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How Delay to Israel Offensive Benefits US

The Israeli prime minister’s ambiguous announcement of a Gaza ground invasion suits the United States – and is almost certainly influenced by it.

Benjamin Netanyahu gave no timeline for the offensive, but CBS, the BBC’s US partner, has learned that it’s been delayed.

Washington has been coy about its role, but clear about the advantages of taking more time.

US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday he’d suggested that, if possible, Mr Netanyahu should wait until Hamas released more hostages, “but I did not demand it”.

His comment encapsulates the US approach to Israel’s war with the Palestinian militant group – full support for its determination to eradicate Hamas after an unprecedented attack on Israeli civilians earlier this month, alongside concerns about the consequences of its response.

The administration certainly wants to take full advantage of any window of opportunity to free Hamas captives, which will likely be closed when Israeli ground troops move into Gaza.

There are more than 200 hostages, including some Americans. The release of four in recent days has raised hopes that others could follow.

But for the Pentagon the paramount concern is rushing defensive systems into the region following attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed militias.

This has increased concerns of a regional escalation once the Gaza invasion begins, and the US is using the delay to shore up protection for its interests.

The State Department has already authorised the departure of non-essential staff from embassies in Iraq and Lebanon, the latter the base of the powerful Hezbollah movement, which has been exchanging cross-border rocket fire with Israel.

It’s also developing contingency plans for a wider evacuation of US citizens in the region should it be deemed necessary.

In the meantime, it’s been engaged in the most intensive round of diplomacy since Mr Biden took office, after Secretary of State Antony Blinken conducted a whirlwind tour of the Middle East to try and prevent a wider flare-up.

Calls to halt fighting

And at the United Nations, a resolution drafted by the US sums up its evolving approach to the conflict.

The humanitarian catastrophe caused by the Israeli siege on Gaza has tempered administration rhetoric about Israel’s “obligation” to deal a punishing blow to Hamas.

“We solicited input,” said the United States UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “We listened. We engaged with all [Security] Council members to incorporate edits, including language on humanitarian pauses and the protection of civilians fleeing conflict.”

Nevertheless, the resolution was vetoed by Russia and China because, they said, it didn’t call for a ceasefire.

America’s Arab allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, the UAE and the Palestinian Authority – lined up to call for a halt to the fighting, after a day-long Security Council meeting dominated by demands for a ceasefire.

Many of them are no fans of Hamas, and some may want to see it defeated, but Israel’s blockade and bombardment of Gaza is shaping their response.

However, a ceasefire right now “only benefits Hamas”, said White House spokesman, John Kirby.

And although the resolution contains robust language about the need to respect international law, the State Department has not made a formal determination on whether Israel is in fact doing so, as part of its intense bombing campaign it says is aimed at destroying Hamas infrastructure.

The air strikes have demolished whole neighbourhoods in Gaza City and killed more than 7,000 civilians, a third of them children, says the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.

President Biden has cast doubt on these numbers, prompting the ministry to retort with a detailed list of people it said had been killed in the war.

Amidst Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza it’s impossible to independently verify Palestinian casualty figures. But the UN cites them, as has the State Department for previous conflicts.

The department’s Spokesman Matthew Miller maintained that Israel was hitting “legitimate military targets that are embedded in civilian infrastructure”, adding that the US was trying to establish safe zones for civilians inside Gaza.

There hasn’t been any word of progress with that. But the Americans have been able to open a trickle of aid into Gaza through its border with Egypt and are working around the clock to widen it.

‘It’s like a puzzle’

Mr Biden appointed a veteran diplomat, David Satterfield, to the task. He’s also trying to organise the departure of Palestinians with US citizenship, and other foreign nationals.

“You can imagine how complicated it is,” says a State Department Spokesperson. “We’re dealing with Israel, Egypt, and Hamas, and we’re not talking directly to Hamas.”

“It’s like a puzzle, where you unlock a layer that can unlock one little piece of it. And then another obstacle pops up and you’ve got to go figure out with all the parties, how to unlock that piece.”

It is not clear what will happen to this nascent humanitarian corridor once the ground invasion begins. But Washington has been pressing Israel on its strategy and tactics.

It has dispatched US military officers who have experienced urban combat in Iraq to ask “some of the hard questions that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] should consider as they plan various scenarios,” says Pentagon Spokesperson Brig Gen Patrick Ryder, “including advice on mitigating civilian casualties.”

Along with very real concerns about a spiralling conflict, the US is probably attempting to reposition itself after its initial “one-sided response” in support of Israel provoked criticism, says Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University.

“It’s very likely they’re aware that this conflict is not playing well for the United States or for Israel in the rest of the world,” he says. “In much of the Global South we’re seen as deeply hypocritical, actively opposing Russian occupation in Ukraine, for all the right reasons, and doing very little about Israeli occupation [of the Palestinians] over a 50-, 60-year period.”

The administration has been clear that it sees the scale and brutality of this Hamas attack, killing more than 1,400 people, as different from others in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

But its intensive engagement suggests it fears that even if Israel wins the battle against Hamas, when it comes to public opinion and regional costs, it may lose the war.

Source : BBC