With a vast chasm between how Israelis see the war in Gaza and how much of the world does, Israel’s leaders have taken to adopting different rhetoric when addressing the two audiences about how its military campaign against Hamas will be conducted over the year ahead.
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 international alarm at the scale of destruction and civilian casualties in the territory.
But after those comments were published on Monday, Israeli leaders sought to reassure the Israeli public that they remained committed to a long-term war in Gaza to destroy Hamas, even if the military tactics are shifting.
The messages are not incompatible, analysts say: The pace of a war can ebb without the conflict ending. But they say the differing rhetoric reflects the Israeli government’s effort to placate an international audience in the short term, in order to pursue its goals over the long term.
At home, the government must answer to a population, traumatized by the brutality of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, that still wants the government to follow through with its promise to end Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip.
But to do that, Israel must retain some level of international legitimacy, especially if it wants to sustain the support of its primary backer, the United States. The top U.S. diplomat, Antony J. Blinken, visited Israel on Tuesday amid growing pressure on the Biden administration to push for a cease-fire.
The juggling act will become even harder on Thursday, when the International Court of Justice will hear allegations, leveled by South Africa, that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians. The hearing could lead the court to order Israel to suspend its campaign, a largely symbolic gesture that Israel might ignore, but only at further cost to its reputation.
“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, Mr. Pinkas 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 said, “understand that very little has been achieved, if the idea was to eliminate or eradicate or obliterate or annihilate or topple Hamas.”
The rhetorical double act may have been clearest on Monday, when 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. Earlier in the day, Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, told The Wall Street Journal that Israel would soon transition from “intense maneuvering” toward “different types of special operations.”
But in their domestic appearances, the men had a different focus.
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.”
And 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 to ease the fighting, and they came hours before Mr. 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 called on Israel to use more precision in its strikes on Gaza.
One military commentator, writing in the right-wing daily newspaper Israel Hayom, noted the discrepancy.
“The Israeli government,” Yoav Limor wrote, “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.”
Before Mr. Blinken’s visit, U.S. officials said that they had been privately reassured by their Israeli counterparts that this transition would be completed by the end of January. Some 50,000 Israeli soldiers were in Gaza at the height of the campaign last month, and more than half of them have already left, the U.S. officials said.
While a majority of Israelis want to see Hamas destroyed following its attack, which killed an estimated 1,200 people, international public opinion has been turning against Israel. In the United States, there is growing criticism of Mr. Biden’s stance on the war: Protesters interrupted a speech by the president on Monday in Charleston, S.C., urging him to stop backing Israel’s military campaign.
“Call for a cease-fire in Gaza,” one shouted.
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.
The scale of that toll — roughly one in a hundred Gazans have been killed — has given fuel to the allegations of genocide that will be discussed this week in The Hague.
Israel has strongly denied the accusations, but those making them have pointed to inflammatory statements from Israeli government ministers and lawmakers. The petition to the court lists scores of statements it says imply genocidal intent. It also argues that Israel is seeking to harm Palestinians by limiting the delivery of aid to the territory.
Against that backdrop, the Israeli government has redoubled its efforts this week to make a different impression.
In addition to the comments from Admiral Hagari and Mr. Gallant, the government has scheduled a press day at the Gaza border on Wednesday, where, it said, it would show journalists how Israel was working to allow aid into the territory.
The attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, issued a statement on Tuesday night in English, pledging that the government and its security forces were “all committed to act in accordance with international law, including the law of armed conflict.” It said that “any statement calling, inter alia, for intentional harm to civilians, contradicts the policy of the State of Israel and may amount to a criminal offense, including the offense of incitement.”
The government, nevertheless, is still far from winding down the war. Even as they pledged to scale back their operations in northern Gaza, Israeli officials said the fighting would continue at full intensity in the south, where most of the Gazan population has fled, and where the Hamas leadership is believed to be hiding.
And despite Mr. Blinken’s calls to de-escalate the fighting on Israel’s border with Lebanon, where Israel is clashing with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia allied with Hamas, the government has refused to rule out invading Lebanon if Hezbollah forces remain close to the border.
“We will create a completely different reality, or we will get to another war,” the Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said on Sunday.
Myra Noveck, Rawan Sheikh Ahmad and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.