Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Enough mediating. America should deploy its might against Hamas.

Opinion by Roger Zakheim

May 15, 2024 at 18:30 Taiwan Time

Roger Zakheim is director of the Ronald Reagan Institute, a former general counsel for the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the National Defense Strategy Commission.

On Oct. 7, Hamas murdered more than 40 Americans, and five Americans are still being held captive more than 200 days later. Since then, the Biden administration has tried to get the hostages home by playing the role of mediator. This approach fundamentally misunderstands the parties involved in the conflict, as well as the tools required to free captive Americans. The mediator mind-set is wrong in principle and has now failed in practice. It is time to jettison this approach and deploy U.S. might instead.

For more than seven months the secretary of state and director of central intelligence, along with other senior officials, have treated the Gaza war as if it were a conflict between state actors, employing shuttle diplomacy and negotiating with both sides. They have indulged in the conceit that you can negotiate with a terrorist organization by treating it as an equal party. The Biden administration has continued to allow Qatar to give Hamas’s political leadership sanctuary in its five-star headquarters in Doha, on the theory that if they can talk with Hamas leaders, a resolution is more likely.

Yet the mediator approach has applied equal, if not more, pressure on U.S. ally Israel to make concessions than it has on Hamas, the original aggressors, and its principal backer, Iran. This has hardened Hamas’s negotiating stance and imperiled American hostages.

Other than the week-long pause in fighting at the end of 2023, during which 105 hostages (only two Americans) were released, U.S. mediation has achieved little. Hamas’s recent video of American hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin is a harrowing reminder of how badly we have failed our citizens.

It is long overdue for the United States to shift the paradigm. Over the past 20 years, the United States has developed an array of intelligence, economic, and military tools and techniques that can pressure and destroy terrorist networks. They should be deployed against Hamas.

For starters, the Treasury Department should aggressively target sanctions on entities that fund and fuel Hamas. At the top of the list should be the Central Bank of Iran, which facilitates capital flows into Hamas’s coffers. The same should be done for Qatari and Turkish entities that support and aid the terrorist organization. This should be paired with flexing our diplomatic muscle and formally demanding that Qatar oust Hamas’s leadership from Doha.

We should also unleash our military and intelligence community’s world-class targeting and strike capability that killed Osama bin Laden and Qasem Soleimani, and has rescued hundreds of hostages held by terrorists. The rescue of American citizens certainly warrants the employment of unparalleled U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, as well as elite Special Operations forces. Yet, since Oct. 7 the U.S. military is nowhere to be found. Instead of fully utilizing this exquisite capability, only a handful of military advisers are whispering advice to Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv.

Skeptics may argue that the chances of any U.S. intelligence and military success in Gaza are low. If the Israel Defense Forces have been unable to find the hostages, how could the U.S. military expect a different result?

Such skeptics underestimate our formidable capabilities. At an operational level, having a modest but lethal U.S. intelligence and military footprint dedicated to targeting Hamas and rescuing Americans will help an Israeli war effort that is exhausted from seven months of fighting. As one IDF special operator told me, “Your Delta forces would be a game changer.”

And shifting away from mediation to a more aggressive stance would also send a powerful signal to Hamas’s leadership: that the United States will hold Hamas directly responsible for how it treats American citizens. That is a message best delivered by the barrel of a gun, not through intermediaries in Cairo and Doha. It could change the negotiation incentives for Hamas’s leadership.

Oct. 7 was one of the deadliest days for Americans since 9/11. And yet President Biden has found it more expedient to treat Hamas as Israel’s enemy — not the United States’. At this point in the war, we are doing a disservice to our citizens by relying solely on Israel to handle what should be the primary U.S. interest in Gaza: saving American lives. It is time to demonstrate that the United States does not leave its citizens behind. There is no higher calling or priority in U.S. foreign policy.

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