Tel Aviv (Reuters) – US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Israel arrived in Israel on Monday for talks expected to focus on Israel eventually ending the high-intensity war in Gaza and moving to a more limited and focused conflict, officials said.
For Austin, the trip represents a delicate balancing act. He has steadfastly supported Israel’s right to defend itself following surprise attacks by the Palestinian Hamas movement on October 7. But he has also become increasingly outspoken about the plight of civilians in Gaza as Israeli strikes drive up casualties.
In a speech earlier this month, Austin went so far as to describe civilians as the “center of gravity” in Israel’s war against Hamas, the ruling Palestinian Islamist movement in Gaza, and warned of the dangers of their extremism.
A senior US defense official told reporters traveling with Austin that he is expected to discuss Israeli planning to move to the next phase of the war in his talks with senior Israeli leaders, including the prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu And the Minister of Defense Yoav Galant.
“What you are seeing in terms of high-intensity ground operations plus air strikes today will not last forever. It is one phase of the campaign,” the official said.
“We have an interest in supporting the Israelis in planning what the transition will look like when they make the decision that major ground operations must end and they are ready to transition.”
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the United States and Israel appear to be in agreement on a final move to the next phase of the campaign.
He added that Washington wants this to happen sooner, perhaps within a few weeks, while Israel feels it needs more time.
“So they basically agree on the way forward, and the need to eventually move to a more targeted approach, but there are differences on the timeline,” he added.
When US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Israel last week, Netanyahu told him that Israel would fight “until absolute victory.” Defense Minister Yoav Galant said that the war “will last more than several months.”
As intense ground fighting expanded this month across the Gaza Strip and aid organizations warned of a humanitarian catastrophe, Biden said last week that Israel risked losing international support due to “indiscriminate” air strikes that kill Palestinian civilians.
The defense official added that Austin, a retired four-star general, oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East and even commanded U.S. forces in Iraq while in uniform, giving him a perspective on battlefield shifts in military campaigns that could help in discussions with… Israeli officials.
The official said Austin is familiar with how to conduct military operations “on the other side of a high-intensity conflict to ensure that a military reconfiguration of Hamas in this situation is not viable or possible.”
In a sign of the Biden administration’s intense focus on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Austin will be accompanied in Israel by the Chairman of the US Army Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown.
Austin and Brown are also facing regional repercussions of the war, as groups allied with Iran launch waves of attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria, and Yemen’s Houthi movement strikes ships in the Red Sea in support of Hamas.
The Iran-backed Houthis said over the weekend that they attacked the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat with a swarm of drones.
The US Central Command said that the destroyer Karni shot down 14 Houthi drones over the Red Sea on Saturday. Britain also said one of its warships shot down a suspected attack drone that was targeting commercial ships.
(This story has been reworded to fix a typo in paragraph 2)
(Editing by James MacKenzie and Mark Heinrich)
“Internet practitioner. Social media maven. Certified zombieaholic. Lifelong communicator.”