Dec 5, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Israel now willing to discuss post-war Gaza, U.S. officials say

People gather around a fire near the rubble of a building in war-torn Gaza.

Palestinians gather around an evening fire amid the rubble left by Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, Gaza. Photo: Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images

Israel is showing more willingness to discuss plans for Gaza after the war, according to two U.S. officials with direct knowledge of talks this week between the Israeli government and the Biden administration.

Why it matters: President Biden's team has been pressing Israel since the early stages of the war to make a plan for what will happen in Gaza after the conflict that began when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, and has resulted in more than 15,000 deaths in Gaza.

  • The U.S. wants to avoid a governing and security vacuum in Gaza after the war that might allow Hamas rise again, the U.S. officials said.
  • In the talks this week with Vice President Kamala Harris' national security adviser, Phil Gordon, Israeli officials who had been focused on fighting the war were "ready to talk about the future" in Gaza, a senior U.S. official said.
  • The administration also has expressed concern that Israel might continue its military ground operation in southern Gaza as it has in the northern part of the enclave.

Driving the news: Vice President Kamala Harris' national security adviser, Phil Gordon, is visiting Israel and the Palestinian Authority this week to discuss "day-after" scenarios and plans.

  • He is accompanied by Harris' Middle East adviser Ilan Goldenberg, who is deeply involved in the interagency planning about how Gaza would be governed after Hamas is ousted.
  • The White House officials arrived in Israel from Dubai where they accompanied Harris in her meetings with the leaders of the UAE, Egypt and Jordan on the sidelines of the COP28 climate summit. Her discussions in Dubai focused on the day-after in Gaza.
  • In Israel, Harris' advisers met Israeli President Isaac Herzog, war Cabinet member Benny Gantz, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, minister Gadi Eisenkot, who is an observer in the war Cabinet, and opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Behind the scenes: The U.S. officials said the group discussed military objectives and operations in Gaza.

  • "Gordon emphasized to the Israelis that Hamas is a barbaric terrorist organization and that no nation could accept the threat Hamas poses, and that we support Israel's legitimate military objectives and its right to defend itself," one of the U.S. officials said.
  • Gordon also underscored the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law, and the need to increase humanitarian assistance and protect civilians during Israel's ground operation into southern Gaza, the official added.
  • The U.S. officials said Gordon updated the Israelis about Harris' talks in Dubai with Arab leaders about what happens after the war ends in Gaza and presented what Harris publicly laid out for how the administration sees the reconstruction, security, and governance in Gaza after the fighting is over.

Between the lines: Gordon's trip to Israel is the latest in a series of visits by senior U.S. officials who have been there every week since the war started.

  • U.S. officials want to "be there every week so that we are able to engage the Israelis and Palestinians face to face on the issue of the day-after," a third U.S. official said.

What they're saying: The first two U.S. officials said Gordon told his Israeli counterparts that the U.S. wants to have a plan for Gaza's future to avoid allowing Hamas "to come back to life."

  • "There was movement on the Israeli side from a point where they were only focused on the fighting, and refused to discuss the day-after to a point where they are ready to talk about the future," a senior U.S. official said.

A senior Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the Biden administration have been discussing the issue of post-war Gaza for weeks, and that there'd been no change in Israel's approach.

  • The U.S. officials acknowledged there are still differences between how the U.S. sees Gaza after the war and how Israel sees it — mainly around the question of what role the Palestinian Authority will play.
  • On Tuesday, Netanyahu pushed back against the idea of the Palestinian Authority having a future role, stressing that the only way to make sure post-war Gaza is demilitarized is for the Israel Defense Forces — not international troops — to oversee that process.
  • "Nobody thinks the Palestinian Authority in its current state could run Gaza and provide security, but nobody sees at the moment any alternative to a Palestinian leadership in Gaza after the war," one U.S. official said.
  • "We think we need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority so that it could govern Gaza."

Zoom in: The Biden administration worries that steps Israel has taken since the war — such as withholding much of the tax revenue it collects for the PA — has weakened the authority's ability to be effective.

  • "I've been working with a number of people in and out of government to figure, what after Gaza," President Biden said Tuesday. "I think the only available solution is a two-state solution" for Israelis and Palestinians.

What's next: Gordon and Goldenberg will visit Ramallah on Wednesday to meet with senior Palestinian Authority officials.

  • "We have a lot of work to do to bring everybody on the same page, including the Palestinians," the official said. "It is not going be easy."
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