May 23, 2024

Washington, DC – Benny Gantz, an Israeli minister without a portfolio, was granted an audience with officials at the highest level of the United States government in Washington, DC, this week: the vice president, secretary of state and Pentagon chief.

The US officials expressed support for Israel amid its war on the Gaza Strip, urged more aid to the besieged territory and reiterated their call for a pause in the fighting, according to government statements.

But analysts say the real message was in having the meetings at all: The administration of President Joe Biden was signalling frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by hosting a figure seen as Netanyahu’s main domestic rival.

Elevating Gantz without meaningfully reconsidering US support for Israel, however, is a “meaningless” gesture that will fail to stop abuses against Palestinians, rights advocates told Al Jazeera.

“You have the Biden administration supposedly expressing its displeasure against the Israeli government to an opposition politician instead of doing what it should be doing … which is ending all forms of US weapons transfers to Israel,” said Josh Ruebner, an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University’s Justice and Peace programme.

Ruebner added that Netanyahu may be “peeved” by Gantz’s visit to the US capital, but not so much as to push the Israeli prime minister to change his government’s policies towards Gaza.

Netanyahu will not feel like he is losing US support “unless and until” the threat of sanctions by Washington is on the table, Ruebner told Al Jazeera. “Only that is really going to compel a change in Israel’s behaviour and policies and genocidal actions.”

‘Biden’s subdued revenge’

US officials often deny interfering in the internal political affairs of other countries, including Israel.

Pressed on Monday on whether Washington believed high-level talks with Gantz were appropriate, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller highlighted that the Israeli politician is a member of the country’s war cabinet.

Gantz also has spoken to top US officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, several times since the war in Gaza began on October 7, Miller said.

“We find him an important figure inside the Israeli government to engage with and – given the number of issues that we have currently that we are in discussion with the government of Israel about,” he told reporters. “For our purposes, it’s an important meeting to have.”

Gantz, a former top general, joined Israel’s war cabinet after the violence in Gaza broke out. He previously led a centrist political bloc that failed to unseat Netanyahu in several elections.

Although he is in the government that is conducting the war on Gaza, which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, Gantz remains a de facto opponent of Netanyahu and a favourite to succeed him, according to recent public opinion polls.

On the US side, Gantz’s visit came amid a growing number of reports about Biden’s supposed irritation with Netanyahu as the Gaza war grinds on.

Netanyahu has been openly defying Washington’s requests and policy pronouncements, including by rejecting a two-state solution to the conflict.

Still, the Biden administration has ruled out withholding aid or weapons transfers to Israel to apply pressure on its top ally to better align with US priorities. In fact, the White House is working with Congress to secure more than $14bn in additional assistance to Israel.

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC think tank, described Gantz’s reception in the US as “Biden’s subdued revenge against Netanyahu”.

“It doesn’t mean a damn thing in the final analysis,” Jahshan told Al Jazeera, adding that the Biden administration is “playing games” in the context of internal Israeli politics but failing to change its support for the war.

Netanyahu was not pleased that Gantz held meetings in Washington, DC, according to Israeli and US media reports this week.

An unidentified official from the prime minister’s right-wing Likud Party told the Associated Press news agency that Gantz’s trip was unauthorised by the government. The official added that Netanyahu had a stern talk with the minister, stressing that Israel has “just one prime minister”.

But analysts stressed that despite his differences with Netanyahu, Gantz should not be seen as a moderate alternative when it comes to Israel’s policies towards Palestinians – and Gaza in particular.

Jahshan noted that Gantz, a general who led the Israeli military’s 2014 war on Gaza, is not a “peacemaker”; he shares the Israeli government’s goal of eliminating Hamas, whatever the cost may be for Palestinians.

“Biden and Gantz may be concerned with mitigating the effects of the [current Gaza] war, but they are not concerned with Palestinians or ending the war,” he said.

Gantz’s talks

Jahshan added that Gantz’s visit also served as an opportunity for the Biden administration to reassert its unconditional backing of Israel.

In her meeting with Gantz, Vice President Kamala Harris “reiterated US support for Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of ongoing Hamas terrorist threats, and underscored our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security”, the White House said in a statement on Monday.

For its part, the Pentagon said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “requested Minister Gantz’s support in enabling more humanitarian assistance and distribution into Gaza” during their meeting.

Israel has been blocking humanitarian aid deliveries from entering Gaza and reaching hard-hit areas, deepening shortages of food, water and medicine.

At least 16 children have died of starvation and dehydration over the past two weeks in the north of the territory, according to health officials.

“Pleading, asking nicely, engaging in PR stunts like dropping 38,000 meals to the Gaza Strip is not going to prevent the mass starvation that Palestinians are expected to face and reverse the reality that Palestinian children are literally being starved to death right now,” said Ruebner, the lecturer.

“These are meaningless words in the context of a closed-door meeting with an Israeli politician who is not a key figure in this particular Israeli government.”

Sandra Tamari, the executive director of the Adalah Justice Project, an advocacy group, echoed that assessment.

She stressed that the US must use its leverage – the aid and weapons it sends to Israel – to pressure the Israeli government to allow enough humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

But instead, she said, Biden is doing everything in his power to “give the illusion” that he is working towards ending the war while continuing to arm Israel and provide it with diplomatic cover at the United Nations.

“By hosting Gantz, the Biden administration can give this idea that somehow Netanyahu is the only problem, and it’s not the whole system that is to blame,” Tamari told Al Jazeera.

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