Middle East

US hopes Israeli defense minister can give clarity on Gaza war plans as rift with Netanyahu widens

By Kevin Liptak, Oren Liebermann, Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, CNN

Washington CNN  — 

American officials are hoping to gain a better understanding of Israel’s war plans in meetings this week with the country’s defense minister, who arrived in Washington as the rift widened between the Biden administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yoav Gallant has emerged as a top interlocutor for Biden advisers as the war in Gaza grinds on, and administration officials were hopeful the talks could yield greater clarity on Israel’s plans after ambiguous statements from Netanyahu over the weekend about the end of the war.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said during an interview on a conservative television station in Israel he was prepared to agree to a temporary pause in fighting in exchange for the release of some hostages in Gaza, while reiterating his position that the war will still continue after a ceasefire “to achieve the goal of eliminating” Hamas.

That appeared at odds with the US-backed Israeli proposal on the release of hostages that would ultimately result in a permanent ceasefire.

A day later, Netanyahu repeated his assertion the war wouldn’t end until all the hostages are returned, but insisted he wasn’t walking away from the Biden-endorsed ceasefire proposal.

“We will not end the war until we return all of our hostages – 120 hostages, the living and the deceased. We are committed to the Israeli proposal, which President Biden has welcomed. Our position has not changed,” he said, speaking at the Knesset plenum on Monday.

The two separate answers — delivered to two separate audiences — reflected the type of ambiguity from Netanyahu that has frustrated some Biden officials as they work to bring the fighting in Gaza to an end.

His remarks threatened to further strain relations with the United States, which has actively rallied international support behind the proposal and worked to mediate an agreement.

Netanyahu said that once the “intense phase” of the Gaza conflict is over Israel will continue “mowing the grass” in Gaza, which US officials oppose.

“I don’t know what he means exactly by that, but I think it probably means continued military engagement in Gaza. And for us, that’s just a recipe for continued conflict, continued instability and continued insecurity for Israel,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said on Monday, adding that continued military engagement would “be extremely harmful to the people of Gaza and make “Israel weaker.”

In the interview, Netanyahu also said Israel would be transitioning to a new phase of fighting, which could be a precursor for Israel to send more troops to its northern border with Lebanon as it confronts Hezbollah militants.

In the meetings this week, US officials will look to Gallant for a better understanding of how Israel is transitioning into a new phase of the conflict and for its plans in the north.

Gallant spoke with CIA Director Bill Burns and US envoy Amos Hochstein about a “Phase C” of Israel’s operations in Gaza, which an Israeli official described as a less intensive, more precise stage of the war. The official said Phase C was not a discussion about a “day after” plan for Gaza, a point on which Netanyahu has refused to engage. Last month, Gallant said that he has repeatedly brought up the topic of post-war plans for Gaza and the need for an alternative to Hamas in cabinet meetings, but “the issue was not raised for debate.”

Gallant had called on Netanyahu to declare that Israel would not establish civilian or military control over Gaza. But Netanyahu ignored the demand from his defense minister, refusing to make such a public statement.

And former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who resigned from a unity government with Netanyahu two weeks ago, accused Israel’s longest-serving leader of putting political considerations ahead of a post-war strategy.

US officials have been similarly frustrated, waiting for Israel to lay out plans for post-war governance in Gaza and the rebuilding of the devastated enclave. The rising tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border have only complicated the situation.

US officials have not explicitly told Israel that they oppose any attack against Hezbollah, but they are warning them that their actions could lead to a greater war that the two sides don’t actually want, a US official said.

Gallant’s meetings this week with top officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, also come after Netanyahu has alleged the US is withholding weapons shipments to Israel.

Gallant was mum as he left the State Department after a lengthy meeting with Blinken Monday afternoon. Miller said Monday that the US would “look to make progress” on a raft of issues, including day after plans for Gaza and stemming further escalation of the conflict, during that meeting.

White House officials have brushed off some of Netanyahu’s comments as motivated by politics as he works to maintain a fragile grip on power. But they nonetheless caused deep frustration inside the White House.

After saying last week they had no idea what Netanyahu was talking about, and describing his claims as “vexing, disappointing and incorrect,” the White House said over the weekend it would not engage in an extended back and forth with Netanyahu.

“We have made our position clear on this repeatedly and we are not going to keep responding to the Prime Minister’s political statements,” a White House official said. “We look forward to constructive consultations with the Defense Minister in Washington this week.”

Still, on Monday during the daily State Department briefing, Miller responded to Netanyahu’s comments over the weekend, saying, “Those of us who speak publicly sometime misspeak and when it happens we have an obligation to clarify and we are glad that he did.”

Leaving for Washington, Gallant reiterated the importance of Israel’s relations with Washington.

“The United States is our most important and central ally. Our ties are crucial and perhaps more important than ever, at this time,” Gallant told reporters prior to departure from Israel, according to a statement from the Israeli defense ministry on Sunday.

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