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U.S. and Israel Struggle With Clashing Visions on Ending Gaza War

Nearing the end of a whirlwind Mideast trip this week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken finished meetings with the Israeli president and relatives of American hostages held by Hamas, left his beachside hotel in Tel Aviv and shook hands with protesters gathered outside.

He looked them in the eye and said there was a new hostages-for-cease-fire deal on the table that Hamas should take.

“Bringing your loved ones home is at the heart of everything we’re trying to do, and we will not rest until everyone — man, woman, soldier, civilian, young, old — is back home,” he said.

That public show of empathy with frustrated protesters is something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided since the war began in October. And, lately, he has focused his recent public comments on an imminent ground offensive — an invasion of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza “with or without” a cease-fire deal, as the Israeli leader put it on Tuesday.

Though it was not the first time Mr. Netanyahu has promised to invade the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza, U.S. officials were taken aback by the timing of the comment. Threatening an offensive in Rafah can put pressure on Hamas to take the deal — but only if Hamas leaders think freeing hostages for Palestinian prisoners and a six-week pause in fighting could eventually lead to a permanent cease-fire and avert a bloody battle in Rafah, where more than a million displaced Gazans have sought shelter, the officials say.

Israeli military vehicles near the city of Rafah, in southern Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has vowed to launch an invasion there to wipe out the remaining Hamas fighters.Credit…Atef Safadi/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nearly seven months into the war, the stated aims and diplomatic efforts of the United States and Israel seem further apart than ever — a gap that continues to widen under the domestic political imperatives of President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Biden and his top aides envision a path that involves Hamas freeing about three dozen hostages within weeks; the two sides enacting a temporary cease-fire that leads to a permanent one and more hostage releases; and prominent Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, agreeing to take part in reconstruction and security efforts, as well as in normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel.

Israeli officials have shown some flexibility recently on the terms of the cease-fire deal, saying they would reduce the number of hostages Hamas would have to release in the initial round to 33 from 40.

Yet, even as Israel yielded on these points, Mr. Netanyahu has rejected the idea of a permanent cease-fire and doubled down on his public vow to eradicate Hamas and many fighters that he says remain in Rafah — despite a widespread belief among U.S. officials that his goal is unattainable.

U.S. officials oppose invading Rafah and say Israel should carry out precise operations against Hamas leaders, not a major assault. When Mr. Blinken met with Mr. Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday, he reiterated the “clear position” of the United States on Rafah, said Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman.

President Biden at Joint Base Andrews this week. Israel’s resistance to a cease-fire deal is creating political problems for him in an election year.Credit…Bonnie Cash for The New York Times

The pressures on the Biden administration are also clear. Mr. Biden’s liberal voting coalition could fracture as opposition builds to his unwavering support of Israel in the war, jeopardizing his chances of defeating Donald J. Trump, the Republican contender, in November. The students protesting Mr. Biden’s policy on American college campuses and resultant police crackdowns have further thrust the issue into the spotlight.

And the United States finds itself deflecting criticism from Arab partners and governments across Asia, Africa and Latin America, and shielding Israel from pro-Palestinian resolutions in the United Nations. Amid cries of hypocrisy against Washington, it is clear that Mr. Biden’s backing of Israel will make it harder for him to win support for American policies aimed at countering Russia and China, particularly in the nations of the global south.

Mr. Blinken is grappling with the challenges. On Monday, the first day of his current Middle Eastern tour, in meetings with Arab and European officials in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, he steered discussions toward a hostage release and plans for postwar reconstruction in Gaza. He made humanitarian aid the theme of his stop in Jordan the next day.

When reporters asked him about Mr. Netanyahu’s insistence on a Rafah offensive, Mr. Blinken said the cease-fire deal and humanitarian aid were the “focus” of American efforts.

The Israeli protesters outside Mr. Blinken’s hotel in Tel Aviv were on the same wavelength. They have placed their hopes in the American government rather than their own to end the crisis, which began when about 1,200 Israelis were killed in the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 and about 250 were taken hostage. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli military’s retaliatory air campaign and ground invasion.

“S.O.S. U.S.A., only you can save the day,” the protesters chanted. “Thank you, Biden, thank you, Blinken.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu are also clashing over what the Americans call a long-term political solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Americans are working on a plan to have Saudi Arabia and perhaps other Arab nations agree to normalize relations with Israel — but only if the Israeli government commits to a concrete path with firm deadlines to the founding of a Palestinian nation. Mr. Netanyahu opposes that, as do many Israelis.

A screen displaying the length of time hostages have been held by Hamas in Gaza as of May 1.Credit…Amir Levy/Getty Images

Still, Mr. Biden maintains his general support for Israel in the war, and he has not placed conditions on military aid or weapons sales, something that even centrist foreign-policy analysts and former officials in the United States are calling for.

Mr. Netanyahu, who is clinging to power despite a slump in his international and domestic standing, faces a range of seemingly mutually exclusive choices. He is caught between the competing pressures applied by the Biden administration and the far-right members of his governing coalition, whose support is crucial for the survival of his government.

His hard-right ministers are threatening to quit if the long-touted Rafah operation is suspended. Bezalel Smotrich, the ultranationalist finance minister, has described the hostage deal on the table as “a dangerous Israeli capitulation and a terrible victory for Hamas.” Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, said on Tuesday that he had “warned” Mr. Netanyahu of the consequences of not going into Rafah and instead agreeing to a “reckless deal” ending the war.

Centrists who joined Mr. Netanyahu’s government in October, bringing broader popular legitimacy to its war efforts, have given notice that they will not tolerate decisions based on political considerations rather than the national interest.

The Israeli public simultaneously yearns for the return of the hostages and craves the defeat of Hamas, even as it is split over the prospects of an absolute victory.

A poll commissioned this week by Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, indicated that 54 percent of respondents favored an initial deal that would see the most vulnerable hostages released during a 40-day cease-fire. Nearly half the respondents — 47 percent — said they would support a comprehensive deal for all the hostages and an end of the war.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, meeting with Mr. Blinken and others in Jerusalem.Credit…Haim Tzach/Israeli Government Press Office

“Netanyahu’s political future depends on the outcome of the war,” said Nachman Shai, a former government minister and an expert on Israeli diplomacy and security. “He cannot juggle all the balls.”

For now, Mr. Netanyahu’s critics say, he is dithering. Some say he is relying on Hamas’s leadership to reject the hostage deal on the table, others that he is being held captive by the far-right ministers in his government. Both views could be valid.

A political caricature in Wednesday’s Yediot Ahronot, a popular Hebrew newspaper, showed Mr. Netanyahu sitting at his desk marked “prime minister of Israel,” looking over the proposal for a hostage deal and declaring, “That will never fly with my managers.”

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