Photo Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, March 31, 2024.

Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas have restarted; one session was held in Doha and a session in Cairo is underway. This week Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated some “red lines” or conditions of his own, and the reaction in much of the press, and from many Israelis, was outrage. Many Israelis really, really (and some almost desperately, for good personal reasons) want the deal to succeed—to get some of the hostages back and pause the war.

But it should be obvious that the voicing of those desires and demands for a cease-fire deal with Hamas is a tactical mistake. The more Hamas hears that, the tougher their demands become. The chances of a deal rise when Hamas feels it must curb its appetites and its own demands. Netanyahu’s statement seemed to me an obvious effort to level the negotiating table a bit.


Yes, it’s more complicated than that; there is of course domestic politics powerfully at work too. But the only person in the Israeli system who seems to be thinking about negotiating tactics is the prime minister.

We saw something quite similar in the Israel/Hezbollah confrontation. American officials should have been and should be saying, it seems to me, that they are 100 percent behind Israel, and if a war starts Hezbollah will regret it for decades—and so will Iran. That is the best way to persuade Hezbollah to back off, and perhaps make a negotiated agreement possible. That is, add to Israeli leverage and reduce Iranian leverage. If there is concern that Israel will push Hezbollah too hard after the United States makes such a statement, the Israelis can be told privately, indeed secretly, what the limits are from the American point of view.

And we saw the same thing again after the April 14 missile attacks on Israel by Iran. This was a major event in the Middle East: a direct attack by Iran on Israel, breaking what had been the rules of the game under which neither country attacked the other directly. CENTCOM brilliantly orchestrated defenses of Israel that worked almost perfectly—but had they not, Iran’s intention of doing serious damage would have required an equally damaging Israeli response. President Biden’s message to Israel was “take the win,” as if defense against a direct Iranian attack is a “win.” Did that “win” deter Iran from trying again or punish it for the attack? Should not the American response, even if it contained “take the win,” have been a very public threat to Iran that the United States will fully back Israel against Iran if need be?

No, the American diplomats thought, because that raises the risk of escalation. Isn’t it obvious that as between Iran and the world’s greatest superpower, Iran and not the United States should be afraid of escalation? Isn’t it obvious that U.S. diplomacy should have been in more of a “make my day” mode in order to deter Iran from ever attacking that way again? This is not a strategy for war, but to avoid war. The record is clear that the Iranian leadership shies away from confrontation with the United States, so why are our diplomats expressing the greater fear of escalation?

As I have watched U.S. diplomacy since October 7, the phrase that has kept on coming back to me is Casey Stengel’s after his 1962 Mets racked up a modern record of 120 losses: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

{Reposted from Pressure Points}

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Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor under Pres. George W. Bush.