Cutting the Spigot

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What was first communicated by reports of a slowdown in weapons transfers and then confirmed in leaks has now been brought into the open: Joe Biden is saying he will cut off the supply of heavy munitions (big bombs from the sky) if Israel goes ahead with a major ground incursion into Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip, which is both the last refuge of Hamas’ intact battalions and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians who have fled other parts of the strip over the last six months. This is in addition to the city’s normal civilian population.

I have seen some commentators who have absolutely no love for Netanyahu saying this undercuts whatever leverage Israel has in the hostage negotiations by depriving them of the threat to go into Rafah in force. There’s likely something to that. But it is basically a certainty that this move was absolutely the final straw for the U.S. It had been insisting and insisting and insisting not to do this without a plan to evacuate the city, and the Israeli government is saying too bad. We’re doing it. Biden had the choice to make his words meaningless or put down his foot. When you’re supplying the weapons, your foot comes down very hard.

Let me note that it’s not crazy to want to attack Hamas in its final hold out. Israel went into this war with the goal not of eroding but destroying Hamas’ military capability. Rafah is where they’re holed up. If you still want to destroy their military capacity you need to finish Hamas off there.

But of course that’s not the only thing going on. There are a still an undetermined number of hostages who desperately need to be freed. There is a cataclysmic number of Gazan civilians who have already been killed. There is a huge reputational hit Israel and the United States have already taken over all of this. Then there’s the touch and go issue of keeping the rest of Gaza’s civilian population from dipping into famine. There’s vastly more aid going in now than there was a month ago. But it takes mountains of food to feed over 2 million people. Final point: precisely because the Netanyahu government consistently refused to devise any plan for who would administer Gaza on the day after, Hamas operatives have streamed back in to much of the strip and are already, at least partly, reasserting some control. So the gain to be had in a final fight with Hamas in Rafah — quite apart from the potential vast sacrifice in human life — has already been significantly diminished by decisions Netanyahu made to cut off the possibility even of movement toward a Palestinian state. In other words, yes, Netanyahu made a bigger priority of avoiding even the medium-to-long-term possibility of Palestinian state over destroying Hamas.

But let’s go back to a different point. The U.S. doesn’t want another bloodbath in Rafah. The U.S. has been making this very, very, very clear. Many people in the Israeli national security world think that needs to happen — if not today then at some point. But for the far right in Netanyahu’s government, it’s a condition of not toppling the government. The U.S. has its own views and its own interests. The Israeli government has been swaggering around saying, hey we’re sovereign, we’re nobody’s protectorate and we’ll do what we want … and also, please don’t cut off our supply of heavy ordinance otherwise our army will grind to a halt in a few days. Sorry, that’s not how it works.

If you want to fight the war with permanent resupply from the U.S., you’re probably going to have to take some input on how you approach things. If you don’t, eventually you’re going to have something like this happen.

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