The United States wants Israel to reduce the Gaza war. What influence does it have?


In recent days, US officials have said they want Israel to consider scaling back its large-scale ground and air campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. President Biden has criticized Israel for the “indiscriminate bombing” of civilians. And Jake Sullivan, the president's national security adviser, traveled to Israel to discuss the next phase of the war.

This signals a change in the way Biden and his advisers have handled the relationship between the United States and Israel since the October 7 attack.

“We've seen a shift from the behind-the-scenes pressure that the administration was exerting very early on, to now, a lot more public exhortations, leaks and more public appeals,” said Dov Waxman, a professor of Israel studies at Israel University. the University of California at Los Angeles. “Clearly, the administration is running out of patience.”

The United States has some strategies it could pursue to persuade Israel to change its tactics, although all would carry political and diplomatic costs for Biden.

Here's a look at some of the key points of American leverage.

The United States could apply conditions to the money it gives to Israel.

As part of a 10-year security assistance agreement created during the Obama administration, Israel receives about $3.8 billion from the United States each year, a figure that has accounted for up to 15 percent of Israel's defense budget.

The State Department has to approve when Israel uses that money to buy large weapons or batches of ammunition, so that the administration can find ways to object to the slow pace of arms deliveries.

On the other hand, the State Department has the ability to bypass Congress, as it did last week when it approved $106 million in tank ammunition for Israel.

Since most U.S. arms sales come with conditions (Ukraine, for example, has been banned from firing U.S.-made missiles into Russian territory), Biden could impose a similar limit on how U.S. bombs are used. in densely populated civilian areas like Gaza. But doing so could put him at odds with the pro-Israel lobby with which he has been sympathetic for many years.

On Friday, a senior administration official said putting conditions on U.S. aid was not part of the current strategy. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal policies.

Israel needs the support of the Biden administration not only to continue replenishing its forces, but also to protect it from international pressure from other corners, including the United Nations.

The United States, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, used its veto power last week to block a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The United States could decide not to use its veto power that way in the future.

Biden could also continue to openly express the need for a two-state solution, which could put political pressure on Netanyahu.

But any of those actions would come at a significant cost for Biden, who has made much of his half-century relationship with Netanyahu. In the past, he has at times privately tried to persuade the Israeli leader to reconsider his approach. As the election year approaches, the president would also have to consider the criticism he might endure if the fighting continues.

“He could clearly make things more difficult for Netanyahu internally and within his own government by being more explicit and vocal,” Waxman said. But he added: “I don't think Biden has any desire to publicly confront Netanyahu.”

Biden's strategy, for the most part, has been to support Israel's right to defend itself publicly while offering more direct criticism privately.

Administration officials say the president and his advisers have resorted to closed-door diplomacy to encourage the Israelis to allow humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza, restore telecommunications in the Gaza Strip, negotiate a hostage deal and encourage a smaller, targeted military operation. On Friday, officials said Israel's decision to open its border crossing at Kerem Shalom to allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza was the latest agreement reached through intensive diplomacy.

The behind-the-scenes work had been effective in some respects, Waxman said, but added that “in terms of the actual conduct of the war itself, they seem to have less influence on that.”

Sullivan, the national security adviser, on Friday downplayed differences between the United States and Israel over the war. But, according to a senior White House official, Sullivan has stressed to Israeli leaders that the United States wants a near-term timeline for Israel's plans to begin more “strict” surgical operations.

Dennis B. Ross, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator, said in an interview that Sullivan seemed to be toeing a careful line and not dictating anything to the Israelis.

“I think we're in a context where the ability to move Israelis or influence them requires this initial sense of trying to relate to them,” said Ross, who is in Israel. “We're saying, 'Keep in mind that how you run this campaign has implications for those you care about in the region.' “It never hurts to be reminded.”

Yara Bayoumy contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Michael D. Shear and Karoun Demirjian from Washington.

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