Middle East

Does Biden Understand Netanyahu’s Aims in Gaza?

Author: Editors Desk, Isaac Chotiner Source: The New Yorker
May 14, 2024 at 16:03
U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at an event. . Source photograph by Scott Olson / Getty
U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at an event. . Source photograph by Scott Olson / Getty
Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East negotiator, on the competing interests stymieing a hostage deal—and a possible end to the war.

Last week, President Joe Biden told CNN that he had stopped a shipment of large bombs to Israel out of concern that it was about to launch a major military operation in Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population is sheltering. “I made it clear that if they go into Rafah—they haven’t gone in Rafah yet—if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities,” Biden told Erin Burnett. This decision comes after more than seven months of war, during which the White House has been militarily and diplomatically supporting Israel, despite Biden himself calling the country’s method of warfare “indiscriminate.” The Administration has also asked Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, where more than thirty-four thousand people have already been killed. Does Biden’s latest decision mark a real break, and is it likely to change Israel’s behavior?

Whoever said, “All good things come to an end,” never received a New Yorker newsletter.

I recently spoke by phone with the ambassador Dennis Ross, a former State Department official who served as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East. Ross—who is currently a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—was intimately involved in the Camp David negotiations during the Clinton Administration, and has written several books, including “The Missing Peace.” (Ross and I spoke before Biden’s CNN interview, but after the decision to delay the bombs had already leaked.) During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what Benjamin Netanyahu’s war aims really are, why the Biden Administration is so set on a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and how the Israeli public sees the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

What do you think about the Biden Administration’s policy regarding Israel and Gaza almost eight months into the war?

I think the basic approach has been right. You had to be supportive of Israel, given what Hamas did, and given what Hamas is. Hamas has basically built three hundred miles of tunnels underground, and built an underground structure that has come at the expense of developing Gaza on the surface. It had no interest in giving Palestinians any sense of possibility or hope. Everything was governed by preparing and continuing to try to do all it could to destroy Israel.

So the sense that there should not be any level of support for Hamas, that there should not be anything except opposition to it, is right. Israel has not been responsive when it comes to permitting enough humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and the Administration has also been right to put more pressure on Israel to insure that that is delivered. The one area where the Administration has a challenge—and it’s not a simple one—is, How do you help prepare for what comes next? Israel itself seems to have an unclear position on what comes next, and if Israel isn’t defining it more clearly, then, maybe, there needs to be more of an effort to define it clearly on the part of the United States.

The first thing you said was that, given what Hamas did on October 7th, and how they’ve behaved in Gaza, the Administration should be in opposition to Hamas. That never seemed like it was in doubt. And then the second thing was about allowing more humanitarian aid in. The Administration has definitely been very public in saying that we need more humanitarian aid, but, in terms of carrots and sticks, it’s never really pushed Netanyahu. The Administration did recently pause a shipment of weapons, but basically it seems willing to fight back against Democrats in Congress who have brought up human-rights concerns, and so on. And the amount of aid has ticked up, but it’s still not nearly enough. Is the Administration actually putting pressure on Israel?

Well, I think the answer is yes. Look, there’s a question of how much pressure the Administration put on at which point and what the right way to do it was. In a sense, what you’re getting at is that the U.S. has leverage. What’s the best way to exercise that leverage with this Israeli government? And obviously this is an Israeli government that has an extreme right-wing faction. It basically has Messianic nationalists in it, and you have Netanyahu, who’s been trying to manage those within that government on the one hand, and on the other hand trying to adopt a position that preserves the relationship with Biden.

You also have to look at the context in which Israel was operating. The idea of providing humanitarian assistance into Gaza was profoundly unpopular, and not just with the right wing in Israel, because hostages are being held, and no access is given to them. They’re being held in the absolutely most terrible circumstances. And so the attitude among most Israelis was, Why should we be providing humanitarian assistance to Gaza at a time when they allow no access to the hostages?

After the World Central Kitchen attack, Biden made it unmistakably clear that we would reassess our policy. The number of trucks went from around a hundred a day to more than four hundred a day. Immediately there was a change. That shows that obviously there was an ability—

I think the average is still less than two hundred per day. But go on.

But the point is it went up significantly. [The daily average number of trucks entering Gaza rose from around a hundred and sixty in March to a hundred and ninety in April. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that “the flow of aid into Gaza has almost entirely dried up in the past week.”] Part of the problem, by the way, is not the number of trucks going in. It’s the distribution inside. And that’s less Israel—it’s more the chaos that has been created there and also the continuing ability of armed gangs, whether Hamas or not, to divert materials away from the people who most need the assistance.

The Biden Administration’s envoy for the Middle East said, in February, that he hadn’t seen any evidence presented by Israel that Hamas has been stealing aid delivered by the U.N. But are you saying you’ve heard that that is going on?

There clearly are examples of Hamas having diverted assistance. [On Friday, the State Department released a new report on the war that said, “Hamas has at times sought to direct the distribution of humanitarian assistance not to maximize the benefits to civilians in Gaza but rather to try to maintain its effective control of governance functions.” It did not provide any examples.]

You pointed out that, given the way the hostages are being treated, some people in Israel are asking why they should be providing humanitarian aid to Gaza at all. I think one answer would be that Israel talks about itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, that it has shared liberal values with other countries, and that just because Hamas is doing terrible things doesn’t mean that children deserve to starve. That doesn’t seem like too hard an argument to make.

No, look, I mean, if you go back, I wrote a piece in the New York Times a couple of weeks into the war, in which I emphasized that it was in Israel’s practical and political interest, and the morally right thing, to provide humanitarian assistance. And, if the Israeli public was against it, the Israeli leadership had to act with a strategic mind-set. It was always in Israel’s interest to be fighting Hamas and not punishing the Palestinian public, and it was in our interest to basically say to Netanyahu, We can provide you the time and space so you can succeed in defeating Hamas, but you have to provide the humanitarian assistance. And the Administration has been pressing that the whole time. I think the question is: Was it exerting enough pressure on Netanyahu to get him to go along?

I’m still not in favor of withholding military assistance, because Israel’s the only country in the region facing countries that are threatening its existence, and those countries are not going to go away, and they’re not going to stop. So I don’t think it’s a good idea to withhold military assistance. There’s a question of whether [the U.S. should] provide consistent support at the U.N. Security Council. As a rule of thumb, I always favor that, but the fact is that there are points that Israeli leadership needs to understand. There are points at which we won’t be able to support them, and that should be clear. It’s very fair for Israeli leadership to say, We will do in the end what we have to do. But there’s a flip side to that. The U.S. also has interests. It also has values, and, where we see those being threatened, we also have the right to make certain decisions.

You recently co-wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs, in which you propose that the Israelis implement a short-term, unilateral ceasefire of four to six weeks. You also write, “To be sure, the far-right Israeli ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir will oppose any unilateral cease-fire, no matter its duration. But their war aims are not the same as Netanyahu’s or the Israeli public’s.” And then you say, “At some point or another, Netanyahu will have to choose between Biden and Ben-Gvir.” What do you think Netanyahu’s aims are, since you say they’re not the same as Ben-Gvir’s?

Well, he’s announced that Israel has no intention of wanting to stay in Gaza, whereas Ben-Gvir wants to stay in Gaza.

Sure, but, broadly, setting aside the long-term future of Gaza, what do you think Netanyahu’s aims are?

He has a political set of aims to be able to signal that somehow Israel has won. One of the criticisms I’ve had is that his objective of total victory is a slogan. It’s not a real objective. So he wants to be in a position where Gaza can’t be a platform for attacks against Israel, that Hamas is no longer in control of Gaza, and that there is, in the end, some Palestinian alternative. He will publicly say he doesn’t want the Palestinian Authority back there. Practically speaking, I think he understands there really isn’t an alternative to that.

This week, Anshel Pfeffer, the Haaretz columnist, wrote, of Netanyahu, “To keep his partners on board and prevent them from preempting an election, in which Likud will be decimated and he will be turfed out of office, he needs to keep the ‘total victory’ myth alive—and that is only possible by avoiding a deal with Hamas.” I’m curious what you think of that argument and just more broadly the critique that the Biden Administration has never totally understood that it’s in Netanyahu’s political interest, maybe even his interest in staying out of prison in the long run, to keep this war going. [Netanyahu faces a number of criminal charges, which he denies, that could result in prison time.]

The Administration has a strategy. The reason they’ve been pushing so hard for a hostage deal is not just because they want to get hostages out. It is believed that the only way you can really do a normalization deal between the Saudis and the Israelis is by getting a pause and having an atmosphere where you can both attend to the humanitarian needs on the ground in a more systematic, structured way and also finalize the deal, including on the Palestine component. And then you would bring that to Netanyahu, and he would have to make a choice. I think the Administration has been operating on the premise that his choice will be either to have his legacy be October 7th or transforming the Middle East with a breakthrough with the Saudis.

So that has been, I think, a guiding principle for what they’ve been trying to get done. That gets at the heart of what you’re asking, because, in a sense, the presumption is that he wants to continue the war because he thinks that this is what defers his legal issues, that it postpones any political changes and the like. But with this deal he actually has a positive choice. And I think the presumption is that, if he’s given that choice, he’ll choose to end the war.

As an expert, do you think that’s the choice he’s going to make? Because as an amateur, it just seems to me that that is definitely not the choice he’ll make.

I think there’s a reasonable chance that he would make that choice. Can I tell you absolutely that I have the same level of confidence today that he would make that choice as I might’ve had in the past? No, I don’t have the same level of confidence.

You mentioned the hostages. Many of the hostage families are against Netanyahu because they feel as though he does not, in fact, care about getting the hostages back. Netanyahu-friendly media in Israel—the far-right media—has in many cases been attacking the hostage families. Obviously, it’s extremely important just in moral terms to get the hostages back. But should we take as a given that what Netanyahu wants is to get the hostages back, that that’s his goal, that that’s the goal of this current Israeli government?

It’s definitely not the top priority for [Bezalel] Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. That’s clear. But, look, if you’re Bibi Netanyahu, and you’re claiming you’re going to produce victory—if you don’t get the hostages back, no one is going to believe that that’s victory. I mean, the idea that you can succeed in vanquishing Hamas but not get the hostages back—that will not be seen as victory. So do I think he wants to get the hostages back? Yes. Does he want to get the hostages back at the price of a deal that he thinks allows Hamas to look like they succeeded? No.

He has a dual objective, and I don’t think that’s unique to him. If you look at people such as Gadi Eisenkot, a war-cabinet minister, I think his attitude would be that the most important objective we have right now is to get the hostages back. I’m not sure it’s the same for Netanyahu.

I want to ask you about the Saudi normalization deal, which is a big part of your piece. I’ve been reading a version of this in Thomas Friedman’s columns, too, because he’s been a big proponent. He keeps saying in his columns, essentially, that Israel needs to choose. Are they going to normalize with the region or keep taking over the West Bank? And the idea would be normalization with more of the Arab world in exchange for Israel helping the Palestinians establish a pathway to a state. This just seems like a fantasy to me. Why do you disagree?

Well, one, because the Saudis haven’t walked away from the idea of doing the deal. Clearly, the Biden Administration has not walked away from doing the deal. I was just in Saudi Arabia a week ago. It’s very clear to me that they would still like to do the deal. I do think the price on the Palestinian issue has gone up since October 7th. Even pre-October 7th, I think they wanted to have something on the Palestinian issue to demonstrate that they got something for Palestinians that others didn’t get. That need in their eyes has gone up since October 7th, not down. And mostly because the imagery coming out of Gaza—which is played over and over again on Arab satellite TV, and not just Al Jazeera—has affected the psychology within Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region.

They want something more. They want something that is more likely to produce a Palestinian state than anything we’ve seen previously. My own view on that, by the way, is that we have to find a way to recognize Palestinian rights for self-determination with responsibilities that go with it. As I said when I was in Saudi Arabia, you don’t want a Palestinian state that’s led by Hamas. You don’t want a Palestinian state that’s going to be part of the Iranian “axis of resistance.” You don’t want a Palestinian state that has no real institutions and is a failed state. So there is a need. Yes, one needs to construct a path that absolutely can produce a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians have to have a set of responsibilities at the same time.

At the current moment—when Gaza is literally under rubble and the situation in the West Bank has got worse, where Israel seems to be taking over more and more of the West Bank, which, as far as I can tell, the Palestinians can’t do anything about—it just feels like a dispatch from a different universe to say that Palestinians need to take responsibility. It seems to me that any deal would just entail the Saudis pretending like they got something on the future of Palestine to appease their own population, and Netanyahu making deals with neighboring autocracies, which I suppose at one level is a good thing, in the sense that there’s no reason Israel should be in a warlike posture with all the countries near it, which was the situation fifty years ago. But tell me why you think I’m wrong.

I’ll just say one other thing. When I talk about responsibilities for the Palestinians, that doesn’t mean there aren’t responsibilities for the Israelis. You can’t say you’re trying to produce a two-state outcome, and then Israel is free to basically continue to build in the West Bank and insure there won’t be a Palestinian state. There has to be a parallel set of obligations. The approach now has to look at what the realities in the region are. Iran fired more than three hundred cruise missiles and drones in Israel. Iran has activated all of its proxies against the Israelis. The Iranian strategy toward Israel isn’t to drop a nuclear bomb on it. It’s to make it unlivable. So it is in Israel’s interest to actually be part of a coalition.

What we saw on April 14th was that the concept of a regional coalition wasn’t just an abstraction. For the first time in Israel’s history, there were actually countries who contributed to intercepting what was being launched against Israel. Israel didn’t do this entirely on its own. [Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan joined the United States in helping Israel shoot down Iranian drones.] In the aftermath of this war, you want to come out in a way that gives you a chance to shape a different future for the region, not to perpetuate what was there before. So I guess my answer to your question is that it’s not that any of this is easy, but the point is that you should be thinking ahead. You should be thinking about how we change things for the future. One of the problems with Netanyahu and this government has been the unwillingness to address what comes next. They have had tactical military successes, but they don’t have a strategic pathway because they’re leaving a vacuum.

Is it possible they want to leave a vacuum?


It’s not?

No, because it means it’s Somalia next door. It’s not in their interest. You have Somalia next door. At some point, you’re going to have half a million Palestinians on your border. They understand that.

Right, I don’t know exactly what the different people in Netanyahu’s government want. Maybe what I mean is that is it possible that they don’t want to lay a clear pathway for a Palestinian state?

Look, does this Israeli government want a pathway toward a Palestinian state? No way, all right? This Israeli government wants effectively one state, but it’s run by Israel. Hamas wants one state that has no place for Israelis.

Well, that’s my concern, I guess, in terms of the kind of deal either side would agree to. Or maybe I should ask the question this way: Are you saying that the White House should accept a normalization deal with the Saudis that didn’t include much for the Palestinians? Are you saying that a coalition against Iran is important enough that the Administration shouldn’t care that much about a Palestinian state?

What I’m saying is that you’re not going to get a deal if the Saudis can’t legitimately say, This is creating a pathway to a Palestinian state that has obligations on the Israeli side. But it also has some obligations on the Palestinian side, so that we’re actually going to have a two-state outcome that contributes to stability and peace. There’s a lot of things you have to overcome; both sides have to do some things on the ground. The Biden Administration is not thinking it can have just a fig leaf.

I was expressing these concerns to a friend of mine, and I sent him your piece, and he said, “I think you misunderstand the purpose of [this] Foreign Affairs piece. It isn’t meant to be a description of actual reality but the delineation of an alternate set of arguments . . . Ross assumes that this article can be used by whoever is left in Israel’s establishment that is sane to convince Bibi or a successor to change policy.” Was that in part the idea of the piece?

I had two audiences in mind. One was here and one was there. I look at the Biden Administration having a strategy that is a hostage deal and no Plan B. And my concern is that, if Yahya Sinwar is the arbiter of whether anything is possible, that may guarantee that nothing is possible. You can’t have an approach that is based solely on the idea of getting a hostage deal. You have to think of an alternative. And it was a way to appeal to the Administration. The reason you’re focussed on the hostage deal, aside from the human imperative, is because you need this pause to try to produce what you see as being transformative and changing in the region, meaning the normalization deal. And so I think, Well, here’s another way to get the pause. And here’s another way to actually shift and put a different pressure on Hamas. Shift the focus.

You’re talking about your short-term, unilateral-ceasefire idea, which is what the piece is about. You want Israel, if no ceasefire deal happens, to announce one unilaterally for four to six weeks, to ease the humanitarian situation and make progress on a Saudi deal.

Yes, exactly. Israel has a larger strategic possibility here. It shouldn’t lose sight of that. And the reason we were thinking about that was because you had this unusual circumstance where, for the first time in Israel’s history, there was a major contribution by others directly defending them. That’s not happened before. And so that represented a new development.

About a month ago, I interviewed your former colleague Aaron David Miller. In his book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” he writes, “Dennis, like myself, had an inherent tendency to see the world of Arab-Israeli politics first from Israel’s vantage point rather than from that of the Palestinians.” Do you think that was fair to say about your time in government? Is it fair now?

Both Aaron and I obviously looked at it through a lens of Israel being able to survive. It was a combination of our analysis and our sentiment, but we also understood something else. I’ll speak for myself. It was Israel that was being asked to make all the tangible concessions [at Camp David, in 2000]. The concessions being made to Israel were highly reversible. They were intangible. When you’re asking the side that is holding the territory to give that up, and what you’re giving them in return are promises, then you also have to think about how to address their concerns. How do you address their fears that this is all reversible? You tended to focus on a combination of the Israeli needs and how you could be persuasive to the Israelis, which required a certain level of reassurance. We also understood that Israel was facing those which rejected its existence. So we were mindful of the context in which we were operating.

[The former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin used to say to me, “I know we have to give up more than the other side”—he was talking about the Palestinians and the Syrians—“but I have to see that they’re prepared to do things that are hard for them, too.” It can’t be only Israel that has to do things that are hard. And I always felt that that was an important conceptual way to be thinking about it. And, basically, I was just saying it to you earlier, I want there to be parallel obligations. There needs to be parallel accountability.

I would say that, typically, in conflicts in which one side has the territory and the military power, the concessions are likely to come from that side. That almost seems tautological. I don’t want to dismiss what you say out of hand, but I think one critique you could make of America’s role in the Middle East would be that almost everyone in the American establishment sees it the way you do.

This is a conflict that has deep roots that trigger enormous passion and emotion. And the greatest single challenge as a mediator is to get out of the notion that everything is binary, that everything is zero-sum. I always teach my students that there are two things that are really hard for a mediator to do. The first thing is to get each side to realize they cannot get their needs addressed unless they address the needs of the other side. I used to spend an enormous amount of time going through each side’s needs to prove to them I understood. And, when I finally got to the point where I said, Look, I can rehearse all your needs, here they are, I would say, O.K., now, if we’re going to get those addressed, we have to address the other side’s needs. And the minute you start talking about the other side’s needs, one side immediately comes back and says, But wait, what about our needs? Because it’s just so deeply rooted.

If you look at most places where the U.S. has been a broker, you look at when [the U.N. Ambassador] Richard Holbrooke was negotiating in the Balkans, he was seen as being partial to the Muslims, not to the Serbs. George Mitchell, Northern Ireland, he’s Catholic. Again, there was a presumption. Most places where the U.S. has been a mediator, we have more interest in one side than the other, or we have more of a historical relationship with one than the other. That doesn’t disqualify us from being a broker—it’s what actually gives us the position to have the leverage to be an effective broker. 

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Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
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