US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on Monday for talks expected to focus on Israel’s eventual end to high-intensity war in Gaza and its transition to a more limited, focused conflict, officials say.
Austin has supported Israel’s right to defend itself following Palestinian militant group Hamas’ surprise Oct. 7 attacks and become vocal about the plight of civilians in Gaza as Israeli strikes drive up casualties. In a speech earlier this month, Austin called civilians the “center of gravity” in Israel’s war with Hamas and warned about the risks of their radicalization.
A senior US defense official traveling with Austin said he was expected to discuss Israel’s planning for a transition to the next phase of the war in his talks with senior Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
“We have an interest in supporting the Israelis in planning for what a transition looks like when major ground operations should end and they’re ready to transition,” the official said.
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said both the US and Israel seemed to agree on an eventual transition to a next phase of the campaign. However, Washington wants that to happen sooner, while Israel feels it needs more time, he said.
When US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan visited Israel last week, Netanyahu told him Israel would fight “until absolute victory” and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the war would “last more than several months.”
With fierce ground fighting expanding across the length of the Gaza Strip and aid organizations warning of a humanitarian catastrophe, US President Biden said last week that Israel risked losing international support because of “indiscriminate” air strikes killing Palestinian civilians.
Austin, a retired four-star general, has previous experience overseeing US forces in the Middle East and leading US forces in Iraq. This perspective on battlefield transitions in military campaigns could aid discussions with Israeli officials, the defense official added.
In a sign of the Biden administration’s intense focus on the Israel-Hamas conflict, Austin will be accompanied in Israel by the chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Charles “C.Q.” Brown.
Austin and Brown are also dealing with regional fallout from the war, with Iran-aligned groups carrying out waves of attacks against US troops in Iraq and Syria and Yemen’s Houthi movement striking vessels in the Red Sea in support of Hamas. The US Central Command said the destroyer Carney on Saturday shot down 14 Houthi drones over the Red Sea. Britain also said one of its warships had shot down a suspected attack drone targeting merchant shipping.