It’s Time for the U.S. to Give Israel Some Tough Love

It is time for the Biden administration to give Israel more than just gentle nudges about how it would be kind of, sort of nice if Israel could fight this war in Gaza without killing thousands of civilians.

It’s time for the U.S. to stop wasting time searching for the perfect U.N. cease-fire resolution on Gaza.

It’s time for the U.S. to tell Israel that its war’s aim of wiping Hamas off the face of the earth is not going to be achieved — at least not at a cost that the U.S. or the world will tolerate, or that Israel should want.

It’s time for the U.S. to tell Israel how to declare victory in Gaza and go home, because right now the Israeli prime minister is utterly useless as a leader: He is — unbelievably — prioritizing his own electoral needs over the interests of Israelis, not to mention the interests of Israel’s best friend, President Biden.

It’s time for the U.S. to tell Israel to put the following offer on the table to Hamas: total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, in return for all the Israeli hostages and a permanent cease-fire under international supervision, including U.S., NATO and Arab observers. And no exchange of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

What would the advantages of this approach be for Israel?

First, if I am reading the mood in Israel correctly these days, the overwhelming majority of the country today wants their 120-plus hostages returned — over and above any other war aims. Israel is a small country. Many, many Israelis know someone — or know someone who knows someone — with a loved one taken hostage or killed in Gaza.

The hostage issue is making Israelis crazy, for good reason, and it’s making rational military decision-making there impossible — especially as many experts believe the Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has now surrounded himself with Israeli hostages as human shields and it will be impossible to kill him without also killing many of them. Any Israeli government that does that would sow the wind and reap the whirlwind of wrath from the Israeli public.

Second, Israel has inflicted vast damage on Gaza’s main urban areas and on Hamas’s tunnel network and killed thousands of Hamas fighters, along with, tragically, thousands of the Gazan civilians among whom Hamas embedded itself. Hamas as a military organization deserved to be punished and pummeled, and it has been considerably degraded. But that huge toll of killed, wounded and displaced Gazan civilians has produced a humanitarian disaster. And Israel has no plan — indeed, has not had a plan since the start of the war — for how this humanitarian crisis will be managed and remediated, and how to induce non-Hamas Palestinians and Arabs to come forward and partner with Israel to repair and run a postwar Gaza.

There is also increasing discomfort in the Israel Defense Forces leadership over the fact that it is being asked by the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu to fight a war in Gaza without a clearly defined political objective, timetable or mechanism to win and hold the peace.

My view: Israel should just get out and let the person who started this terrible war, knowing but not caring that it would lead to the death and destruction of thousands of innocent Gazans, manage the cleanup. And that is the Hamas leader, Sinwar. The best way to discredit and destroy Sinwar is for Israel to leave Gaza and make him come out of his tunnel, face his people and the world and own Gaza’s rebuilding on his own.

I can tell you from experience what I think will happen. On the first day, Sinwar will strut around the rubble of Gaza like a peacock, declaring how he and his men inflicted terrible damage on the Jews, and supporters will carry him on their shoulders, shouting “Allahu akbar.”

On Day 2, with the Israelis gone, they will scream at Sinwar publicly and privately: What were you thinking? Who gave you permission to launch this war? Who is going to repair my home? Who is going to bring back my loved ones? How are you going to get any help rebuilding Gaza if you keep on lobbing missiles at Tel Aviv? You thought Hezbollah, the West Bankers, Israeli Arabs and Iran would all jump full-scale into this war and rise up against the Jews. It didn’t happen — except at some American colleges — and now all we have are ruins and the dead.

How do I know that will happen? Because it’s what happened in Lebanon in 2006, when Hassan Nasrallah foolishly launched an unprovoked war against Israel, leading to enormous destruction in Shiite villages both in the south and around Beirut.

How do I know that will happen? Because it is already happening. Consider this Bloomberg report from Dec. 11:

How do I know that will happen? Because while polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research show support for Hamas growing in the West Bank since Oct. 7 — which are really signs of contempt for the Palestinian Authority and antipathy to the violent Jewish settlers — support for Hamas in Gaza, which usually rises during wars, has not significantly increased. Moreover, despite the increase in Hamas popularity in the West Bank, “the majority in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip does not support Hamas,” Khalil Shikaki, the director of the P.C.P.S.R., found.

And if you follow news of Hamas politics, you will have noticed reports this week of significant tension between Sinwar and Hamas leaders abroad, who have begun — to Sinwar’s apparent rage — talks with leaders from the West Bank Palestinian Authority about reunifying and revamping the Palestinian leadership after the war to enable some kind of long-term peace arrangement with Israel.

Israel has a choice: It can own Gaza’s future forever, with Israel’s completely dysfunctional relationship between the army and the far-right cabinet, which will never agree on collaborating with any Palestinian Authority, leading to Israel inheriting one of the worst humanitarian disasters on the planet. Or it can get out now, get back its hostages and let Sinwar and his friends own that problem — as they should. Let Hamas have to tell Gazans that there will be no rebuilding, just more of its endless war to destroy the Jews. Let’s see how long that lasts.

And if Hamas tries that, let the U.S. and its allies show the whole world that there is only one reason Gazans are dying another day longer, and that it is because Hamas won’t accept a cease-fire.

From the start of this war, there has been an asymmetry: Israel, a democracy, has to answer every day for its actions and mistakes and excesses. Sinwar has never had to for a minute. Time to turn the tables.

And speaking of turning the tables — Iran, Hezbollah and the Houthis pray five times a day for one thing: that Israel will stay in Gaza forever. They want Israel militarily, economically, diplomatically and morally overstretched. The absolute worst news they could get is to hear that Israel is offering total withdrawal for a return of all hostages and an internationally monitored cease-fire that will include U.S. and NATO supervision.

And the absolute worst news that Russia and China could get is that Biden arranged this end to the war.

Indeed, Hezbollah will go into immediate panic mode, saying to itself: Do you mean that if we now keep shelling northern Israel we will face the total, undivided wrath of the Israeli Army and Air Force and lose all justification for our attacks on Israel? Ditto the Houthis.

Israel has done enormous damage to Hamas’s military infrastructure, but at a cost to innocent civilians in Gaza that cannot be morally or strategically justified any longer. Offering Hamas a total withdrawal and internationally monitored cease-fire — in return for all hostages — will shift all of the political, military, diplomatic and moral pressure onto Sinwar. And it won’t just be for one day, but for the future.

I also have no doubt that the Israeli Army can fortify its Gaza border, apply all the lessons of its pre-Oct. 7 mistakes and make sure Hamas can never smuggle in the arms that it did again.

No, it is not the fairy-tale ending Israelis may have hoped for after Oct. 7 — a Gaza Strip utterly free of any trace of Hamas, permanently controlled by Israel and some totally compliant fantasy Palestinian partner and all the reconstruction paid for by the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. But that was always a fairy tale.

Perfect is never on the table in Gaza. Israel needs to coolly, rationally think through its options, and the Biden administration needs to stop whispering quietly that Israel should reconsider its war aims and tactics. The Biden team needs to engage Israelis in a loud, blunt, no-holds-barred discussion about how much it has already achieved militarily, how best to consolidate those gains and how to end this war with some kind of new balance of power in Israel’s favor — before Israel sinks itself into the quicksand of Gaza, chasing a perfect victory that is a mirage.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X and Threads.

Related Articles

Back to top button