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Outlining Postwar Gaza Principles, Netanyahu Continues to Defy Biden

FILE — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a gathering of Jewish leaders at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, Feb. 18, 2024.
FILE — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a gathering of Jewish leaders at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, Feb. 18, 2024.

Postwar principles for Gaza outlined in a document Friday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stand in stark contrast to Washington's vision for the war-torn territory, a sign of the deepening divide between his government and the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

The document, The Day After Hamas Principles, is the first official summary of Netanyahu's public positions on the war that Israel has waged in Gaza in response to Hamas' October 7 attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel and took more than 200 people hostage.

It calls for civil governance by Israeli-appointed individuals in Gaza, bypassing any involvement from the Palestinian Authority and absent provisions for a pathway to Palestinian statehood.

Without explicitly stating the role of the Israel Defense Forces, the plan potentially allows vast Israeli control over Gaza, including the establishment of an Israeli-controlled buffer zone along the border with Egypt, a move that would be seen by Palestinians as more occupation of their territory and could inflame tensions with Cairo.

Speaking from Buenos Aires, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to specifically address Netanyahu's plan but underscored a core principle in the administration's vision for postwar Gaza.

"There should be no Israeli reoccupation of Gaza," he said. "The size of Gaza's territory should not be reduced."

The establishment of a buffer zone would in effect require an Israeli invasion of Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, where most Gazans currently seek safety.

"We wouldn't support those kinds of operations unless or until the Israelis had properly accounted for the safety and security of the more than 1 million people that are seeking refuge down there," national security communications adviser John Kirby told VOA during Friday's briefing, reiterating the administration's position on Israel's plans for a ground offensive in Rafah.

'Fundamentally at odds'

What Netanyahu has outlined is "fundamentally at odds with what the Biden administration has been urging," said Thomas Warrick, a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Warrick said Netanyahu's plan "basically locks in the differences" he has had with President Joe Biden. "There needs to be further efforts to try to bridge this gap, perhaps with a different approach," he told VOA.

Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, an American writer and political analyst from Gaza, said that Netanyahu's plan, if enacted, would amount to a permanent Israeli military occupation and create a series of "rump states" or cantons on remnants of Gaza's shrinking territory.

Even if enough Palestinians in Gaza agree to take part in such administrations, they lack the means to do so without full Israeli support, he told VOA.

"They'll be viewed as collaborators and subcontractors of the Israeli occupation, decimating any credibility or standing among the battered and beaten population and placing their lives and safety at grave risk."

Hamas lambasted the proposal during a press conference in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

"Netanyahu is presenting ideas which he knows fully well will never succeed," spokesman Osama Hamdan said on Friday.

After holding power for 17 years, Netanyahu faces plummeting popularity amid an angry population that blames him for the security failures that allowed the Hamas attack. His incumbency depends on keeping intact his coalition, the most right-wing and religiously conservative the country has ever seen.

"The current plan does not necessarily reflect what the long-term Israeli policy will be, but rather showcases what Netanyahu thinks he needs to do in order to advance a primary goal of his — political survival," said Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute. Given widespread Israeli desire for new leadership, the eventual postwar plan may well be devised by the next government, he told VOA.

Alkhatib said that the Israeli prime minister could also be biding his time until the U.S. presidential elections in November, which could fundamentally shift what's happening in Gaza.

The world will see either a second Biden term where the U.S. will apply more pressure on Netanyahu, or a new Trump administration that would give Israel "complete free rein to do as it pleases in the Gaza Strip," Alkhatib predicted.

Biden increasingly impatient

Biden remains staunchly supportive of Israel, providing military and diplomatic aid. Last week, his administration vetoed an Arab-backed United Nations resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire, the third veto since Israel's military offensive began.

However, the U.S. submitted its own draft resolution, calling for a temporary cease-fire in Gaza after a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas is secured and opposing Israel's ground offensive into Rafah without adequate civilian protection.

The U.S. draft shows Biden's increasing impatience with Netanyahu, said Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group.

"If I were looking at this from Israel's perspective, I would feel a little nervous because the signaling from the Biden administration is becoming marginally stronger," he told VOA. "It will continue to protect Israel at the U.N., but its patience is not limitless."

Washington is hoping for a breakthrough in talks underway in Paris between top U.S., Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials aimed at securing a temporary cease-fire in return for the release of hostages held by Hamas.

The U.S. is also working to defuse Israel-Hezbollah tensions along the Lebanese border to prevent escalation to a full-fledged war in the region. "The success of these efforts is very much needed and could be assisted by some pause in fighting in Gaza," Goren said.

A cease-fire would bring welcome relief to Gaza, where more than 29,000 people have been killed in the bloodiest episode of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report.