The U.S. Wants Israel to Scale Back the Gaza War. What Leverage Does It Have?


In recent days, U.S. 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 how Mr. Biden and his advisers have handled the U.S.-Israel relationship since the Oct. 7 attack.

“We’ve seen a shift from behind-the-scenes pressure the administration was exercising from very early on, to now, much more public exhortations, and leaks, and more public appeals,” said Dov Waxman, a professor of Israel studies at the University of California in 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 they all would carry political and diplomatic costs for Mr. Biden.

Here’s a look at some of the key points of U.S. leverage.

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

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

The State Department has to sign off when Israel uses that money to buy large weapons or tranches of ammunition, so the Biden administration could find ways to object slow-walk the delivery of weapons.

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

Since most American arms sales come with strings attached — Ukraine, for example, has been prohibited from firing American-made missiles into Russian territory — Mr. Biden could put a similar limit on how American bombs are used in dense civilian areas like Gaza. But doing so could put him at odds with the pro-Israel lobby with which he has been sympathetic over many years.

On Friday, a senior administration official said attaching conditions to American aid was not part of the current strategy.

Israel needs the Biden administration’s support not only to continue resupplying its forces, but also to shield it from international pressure from other corners, including the United Nations.

The United States, which is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, used its veto power last week to block a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. The United States could decide not to use its veto power in that way going forward.

Mr. Biden could also continue to be vocal about the need for a two-state solution, which could put political pressure on Mr. Netanyahu.

But any of those actions would come at a significant cost to Mr. Biden, who has made much of his half-century relationship with Mr. Netanyahu. In the past, he has sometimes sought to privately persuade the Israeli leader to reconsider his approach. With an election year approaching, the president would also need to consider the criticism he could endure if the fighting continues.

“He could clearly make things more difficult for Netanyahu domestically and within his own government being more explicit and vocal,” Mr. Waxman said. But, he added, “I don’t think Biden has the appetite for public confrontation with Netanyahu.”

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

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

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

Mr. Sullivan, the national security adviser, on Friday played down differences between the United States and Israel over the war. But, according to a senior White House official, Mr. Sullivan has stressed to Israeli leaders that the United States wants a short-term timeline of Israel’s plans to begin more “narrow, surgical” operations.

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

“I think we’re in a context where the ability to move the Israelis or influence the Israelis requires this initial sense of trying to relate to them,” said Mr. Ross, who is in Israel. “We’re saying, ‘Be mindful, how you conduct this campaign has implications to those who matter to you in the region.’ It never hurts to be reminded of that.”

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

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