Updated Dec 14, 2023 - World

"High intensity" phase of Gaza war needs to end within weeks, Sullivan tells Netanyahu

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, left, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Jan. 19. Photo: Israeli Government Press Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Israel's war in Gaza needs to "transition to the next lower intensity phase in a matter of weeks, not months," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the war cabinet in a meeting on Thursday, according to two U.S. and Israeli officials.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has backed the Israeli response to the Oct. 7 attack and says it supports Israel's stated goal of ousting Hamas in Gaza, but the White House is under mounting international and domestic pressure to tell Israel to end the war.

  • The rate of civilian deaths in Gaza is outpacing those of other conflict zones in the 21st century. Mounting casualties have been accompanied by a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the enclave.
  • Biden administration officials think that moving to lower-intensity fighting will decrease civilian casualties, allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and decrease the risk for regional war.
  • Biden said he wants Israel to be focused on how to save civilian lives in Gaza. "Not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful," he told reporters during a visit to the National Institutes of Health in Washington on Thursday.

What they are saying: "National Security Adviser Sullivan made clear in all meetings that the high intensity kinetic campaign needed to transition to the next lower intensity phase in a matter of weeks not months. [This is not] a deadline and we understand the campaign must and will continue, but in a lower intensity manner," a senior U.S. official told Axios.

  • U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that Sullivan "asked hard questions about what the next phase is going to look like," told Netanyahu that the transition to low intensity operations needs to happen "in the near future" but did not dictate "terms."

"It has to take as long as they feel they needs to take in order to eliminate this threat, but we all want this to be over as soon as possible," he added.

  • "The last thing we want to do is telegraph to Hamas what they are going to face in the next weeks and months," Kirby said.
  • For his part, Netanyahu said in a statement after the meeting that he told the U.S. national security adviser that "Israeli soldiers didn't fall for nothing and we are more determined than ever to continue fighting until the destruction of Hamas and until full victory."

Behind the scenes: Sullivan pressed Netanyahu and the members of the war cabinet on the timetable and details on planning for when the low intensity phase of the war is going to start and what it will look like, a U.S. official told Axios.

  • An Israeli official said there was no pressure from Sullivan to end the fighting but that he expressed concern about the displacement of Palestinians and civilian casualties.
  • Nearly 1.9 million Palestinians or roughly 85% of the population have already been displaced inside Gaza as of Dec. 3, according to the United Nations. More than 18,000 Palestinians — mostly women and children — have been killed, per the Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza.

Sullivan said the Biden administration wants to move toward talking more seriously about what happens after the war, stressing that it will make it easier for the U.S. to maintain support for the military operation, Israeli and U.S. officials told Axios.

  • Israeli official said after the meeting that the U.S. and Israel "are on the same page" about Lebanon and the need to end the war without returning to the buildup with Hezbollah forces along the northern border on Oct. 7,
  • Sullivan also stressed that the U.S. is committed to protecting freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and Israel agreed to the multinational maritime task force that will start operating there, according to Israeli and U.S. officials.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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