As gaps widen between Israeli and international perceptions of the war against Hamas in Gaza, the Israeli leadership has crafted divergent messages for the two audiences about how the war will be conducted in 2024.
Israeli officials have begun to tell the international news media that its forces are shifting to a less intense phase of operations, particularly in northern Gaza, amid growing international alarm at the scale of destruction and civilian casualties in the territory.
On Monday, the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said in an interview with The New York Times that the war had entered a new phase, with Israel drawing down its troops, focusing on southern regions of Gaza and decreasing the number of airstrikes. Hours earlier, Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, had told The Wall Street Journal that Israel would soon transition from “intense maneuvering” toward “different types of special operations.”
But after those comments were published, both men sought on Monday evening to reassure the Israeli public that Israel remained committed to a long-term war in Gaza even as its military tactics were shifting.
In his daily Hebrew-language press briefing on Monday night, Admiral Hagari responded to a question about his interview with The Times by saying that the goal of dismantling Hamas remained in place, and that the “semantics” of whether the war had entered a new phase “doesn’t serve the Israeli public.”
Separately, the Israeli news media reported that Mr. Gallant had told fellow right-wing lawmakers, in a closed-door meeting, that the war would continue “for many more months,” and for that to happen, Israel needed a “margin for international maneuver.” Mr. Gallant’s office confirmed the remarks.
The comments to international news media also appeared to be an effort to address calls from the United States, Israel’s strongest ally, to ease the fighting, and they came hours before the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, landed in Tel Aviv for discussions about the war. The Biden administration has been under pressure to scale back its support for Israel, and Mr. Blinken has previously called on Israel to use more precision in its strikes on Gaza.
Writing in Israel Hayom, a right-wing daily newspaper, Yoav Limor, a military commentator, said: “The Israeli government locked itself into conflicting commitments: the commitments that it made to the Israeli public, saying there would be no time limit and the war would continue for as long as necessary until victory; and the commitments it made to the world, first and foremost to the administration in Washington, saying that the war was now transitioning to a new, lower-intensity stage of the war.”
Analysts said the messages are not incompatible: The pace of a war can ebb without the conflict ending entirely. But they said they reflected the Israeli government’s effort to placate an international audience in the short term in order to pursue its goals over the long term.
While a majority of Israelis want to see Hamas destroyed after its brutal Oct. 7 raid on Israel, international public opinion has been turning against Israel. More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its offensive, according to the Gazan health ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.
Adding to pressure on Israel is a hearing scheduled for this week at the International Court of Justice in a case, brought by South Africa, that accuses Israel of attempting a genocide against Palestinians. Israeli officials have strongly denied the allegation.
“With all these put together, Israel wants to put on an image of, ‘OK, we’ve taken the criticism, we’ve integrated and incorporated the remarks,’” Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul-general in New York and a political commentator, said in an interview.
By contrast, he said, the Israeli mainstream does not want to hear that the war is winding down while Hamas remains active in much of Gaza. Israelis, he added, “understand that very little has been achieved, if the idea was to eliminate or eradicate or obliterate or annihilate or topple Hamas.”