Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Israelis Prove Biden Wrong on Rafah


Remember Rafah? For months, the Biden Administration bitterly opposed an Israeli invasion of Hamas’s last stronghold in Gaza. The mantra was that Israel had “no credible plan” to evacuate the city’s 1.3 million civilians. Yet the Israelis went ahead anyway, and two weeks later they have safely evacuated an estimated 950,000 people.

This was supposed to be impossible. Rafah became a red line for Mr. Biden on the logic that there was no way to conduct a major operation with all those civilians present. That was the justification for the President’s arms embargo. “We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas,” he said.

Even as the evacuation got under way, Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated that Israel had “no credible plan.” National security adviser Jake Sullivan added, “We still believe it would be a mistake to launch a major military operation into the heart of Rafah.”

 When the evacuation began to work, the Biden team moved on to criticizing Israeli readiness for the “day after” the main fighting, as if success in Rafah were a foregone conclusion.

Finally, on Tuesday, the Administration falsely claimed credit. “It’s fair to say that the Israelis have updated their plans. They’ve incorporated many of the concerns that we have expressed,” a senior U.S. official told reporters. He also said the Rafah operation might create “opportunities for getting the hostage deal back on track.”

The maneuvering has costs. 

“This Administration never supports anything we do until we do it,” a senior Israeli official told us early this month. To win Mr. Biden’s consent, the Israelis first had to advance and succeed. But the delay his opposition caused has dragged out the war to all but Hamas’s detriment.

Rafah remains critical to any day-after plan, since nothing can work if Hamas governs territory with military battalions and controls the Egyptian border. Israel has already discovered 50 tunnels crossing from Rafah into Egypt for smuggling. Once troops finish clearing a buffer zone along the border, Israel can cut off Hamas from Egypt, a key to strangling whatever insurgency may follow.

It’s reasonable to ask what force will control Gaza in the future. But no one else will fight and die to defeat Hamas for Israel, or even to resist it as a civilian power. Certainly not the feeble Palestinian Authority, which wants a power-sharing deal with Hamas in Gaza because otherwise, it knows it would be slaughtered.

Though Israeli liberals won’t like to hear it, Israel probably will need to fill the vacuum in Gaza for a time. Though Israeli right-wingers won’t like to hear it, the purpose would be to make way for local governance. The politics, there and here, explain why it has been easier to pretend there’s no plan at all.

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