On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected U.S. calls to scale back Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip or take steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state after the war, drawing an immediate scolding from the White House.
The tense back and forth reflected what has become a wide rift between the two allies over the scope of Israel’s war and its plans for the future of the beleaguered territory.
“We obviously see it differently,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.
Netanyahu spoke just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel would never have “genuine security” without a pathway toward Palestinian independence. Earlier this week, the White House also announced that it was the “right time” for Israel to lower the intensity of its devastating military offensive in Gaza.
In a nationally televised news conference, Netanyahu struck a defiant tone, repeatedly saying that Israel would not halt its offensive until it realizes its goals of destroying Gaza’s Hamas militant group and bringing home all remaining hostages held by Hamas.
He rejected claims by a growing chorus of Israeli critics that those goals are not achievable, vowing to press ahead for many months. “
We will not settle for anything short of an absolute victory,” Netanyahu said.
Israel launched the offensive after an unprecedented cross-border attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people and took some 250 others hostage. Roughly 130 hostages are believed by Israel to remain in Hamas captivity. The war has stoked tensions across the region, threatening to ignite other conflicts.
Israel’s assault, one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history, has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities, caused widespread destruction and uprooted more than 80 percent of the territory’s 2.3 million people from their homes.
The staggering cost of the war has led to increasing calls from the international community to halt the offensive. After initially giving Israel wall-to-wall support in the early days of the war, the United States, Israel’s closest ally, has begun to express misgivings and urged Netanyahu to spell out his vision for postwar Gaza.
The United States has said the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which governs semi-autonomous zones in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, should be “revitalized” and return to Gaza. Hamas ousted the authority from Gaza in 2007.
The U.S. has also called for steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians seek Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem for their state. Those areas were occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.
Speaking Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Blinken said the two-state solution was the best way to protect Israel, unify moderate Arab countries and isolate Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran.
Without a “pathway to a Palestinian state,” he said, Israel would not “get genuine security.”
At the same conference, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said the kingdom is ready to establish full relations with Israel as part of a larger political agreement. “But that can only happen through peace for the Palestinians, through a Palestinian state,” he said.
Netanyahu, who leads a far-right government opposed to Palestinian statehood, repeated his longstanding opposition to a two-state solution. He said a Palestinian state would become a launching pad for attacks on Israel.
He said Israel “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River.” He then added, “That collides with the idea of sovereignty. What can we do?
“This truth I tell to our American friends, and I put the brakes on the attempt to coerce us to a reality that would endanger the state of Israel,” he said.
The comments prompted an immediate rebuke from the White House. Kirby said that President Biden would “not stop working” toward a two-state solution.
Before Oct. 7, Israeli society was bitterly divided over Netanyahu’s plan for a judicial overhaul. Since the attack, the country has rallied behind the war. But divisions have once again begun to surface over Netanyahu’s handling of the war.
Families of the hostages and their many supporters have called for a new cease-fire that could bring them home. Hamas released more than 100 hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a weeklong cease-fire in November.
Commentators have begun to question whether Netanyahu’s objectives are realistic, given the slow pace of the offensive and growing international criticism, including genocide accusations at the U.N. world court, which Israel vehemently denies.
Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of delaying any discussion of postwar scenarios to avoid looming investigations of governmental failures, keep his coalition intact and put off elections. Polls show that the popularity of Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has plummeted during the war.
Hamas continues its fight against Israeli forces in Gaza
Hamas has continued to fight back across Gaza, even in the most devastated areas, and launch rockets into Israel. It says it will not release any more hostages until there is a permanent ceasefire, something Israel and the United States, its top ally, have ruled out.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have heeded Israeli evacuation orders and packed into southern Gaza, where shelters run by the United Nations are overflowing and massive tent camps have gone up.
Israel has continued to strike what it says are militant targets in all parts of Gaza, often killing women and children. Early Thursday, medics said an Israeli airstrike on a home killed 16 people, half of them children, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.
War spreads across the region
The war has rippled across the Middle East, with the other groups in various areas attacking U.S. and Israeli targets. Low-intensity fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah group in Lebanon threatens to erupt into all-out war, and the Houthi military in Yemen continue to target international shipping despite United States-led airstrikes.
The Israeli military said it fired an interceptor at a “suspicious aerial target” — likely a drone or missile — approaching over the Red Sea on Thursday, triggering air raid sirens in the southern city of Eilat. The Houthis have launched drones and missiles toward Israel that mostly fell short or were intercepted and shot down.
Meanwhile, Iran has launched a series of missile attacks targeting what it described as an Israeli spy base in Iraq and militant bases in Syria.