As Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza escalates, the Biden administration finds itself in a precarious position: Administration officials say Israel’s counterattack against Hamas has been too severe, too costly in civilian casualties, and lacking a coherent endgame, but they are unable to exert significant influence on America’s closest ally in the Middle East to change its course.
U.S. efforts to get Israel to scale back its counterattack in response to the Oct. 7 killings by Hamas that left at least 1,400 Israelis dead have failed or fallen short. The Biden administration urged Israel against a ground invasion, privately asked it to consider proportionality in its attacks, advocated a higher priority on avoiding civilian deaths, and called for a humanitarian pause - only for Israeli officials to dismiss or reject all of those suggestions.
That has left the Biden administration urgently seeking to temper anger in the Arab world by making clear, publicly and privately, that the United States is deeply distressed by the suffering in Gaza, a densely populated land strip of more than 2 million people, about half of whom are children. But there is little indication that Arab leaders are moved by these assurances, leaving the shape of the Middle East after the war - and the U.S. role in it - highly uncertain.
“It’s important for the administration to be loud in their concern for the humanitarian toll,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I understand they don’t want to open up any public space between the United States and Israel. But if we all want to prevent another front from opening up and we want the Gulf states to be part of the reconstruction of Gaza, then we need to make as clear as possible that the United States is prioritizing reduction in civilian harm.”
Murphy recently issued a public statement declaring the current rate of civilian deaths “unacceptable” and urging Israel to shift course. “The administration has been pressing really hard privately,” Murphy said. “And I think they’ve got to be even louder publicly in their concerns about the civilian cost, even while they support Israel’s ability to continue to perpetuate the war.”
The White House declined to comment for this article. A spokesperson pointed to previous comments by national security adviser Jake Sullivan saying that Hamas’s use of Palestinian civilians as human shields does not lessen Israel’s responsibility to do everything possible to minimize civilian casualties.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Tel Aviv on Friday and pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a humanitarian pause in his country’s bombardment of Gaza to enable aid to flow safely through the enclave and potentially facilitate an effort to free more than 200 hostages who remain captive there. But in an unusually public split, Netanyahu appeared to reject Blinken’s push, saying he would not relent before Hamas frees the hostages, most of whom are Israeli.
U.S. officials had hoped there could eventually be regular bombing pauses so humanitarian and aid workers could safely operate in Gaza, according to a U.S. official familiar with the discussions. But securing such an arrangement seemed further out of reach after Blinken’s visit.
The Biden administration has achieved modest successes in its private discussions with Israel, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay the conversations. Among them were convincing Israel to restore communications in Gaza last month, turning water taps back on and persuading it to allow a small number of trucks carrying humanitarian aid to enter through Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
When President Biden spoke to Netanyahu last week, he and his top aides were able to secure a commitment to set a goal of allowing 100 trucks a day through Rafah, which U.S. officials say is now being met.
Those successes, however, have been overshadowed by the overriding failure of the United States to affect the course of Israel’s military campaign. Top Biden aides also have been frustrated by a lack of clear answers from Israeli officials about the goals of the operation and what they expect the future in Gaza to look like if they are able to succeed in their aim of destroying Hamas.
Biden and his top aides have maintained that Israel has a right and a duty to respond to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, in which gunmen hunted civilians in their homes and cars, burned people alive, and took scores of people hostage into Gaza, among other atrocities. But Biden has also urged Israelis not to be consumed by rage and not to repeat what he calls U.S. mistakes after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Several U.S. officials said they believe they can more effectively deliver difficult messages to Israel in private.
In recent days, they said, the administration has become deeply uncomfortable with some of Israel’s tactics. Last week, Israel bombed the densely packed Jabalya refugee camp multiple times, an attack that Israel said killed a senior Hamas commander but that also killed dozens of civilians. On Friday, an Israeli airstrike hit near the entrance of Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, a strike the Israeli military said was aimed at an ambulance “being used by a Hamas terrorist cell.” And Israeli authorities recently expelled thousands of Palestinians who had been in Israel for work, sending them back into Gaza even as it continues to bomb the enclave.
Shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks, Israel urged more than 1 million people in northern Gaza to evacuate to the south within 24 hours, a task the United Nations called impossible, and the country cut off food, fuel, medicine, water and electricity. Many people who have fled to the southern part of Gaza have been killed or injured in Israeli airstrikes, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Israel argues that it has the right to destroy Hamas by virtually any means after the Oct. 7 slaughter, comparing it with the 9/11 attacks and noting that Hamas is still holding elderly people and children captive. Israeli leaders maintain they are doing what they can to avoid civilian casualties, but say that Hamas bears responsibility for intentionally embedding its militants in civilian areas and hospitals.
But from the outset, White House officials have been skeptical that an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza would achieve its stated aim of eliminating Hamas and feared that it would only lead to further escalation and destabilization. Now, White House advisers say, that is exactly what is happening.
“The reason they didn’t want the ground invasion and asked all the questions is they feared this is the consequence - the situation inside Gaza would only get worse for the people there, and that would lead to escalation,” said a person familiar with the administration’s thinking, speaking on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations. “They’re just trying different ways of, ‘How do you mitigate a set of actions that are inevitable and won’t work and will fail?’ “
What has in essence become the Biden administration’s default plan - de-escalating tensions with Arab countries by stressing U.S. concern about civilian suffering in Gaza - is not faring much better. Arab leaders have told U.S. officials that America must do more to force Israel to curb its operation in Gaza, which has killed nearly 10,000 Palestinians, including thousands of children.
Exacerbating the situation, leaders in Egypt and Jordan increasingly fear that Israel will use the current conflict to force Palestinians out of Gaza and into their countries. An Israeli ministry drafted a wartime proposal that would transfer Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
Netanyahu’s office downplayed the document as a “concept paper” carrying little weight, but its disclosure worsened tensions between Israel and Cairo. That in part prompted Biden last week to offer assurances to Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, that Palestinians in Gaza would not be displaced to Egypt or any other nation, according to a person familiar with the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Biden and Jordan’s King Abdullah II agreed in a separate call that it was critical to ensure Palestinians were not forcibly displaced outside of Gaza, according to a White House readout of the call.
Critics of the Biden administration, including many Arab and Muslim Americans, argue that the United States has enormous financial leverage over Israel and could impose far more pressure if it chose.
Washington is Israel’s largest military backer, and the White House has asked Congress for an additional $14 billion in aid for Israel in the wake of the Hamas attacks. But administration officials and advisers say the levers the United States theoretically has over Israel, such as conditioning military aid on making the military campaign more targeted, are nonstarters, partly because they would be so politically unpopular in any administration and partly because, aides say, Biden himself has a personal attachment to Israel.
Others say that Israelis are so driven by anger and grief after the killings that even the threat of an aid pullback would have little effect. And Netanyahu, an already embattled leader whose political position is imperiled further by the attacks, may feel compelled to hit back in a hard and devastating way.
But American statements calling for an alleviation of Gazans’ suffering are viewed with skepticism by Arab leaders, who complain that despite its protests, the United States is in fact supporting Israel unconditionally.
While still a minority in the party, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are calling for a cease-fire, and some progressives are questioning U.S. military support of Israel more broadly.
“Of course the United States has leverage - we provide Israel with $4 billion a year in grant aid,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked on Middle East issues in the Clinton administration. “But every American administration, going back to the 1970s, has been loath to use that leverage because it would be highly unpopular.”
Riedel added: “I’m sure they say all the right things - ‘You have to abide by the rules of international law’ - but in practice, there’s more and more anger across the Arab and Muslim worlds at Israel and at us. It will come at a price.”
The Biden administration now finds itself with little influence over a key ally whose military campaign could affect everything from the global economy to America’s diplomatic relationships in the region.
“They’re watching a train wreck, and they can’t do anything about it, and the trains are speeding up,” said a person familiar with the administration’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics. “The train wreck is in Gaza, but the explosion is in the region. They know that even if they were to do something, which is to condition aid to Israel, it won’t actually stop the Israelis from what they’re doing.”
At the same time, the administration is alarmed by growing violence in the occupied West Bank, a separate territory that is partly governed by the Palestinian Authority. Biden has pointedly called out extremist Jewish settlers there and decried rising violence that has killed more than 100 Palestinians since Oct. 7. Top American officials are privately urging Netanyahu to hold those settlers accountable, in part to prevent the conflict from spreading to a second or third front.
“We now have the crisis in Gaza, a crisis in the West Bank, we have an Israeli government which is not listening to the outside world, an Israeli prime minister whose approval has plummeted and who’s desperately trying to find a way to retain office by being the tough guy,” Riedel said. “I get the impression the administration is asking all the right questions and not really getting much of a coherent answer.”
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Michael Birnbaum and Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.