Gaza: “If Washington says stop, it will be the only time Israel will say no”

The day after a new American veto to an “immediate” ceasefire in Gaza, interview with Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and former deputy minister in charge of diplomacy.

Meeting between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. AP - Miriam Alster

By: Nicolas Benita | Guilhem Delteil Follow


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For the third time,

the United States used its veto

on Tuesday February 20 at the UN Security Council on a text calling for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza. However, in recent times, Washington has shown differences of point of view with its Israeli ally on the conduct of this war. The Biden administration is particularly urging Israel not to launch a military operation in Rafah, a city in the south of the Palestinian enclave where more than 1.3 million people are currently gathered, without a plan to protect the lives of civilians.

RFI: Is this American veto a sign that despite the differences of opinion between the two countries, the United States' support for Israel remains unwavering?

Michael Oren:

 You have two policies that have largely remained unchanged. The first is the supply of ammunition. And the Biden administration not only provided munitions, but expedited deliveries by bypassing Congress. The other is to veto ceasefire requests in the Security Council.

But behind the scenes, the United States' position on Gaza has changed. During his visit to Israel in January,

the Secretary of State was very critical of Israel

. It was an extraordinary moment. Because on October 8, 10, 11 or 12, the United States was on the same line as Israel: destroy Hamas. But America's new position is to ensure that the events of October 7 will never happen again.

It's a very different line. And behind the scenes, the Americans were telling me that they thought Israel's goals were unrealistic, that Hamas could not be completely destroyed, and that there had to be a diplomatic solution that might involve technocratic elements of Hamas. People responsible for water and electricity, for example, within a Palestinian unity government. This is a very different position from that of Israel, which remains unchanged: destroy Hamas.

How do you explain this American inflection towards Israel when at the start of the war, the United States displayed total support for the Israeli government?

There was an inflection point in late November, when the administration began speaking in two very different voices. On the one hand, John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council. He said he strongly supported Israel and Hamas's goal of destruction, while downplaying civilian casualties. For a time, President Biden sided with John Kirby. The other side, that of the State Department, and in particular Secretary of State Blinken, was increasingly concerned about the number of Palestinian casualties. He said that far too many Palestinians had been killed.

And what happened, at least in 2024, is that the latter voice ended up eclipsing the former. And this is due to many concerns, particularly domestic political concerns. Michigan is a key state in the 2024 elections. However, it has a very large Muslim, American and Arab-American population.

Read alsoIsrael-Hamas war: Biden's popularity with Muslim voters in freefall

Currently, differences are particularly expressed on the question of an Israeli military operation against Rafah, a city that has become a refuge for more than a million Gazans.

Yes, the question of the siege of Rafah by Israel is now at the heart of differences. Many hostages are there. The United States is pressuring Israel not to enter Rafah until it has a plan to evacuate Palestinians from the combat zone. And they want to delay the operation in Rafah in order to continue negotiations with the hostages. From Israel's point of view, this poses a number of problems. No one is interested in the internal situation in Israel, where there is very strong opposition to helping the Palestinians, as long as Hamas holds the hostages. And even for people from the center - center left. And there is still enormous support to carry out the battle against Hamas. Particularly from the military, from the people who fought there. They say: “ 

What are we fighting for? We will finish this fight. We didn’t fight for 130 days, our friends didn’t die for nothing

 .” And they constitute a very powerful electoral group in Israel.

Are these differences between the two allies usual in times of crisis or have they reached a hitherto unknown level?

We have gone through very difficult times. In 1948, 1956 and 1973... In almost every war, the United States told Israel to stop. And in each of them, Israel stopped. The question is whether Israel will stop this time if Washington says stop. I think Israel will not stop. This will be the only time Israel says “no” to the United States.

And what impact could this have on relations between the United States and Israel?

I am sure this will have a significant impact on relations with this administration. And it will reinforce the trend that, for more than a decade, has made support for Israel a partisan issue. We have always been proud to say that support for Israel is a bipartisan issue. From now on, the partisan divide will strengthen. It will be very difficult for pro-Israel Democrats to express support for Israel. This is a great danger for Israel, especially as we face the possibility of a second front in the north.

And what do you think the Israeli government's reaction should be?

I am no longer part of the government, so I speak as a private citizen. But if I were in government, I would try to give the administration everything we can give them that doesn't impact our security. For example, if the Biden administration wants to talk about a path to a Palestinian state, unlike the administration that unanimously rejected that idea a few days ago, I would say, “Okay, we'll talk. We are open to discussions. But that doesn’t commit us in any way.” America wants humanitarian aid for the Palestinians. It's very difficult for us, really difficult. But I would try to go as far as possible to meet America's expectations in this area. America wants a plan to evacuate the Palestinians from the combat zone, and I will do my best to make it happen. But if America says, "There will be an indefinite ceasefire as long as there are negotiations with Hamas over the hostages," I would say, "No, we can't do that."


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