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US envoy: Looking back, Israel will be grateful for US pressure on Gaza aid

According to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew, the influx of aid to the Gaza Strip has been vital to securing the time and space necessary for Israel to prosecute its war against Hamas.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right foreground) is greeted by Jack Lew, U.S. ambassador to Israel, in Tel Aviv on Jan. 9, 2024. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right foreground) is greeted by Jack Lew, U.S. ambassador to Israel, in Tel Aviv on Jan. 9, 2024. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/State Department.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew told American Jewish leaders on Sunday that in hindsight, Jerusalem will thank the Biden administration for pushing it to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza.

When Lew became the U.S. envoy in Jerusalem on Nov. 2, Israel had just begun permitting “humanitarian assistance” into Gaza, and “many held the view that not a drop of water, not a drop of milk and certainly not a drop of fuel should be allowed to enter,” Lew told the national Israel mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The next day, Nov. 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “Israel is not allowing fuel into Gaza and objects to funds being transferred into the Strip.” On Oct. 30, Netanyahu stated that “Hamas will continue to use the basements in Gaza’s hospitals as the command posts of its vast terror tunnel network. It will continue to use mosques as fortified military positions and weapons depots. It will continue to steal fuel and humanitarian assistance from U.N. facilities.”

On Oct. 9, two days after Hamas’s terror attack, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated, “I have given an order—Gaza will be under complete closure. There will be no electricity, food or fuel delivered to Gaza. We are fighting barbaric terrorists and will respond accordingly.”

Speaking to the Conference of Presidents, Lew said, “At a moment of national trauma in the midst of a war with a ruthless enemy, this was understandable. But it was not a policy that added to Israel’s strategic strength, and it was not a policy that reflected Israel’s core values.”

The United States understood “that we were calling on Israel to recognize the need to distinguish between civilians and combatants in an environment where the enemy hides behind children and hospital patients,” he added. “At the same time, basic food, health care and sanitation should not be denied to non-combatants, especially not children.”

Lew added that Washington had made the case as not only a moral but also a strategic imperative.

“As a strategic matter, we persuaded leaders that in order to have the time and space to meet their military objectives, it was crucial to address the humanitarian needs arising from a difficult war,” he said.

“And when history is written, I believe that our Israeli friends will be grateful for the nudge to adhere to the moral compass that we share,” he added.

The U.S. ambassador also said that “112 hostages are now free because of tireless efforts by the United States.”

“Starting with the president, our national security team engaged in a very difficult process, together with counterparts in Israel, Qatar and Egypt, and we kept pressing until an agreement could be reached, and in spite of many obstacles implemented,” he said.

The 112 number includes two hostages whom Israel freed from Rafah earlier this month.

Rafah ‘plan’

During a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Munich over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “reiterated that the United States could not support a military ground operation in Rafah without a credible and implementable plan for ensuring the safety of the more than one million people sheltering there,” according to Matthew Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesman.

On Feb. 15, Biden told the same thing to Netanyahu over the phone. The U.S. president “reiterated his view that a military operation should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the civilians in Rafah,” per the White House.

The day prior, Miller said that Washington has made it “quite clear both publicly and privately” that no military operation in Rafah could be supported until Israel had developed and implemented a humanitarian plan.

He noted that while the Israeli government had indeed tasked the Israel Defense Forces to produce such a plan, Washington had not yet seen it.

“We haven’t seen that plan yet, we don’t know what it’ll contain, we don’t know if it will be executable,” he said. “So we will wait before offering any prejudgments about what will, or may, or might or might not happen. We’re going to wait to see what that plan looks like and then engage directly with the government of Israel about it,” he added.

Also on Feb. 14, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said during a White House press briefing that “our position on the question of Rafah is clear, and we are pressing very hard on this basic issue that you’ve got exposed, vulnerable civilians in Rafah. They need to be protected.”

Jack Lew
Former President Barack Obama meets with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in the Oval Office on Aug. 4, 2014. Credit: Pete Souza/Official White House Photo.

Two states

In his remarks to the Conference of Presidents, Lew also said that the “diplomatic path” forward “must include steps by the Palestinian Authority to reform, revamp and revitalize itself.”

If the normalization process with Saudi Arabia is to be brought to fruition, he said, “there must be an over-the-horizon process that includes a vision for a demilitarized Palestinian state,” Lew claimed.

Acknowledging that in the wake of Oct. 7 this conversation was a difficult one for Israelis, he urged the audience to remember “that Hamas aimed to derail this very conversation on Oct. 7,” adding, “Normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a major defeat for Hamas.”

Executive order against Israeli ‘extremists’

Before taking questions, Lew addressed what he called “a matter where there is perceived to be some friction between the United States and Israel,” adding that any such differences had been “overstated.”

“On Feb. 1, the president issued an executive order that addresses actions that undermine peace, stability and security in the West Bank,” said Lew. “Coming on the heels of five rounds of financial sanctions since Oct. 7 targeting Hamas,” the order “applies equally to Israelis and Palestinians,” he noted.

“The problem of violent extremism by a small number of settlers in the West Bank is not new. We have been documenting it for years, and Israel has itself tried and convicted violent extremist settlers, including individuals recently designated under the new E.O.,” he said.

While critics of the E.O. have argued that it could potentially apply to a broad swath of Israeli citizens, including officials, Lew emphasized that this was not its intent.

“This executive order is not about all Israelis and not even about all settlers—just that small minority who pursue violent extremism, and we have consistently shared these concerns, along with the commitment to do what we can to stop it, along with importuning the government of Israel to take effective action,” he said.

Israel has argued that its data shows violence is dropping in Judea and Samaria, and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has called reports of growing “settler violence” a “blood libel” and “a lie disconnected from reality.”

At least there’s a visa waiver

“To conclude on a positive note, with all that’s transpired in the past four months, it’s hard to remember that on Sept. 26, 2023, Israel was designated into the Visa Waiver Program,” noted Lew, adding, “But it’s worth remembering.”

“This was an important achievement by the governments of Israel and the United States, for which my predecessor Ambassador Tom Nides pushed hard, and for which the Conference of Presidents strongly advocated,” he said.

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