'Phase 2': The Shape of Israeli Rejectionism To Come

Biden has declared that Israel's reasonable war aims have been achieved. Netanyahu is in no position to agree. Only U.S. pressure can break the impasse. Will Biden apply it? 

'Phase 2': The Shape of Israeli Rejectionism To Come
We would like to tender our humble apologies to the ghost of Mr. Ornette Coleman

Edited by Sam Thielman

PRESIDENT BIDEN'S SPEECH on Friday endorsing "a permanent end to hostilities" in Gaza, welcome and overdue as it was, was a labored one. It had to obscure the political reality that Israel, not Hamas, are the rejectionists here. As many have observed, the three-phase approach to move from a ceasefire to the end of the invasion of Gaza, guaranteed by hostage releases and prisoner exchanges, is substantially similar to what Hamas proposed in February and accepted from Egyptian/Qatari mediators in May. Not surprisingly, Hamas immediately made clear that it's open to the deal. (More on that in a second.) When Biden said that now Hamas can "prove whether they really mean it," he was saving face—not just for himself, not just for the U.S., but for Israel. 

Because Biden, for the first time in eight months, laid out a new war aim for the Israelis that diverges from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demands for "total victory," whatever that means. "At this point, Hamas no longer is capable of carrying out another October 7th," Biden said. That was the most important line of the speech. 

Both Israeli and U.S. policies since October 7 have sought, to be blunt about it, regime change in Gaza. I'll get into this in greater detail in a forthcoming Nation piece, but a very significant development over the past month, after Israel rejected the last ceasefire proposal, has been the emergence into the open of deep divides, both within the Israeli government and between the Israeli and U.S. governments, over the endgame in Gaza. The Biden people do not have confidence that the Israelis are defining their aims clearly or can achieve them. Biden is offering Israel an opportunity to declare victory and get out—something that Netanyahu, and not only him, has no appetite for.

Months ago I sought the Biden of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Whatever becomes of this ceasefire proposal, this looks more like more like that version of Biden than the one we have seen since Oct. 7. Biden is grasping for something that looks like military achievement—when Biden says Hamas can't pull off another 10/7, I hear al-Qaeda can no longer pull off another 9/11—to cover for the fact that the war is a conceptual, strategic and operational fiasco, just as those of us who opposed it from the start understood it would be. Tzachi Hanegbi, the Israeli national-security adviser, said days before Biden's speech that Israel would need the rest of 2024 to destroy Hamas militarily. This, after Israel predicated its carnage in Rafah on destroying the final stronghold of Hamas. ("The next six months in Iraq will be crucial" is all I hear.) Hamas proved last month that it still has the capability to fight the IDF in northern Gaza, which was a giant klaxon warning what awaits Israel the longer it remains in the strip. 

The reduced aim operates as an American wedge within the Israeli war cabinet and the broader Israeli government. To accept Biden's proposal is to accept that Hamas in some form will remain in Gaza, and quite likely in power. (As some of us pointed out in October.) Netanyahu, who will soon have a warrant issued for his arrest on war-crimes charges, can't accept that proposal wholesale without risking the collapse of his government and the subsequent unimpeded resumption of an Israeli corruption case against him. And while previous Israeli rejectionism tends to get papered over in U.S. media, wholesale rejection is still not a diplomatic position Israel wishes to occupy.  But an option available to Netanyahu, one that seems to be floated in the press, is to accept the first phase of the ceasefire while not yet accepting the second. 

Why? Because the first phase is a ceasefire and hostage exchange lasting six weeks and concluding with the IDF still in Gaza. That leaves Israel with the option of resuming the war. The second phase is where the divergence with Israel becomes operative. That's when Israel and Hamas, guaranteed by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar, are supposed to end the war, not simply pause from waging it. Israel's war aims may not be well-defined as a matter of rhetorical substance, but as pursued on the ground they are simply the destruction of as much Palestinian life in Gaza as possible. Biden is now saying that Israel's Hamas-oriented aims are not achievable—and that it should prioritize the return of the hostages, a goal that also moves further away the longer the IDF destroys Gaza, and the only goal that unites pro- and anti-war factions. 

Accepting Phase One without accepting Phase Two is the easiest path to obscuring this substantial divide with Washington and within the Israeli government. Biden, in his speech, acknowledged that the jump between phases is the hard part of the deal: "There are a number of details to negotiate to move from Phase One to Phase Two. Israel will want to make sure its interests are protected." Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich put it a little differently: "If, God forbid, the government decides to adopt this offer of surrender, we will not be part of it and will work to replace the failed leadership with a new one." 

Phase One without Phase Two appears to be where Netanyahu is seeking to maneuver. "The war will be stopped for the purpose of returning hostages, and then we will proceed with other discussions," Netanyahu was quoted as saying today by an Israeli government spokesperson. I would expect this to be the heart of Netanyahu's address to Congress, whenever it happens. Aluf Benn of Haaretz is predicting that Netanyahu will dissolve the government and call for new elections, having run out of options under this current government to placate both Biden and his far-right coalition. 

Hamas, to which I said above we'd return, is conditionalizing its embrace of the deal. Hamas’s buy-in is predicated on this plan actually being a path to end the war—which is to say that Israel needs to commit to Phase Two. That's Hamas' only rational move here. It cannot be expected to give up any substantial number of hostages—and while I hate discussing this in these dehumanizing terms, the hostages are Hamas' only leverage—for six weeks of calm that might precede the completion of the Nakba. For more on Hamas and the deal, check out Abdullah al-Arian of Georgetown's comments over the weekend to al-Jazeera.

There is only one thing that can make Israel accept Phase Two: American pressure. Having withheld a single weapons shipment and then watched as Israel defied Biden's appeals not to launch an assault on Rafah, there is simply no other realistic option. How can you arm a country while demanding it stop its war? 

Biden is extremely reluctant to pressure Israel under any circumstance, but now he is committing himself to a path where the alternative to pressure is the defiant resumption of a genocidal military campaign. If he pressures Israel at all, he'll surely do so while hugging Israel as tightly as he can. Unfortunately, very little about Biden's record—not just since October 7—indicates he has the stomach to force Israel out of the abyss it is so rapidly digging. It took 20 years of futile war for The Biden Of The Afghanistan Withdrawal to show up. But he did show up, and soon we'll learn whether Biden can commit to the implications of what he called for on Friday before it’s too late.  

I THINK WE CAN BALANCE appropriate skepticism with hope when it comes to the prospects for this ceasefire proposal. A helpful reminder of what produced the proposal in the first place came from Stefanie Fox of Jewish Voice for Peace Action on Friday following Biden's speech: "President Biden’s statement is a result of the overwhelming demand of the American people to stop fueling Netanyahu’s assault on Gaza. Millions of people have called for a ceasefire and built a historic movement to end this genocide. We will keep pushing President Biden to take real and tangible action towards a future of peace rooted in Palestinian freedom. This begins with an immediate arms embargo on Israel." If you were on the streets, on the campus lawns, in the police wagons, on the phone with legislators, you pushed Biden here. You are democratic action, which is upstream of what happens inside a voting booth. 

KATHLEEN HANNA'S NEW MEMOIR REBEL GIRL is so good I read it in a day. Can you call it a fun read while it deals with so much personal and social trauma? Maybe not. Hearing the story behind "Star-Bellied Boy" and "Apt. #5" is well and truly heartbreaking, and it unexpectedly recontextualizes the story behind "Smells Like Teen Spirit" – which it turns out we didn't really know before now. But anyone who's been to a Le Tigre show can tell you that Kathleen is very funny, and knows how to wield extremely dark humor: not to avoid a traumatic subject but to work through it, which is not a choice everyone will make. I root for Kathleen Hanna in all her endeavors, and if you or anyone you know does as well, Rebel Girl is a must-read. 

Here I'm also going to be obnoxious and say that while I was too late to see Bikini Kill the first time around, one of the best shows I ever saw was Le Tigre's show at Threadwaxing Space in 2000, back when they could still play to a crowd of maybe 100 people. That's yet another thing I owe my old high school friend Rebecca Roulette. (Who sings "Feels Blind" on The Punk Singer documentary, in case you were wondering who that was. Go see the Roulettes at the Sultan Room on August 1!

WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, the superhero spy thriller I co-wrote with my friend Evan Narcisse and which the masterful Jesús Merino illustrated, is available for purchase in a hardcover edition! If you don't have single issues of WVW and you want a four-issue set signed by me, they're going fast at Bulletproof Comics

No one is prouder of WVW than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, which is available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is a new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN.