U.S. Defense Secretary Visits Israel to Push Transition Into New Phase of War

Welcome back to World Brief, where we’re looking at U.S. efforts to quell the Israel-Hamas war, North Korea’s long-range missile tests, and a landmark national security law trial in Hong Kong.

Welcome back to World Brief, where we’re looking at U.S. efforts to quell the Israel-Hamas war, North Korea’s long-range missile tests, and a landmark national security law trial in Hong Kong.

In Wednesday’s World Brief about outcomes from COP28, we mentioned that participating countries signed a document to stop adding carbon monoxide into the atmosphere by 2050; this should, of course, have been carbon dioxide. Also, to clarify, one part of that agreement entailed that those countries triple the amount of renewable energy sources by 2050.

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Transition Timeline

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday to discuss Israel’s plan for transitioning to the next phase of its war against Hamas, when the current high-intensity conflict involving major ground operations is expected to be replaced by more limited, targeted actions. Accompanied by Gen. Charles Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Austin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and the rest of Israel’s war cabinet.

The White House has long been Israel’s closest ally and a staunch supporter of its right to defend itself. However, the Biden administration has recently been more critical of Netanyahu’s war strategy, with Austin himself warning the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of a “strategic defeat” if the IDF does not minimize alleged indiscriminate attacks against Palestinians.

The United States is reportedly pushing Israel to transition to a less intense phase of the war sooner rather than later, whereas Israeli leaders want more time. However, Austin said on Monday that he is not dictating a timeline or terms. During meetings last week with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Netanyahu said Israel would fight until “absolute victory,” defined as the complete eradication of Hamas. Gallant reiterated that pledge when he estimated that the Israel-Hamas war could last for months.

Austin will continue his multiday Middle East shuttle diplomacy trip this week with visits to Bahrain and Qatar to further Washington’s stated commitments to “regional security and stability,” among other bilateral defense promises.

At the same time, CIA Director William Burns traveled to Warsaw, Poland, on Monday to hold talks with top Israeli and Qatari officials, including the head of Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Burns advocated for restarting Israeli hostage negotiations and Palestinian prisoner swaps.

Both the United States and Israel have accused Hamas of failing to follow through on a previous agreement to release all female captives. Hamas has stated that these hostages are Israeli soldiers and that it will therefore not release them. The Islamist group has also called for the release of more Palestinian prisoners, including some high-profile individuals.

But regional experts are cautiously optimistic about talks in Warsaw, with some arguing that Netanyahu must now make progress on hostage diplomacy after Israel’s deadly mistake last Friday, when the IDF accidentally killed three Israeli captives. Growing pressure to bring the hostages home, coupled with fraught civil opinion over Netanyahu’s failure to prevent the Oct. 7 attack, mean that Israel’s far-right administration is losing its already tenuous hold on public support.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council convened on Monday to vote on another proposal calling for an “urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities” in Gaza as well as the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages,” and condemning “all indiscriminate attacks against civilians.” The United States vetoed the last U.N. Security Council vote regarding a Gaza cease-fire on Dec. 8, largely due to the text not decrying Hamas violence. It is likely that Washington will once again exercise this permanent five power, with Israel’s urging.

Today’s Most Read

The World This Week

Tuesday, Dec. 19: Japan’s central bank announces its interest rate decision.

Tuesday, Dec. 19, to Wednesday, Dec. 20: Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin attends talks with Chinese counterpart Li Qiang.

Wednesday, Dec. 20: The Democratic Republic of the Congo holds general elections.

Morocco hosts the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum.

Thursday, Dec. 21: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signs a defense cooperation agreement with Danish Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen.

The central banks for Turkey and Indonesia announce their interest rate decisions.

Thursday, Dec. 21, to Friday, Dec. 22: French President Emmanuel Macron visits Jordan.

What We’re Following

ICBM tests. North Korea launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles within hours of each other on Monday. The Hwasong-18s traveled more than 600 miles before landing just west of Japan’s maritime borders. According to Japanese and South Korean officials, these long-range missiles have the ability to target anywhere within the United States’ mainland. At Washington’s urging, the U.N. Security Council will meet on Tuesday to discuss the launch.

This was Pyongyang’s first such test since five months ago, when North Korea fired one missile in a 74-minute flight. And it adds to dictator Kim Jong Un’s efforts to bolster North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Pyongyang has launched more than 35 missiles this year, including a spy satellite into space—setting a new, worrying record for its weapons testing program.

Democracy takes the stand. A historic national security trial kicked off in Hong Kong on Monday for pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai. Local officials arrested the former publisher of Apple Daily in August 2020 during Hong Kong’s intense crackdown on anti-government demonstrations. Lai is accused of colluding with foreign entities, conspiracy, and attempted sedition. If found guilty, he faces a possible life sentence in prison.

Rights activists have tied Lai’s trial with the health of Hong Kong’s press freedom and judicial independence, both of which have declined in recent years as China tightens its control over the semi-autonomous region. “It is a shocking reminder of how Beijing will go to any lengths and co-opt almost anything in pursuit of stamping out what it regards as among the gravest threats to its rule in decades,” activist Jack Hazlewood argued in Foreign Policy following Lai’s arrest.

Few surprises at the polls. Egypt’s election authority declared incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the victor of Cairo’s three-day presidential election on Monday, securing his third term in power. Officials announced that Sisi had won 89.6 percent of the vote. However, this result was all but confirmed before the polls even opened, with leading opposition figure Ahmed el-Tantawy dropping out of the race in October due to alleged threats and intimidation against his supporters.

Nearly 2,000 miles away, Serbian pollsters projected that incumbent President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party would win Sunday’s snap parliamentary election with 46.2 percent of the vote. Vucic’s party also touted numerous local election successes. The opposition Serbia Against Violence coalition, which was formed following two mass shootings in May, immediately demanded that the results be nullified over alleged voting irregularities.

And across the ocean, more than 55 percent of Chileans rejected a draft resolution on Sunday that would have replaced an Augusto Pinochet-era constitution with a more conservative document. President Gabriel Boric said his government would not seek a third rewrite of the manifest and would instead focus on reforming the nation’s tax and pension policies.

Odds and Ends

Even Turkey’s central bank chief is struggling with rising inflation. Hafize Gaye Erkan said during an interview last week that she had moved in with her parents, blaming high rent in Istanbul. Evidently the job’s perks don’t shield Erkan from the same economic pains that the rest of Turks face. And as someone living in Washington, D.C., I, too, understand the struggle.

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Alexandra Sharp