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Paul Vallely: Benny Gantz goes to Washington

08 March 2024

What does Biden’s invitation to the Israeli minister signal, asks Paul Vallely


Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, at the Capitol in Washington on Monday

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, at the Capitol in Washington on Monday

IT SEEMED a genuinely new development in the Israel-Gaza conflict when Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet, was invited this week to Washington — all the more so since it coincided with the Biden administration’s most forceful call, so far, for a pause in the fighting.

On the eve of the visit, the American Vice-President, Kamala Harris, declared that “far too many innocent Palestinians have been killed” by Israeli bombardments. She added: “Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate ceasefire for at least the next six weeks.” Israel must open new borders for aid, lift restrictions on its delivery, restore basic services such as food, water, and fuel — and ensure that humanitarian personnel, sites, and convoys were not targeted, she said. It was Washington’s toughest talk to date.

Benjamin Netanyahu has never been invited to Washington by President Biden. That is why the Israeli Prime Minister condemned the visit of Mr Gantz, his chief political rival, as unauthorised and “counter-productive”. He instructed Israel’s ambassador to boycott Mr Gantz’s meetings with the US Vice-President, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Adviser. Commentators detected a split inside the Israeli government which could open the way to an end to the fighting.

Sadly, politics is more complicated than that. There is now a split in the Biden camp. The President’s closest political advisers fixedly support President Biden in his determination to continue military aid to Israel. His campaign advisers, however, are growing increasingly alarmed at the impact that this is having on his re-election campaign.

Erstwhile supporters have dubbed him “Genocide Joe”. In Michigan last week, about 100,000 voters in the Democratic Primary cast ballots declaring themselves “uncommitted”, to show their anger at the President’s unwavering support for Israel, despite the deadly devastation in Gaza. Ms Harris’s ramped-up rhetoric may well be merely an attempt to square a circle by placating outraged Democrat voters as cover for continuing to back the Israeli onslaught.

Washington’s support has faltered on one thing: it has said that it will not endorse a disastrous full-blown Israeli attack on the border town of Rafah, where 1.2 million Gazans have been forced to take refuge — and which Israel regards as the final stronghold of Hamas.

Mr Gantz is a more centrist politician than Mr Netanyahu, and joined his government only to signal national unity in the wake of the 7 October terrorist massacre by Hamas. But, if US officials were hoping that Mr Gantz would be more accommodating, they must have been dismayed by his insistence that “ending the war without clearing out Rafah is like sending a firefighter to extinguish 80 per cent of the fire.”

In the teeth of that, Washington is now insisting on a “credible and implementable humanitarian plan” before the tanks and warplanes go in. Given the way in which Israel has conducted its blitz of other Palestinian cities over the past five months, that may be a forlorn expectation.

Military experts say that Israel is in need of artillery shells, air-defence munitions, and armoured personnel carriers. It must surely be time for President Biden to make the provision of such weapons conditional on the evacuation of Palestinian civilians and a change in Israel’s pitiless military tactics.

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