity war in Gaza and its transition to a more limited, focused conflict.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on Monday for talks expected to concentrate on Israel’s eventual end to high intensity war in Gaza and its transition to a more limited, focused conflict, officials say.
For Austin, the trip is a delicate balancing act. He has steadfastly supported Israel's right defend itself following Palestinian militant group Hamas' surprise Oct. 7 attacks. But he has also become increasingly vocal about the plight of civilians in Gaza as Israeli strikes increase the number of casualties.
In a speech earlier this month, Austin went as far to call civilians the “center of gravity” in Israel’s war with Hamas, Gaza’s ruling Palestinian Islamist movement, and warned about the risks of their radicalization. A senior U.S. defense official accompanying Austin told reporters that he was expected to discuss Israel's planning for a transition to the next phase of the war in his talks with senior Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
“What you see in terms of the high-intensity land operations, in addition to air strikes, today is not going to continue forever. It’s just one phase of a campaign,” the official said. “We are interested in supporting the Israelis in planning for what a transition looks like when they make the decision that major land operations should end and they’re ready to transition.”
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said both the U.S. and Israel seemed to agree on an eventual transition to a next phase of the campaign.
But Washington wants that to happen sooner, perhaps in a few weeks, while Israel feels it needs more time, he added. “So, they agree on the way ahead, and the need to eventually transition to a more targeted approach, but there are controversies regarding the timeframes,” he said.
When U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan visited Israel last week, Netanyahu told him Israel would fight “until absolute victory”. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the war would “last more than several months”. With fierce land fighting having expanded this month across the length of the Gaza Strip and aid organizations warning of a humanitarian catastrophe, last week Biden said that Israel risked losing international support because of “indiscriminate” air strikes killing Palestinian civilians.
Austin, a retired general, oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East and even led US troops in Iraq, which may help him in discussions with Israeli officials, the Pentagon spokesman added. Austin, according to official, is familiar with how to conduct military action “on the other side of an intense conflict to ensure that a military reconstitution of Hamas is not viable or feasible.”
As a mark of Biden’s administration'’ intense focus on the Israel-Hamas conflict, Austin is accompanied in Israel by Air Force Gen. Charles Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Austin and Brown are also grappling with the regional effects of the war, with groups linked to Iran carrying out attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria and the Houthi movement in Yemen attacking vessels in the Red Sea in support of Hamas.
The Iranian-backed Houthis said over the weekend that they had attacked the Israeli resort of Eilat on the Red Sea with a swarm of drones. U.S. Central Command said the USS Carney shot down 14 Houthi drones over the Red Sea on Saturday. Britain also said one of its warships shot down a suspected attack drone targeting merchant shipping.