The US is sticking to its stance on Israel as the Gaza crisis deepens

The Biden administration showed no new signs on Friday that it was ready to take a tougher stance on Israel’s military operation against Hamas, as desperate conditions in Gaza worsened, with civilian deaths rising and aid groups warning of shortages of water, food and medicine.

Biden officials say Israel must do more to limit civilian casualties and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. But that still leaves the U.S. position far from that of many Arab countries, which are demanding an immediate ceasefire and blaming Israel for what they call a deeply disproportionate response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

During a visit to Washington on Friday, ministers from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries told a news conference that the Israeli offensive must stop, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi accused Israel of committing a “massacre.”

In New York on Friday, the United States vetoed a United Arab Emirates-drafted Security Council resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire – the lone vote against 13.

While under mounting pressure at home and abroad, the Biden administration is trying to persuade Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians. But he did not publicly threaten Israel with any concrete consequences if it did not do so. White House officials reject talk of reducing or conditioning military aid to Israel and say they have not given Israel a firm deadline to end its offensive in Gaza.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken indicated that the United States remained dismayed by civilian deaths and humanitarian conditions in Gaza about a week after fresh fighting broke a pause to allow the release of hostages held by Hamas and prisoners held by Israel. Israel’s response to Hamas attacks on October 7, which killed about 1,200 people, claimed more than 15,000 lives, according to Gaza health authorities.

At a press conference in Washington, Mr. Blinken said “there is a gap” between Israel’s “intention to protect civilians and the actual results we see on the ground.”

During a visit to Tel Aviv last week, Mr. Blinken said he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders that they must designate safe zones for civilians, avoid further displacement of Gazans and prevent damage to critical infrastructure such as power plants. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Vice President Kamala Harris also called on Israel to conduct its operations more carefully.

Mr Blinken said on Thursday that Israel had taken some positive steps, including “evacuating settlements instead of entire cities”, creating safe areas and “a more narrowly focused area where this military operation is actually being carried out”.

Israeli officials say they are in an impossible position, fighting an enemy in Hamas who is embedding himself among civilians and who, they say, seeks to maximize Palestinian deaths in order to make Israel appear cruel to the world. Israeli leaders say that while they often take unusual steps to warn civilians of impending attacks, they cannot defeat a fanatical enemy in a dense urban area without massive collateral damage.

But in Washington and the United Nations, Arab diplomats expressed anger at Israel’s renewed offensive, which US officials admit is again causing heavy casualties and contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Those diplomats — from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority — met with Mr. Blinken at the State Department on Friday afternoon. The Turkish foreign minister also joined the visiting group, the Arab-Islamic Ministerial Committee.

And on Capitol Hill, some Democrats say the United States must go beyond talks and put pressure on Israel. “I think the Biden administration could do more to use our power in these circumstances,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. “When words are not matched by strong actions, the United States looks flawless.”

“The Biden administration should call for a pause” in Israel’s military campaign, he added, “until it has a verifiable plan of action to secure the goals the president has set and which the secretary of state described as ‘imperative.’ ”

Mr. Van Hollen is working with a dozen other Democratic senators on an amendment to the military aid package that President Biden has requested for Israel and Ukraine. The amendment would require weapons authorized under that measure for any country to be used in accordance with US and international law, and would create new reporting requirements to clearly establish whether those standards are being met.

Biden officials support pauses in the fighting to deliver more humanitarian aid to Gaza and secure the release of more hostages held by Hamas and other groups, although they say the exchange of those hostages for Palestinian prisoners came to an abrupt end last week when Hamas reneged on its commitment to free Israeli women in captivity.

But the United States, like Israel, opposes a long-term ceasefire on the grounds that it would allow the Hamas leadership to survive and threaten Israel, perpetuating a cycle of violence.

U.S. officials have also been reluctant to publicly propose a timeline for Israel to end major military operations, which analysts say could take several more weeks or months.

“We did not give Israel a firm deadline, not our role. This is their conflict,” Jon Finer, deputy national security adviser, said at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday in Washington. “Still, we have influence, even if we don’t have ultimate control over what happens on the ground in Gaza.”

Dennis Ross, a Middle East policy official in several presidential administrations, said Mr. Biden was likely to continue to resist domestic and international pressure to take a tougher line on Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

“If there was a sudden, major humanitarian disaster, like if you had a hospital that was hit again – that would create an instant tipping point,” Mr Ross said, recalling the October explosion at a hospital in Gaza that sparked protests across the Middle East before evidence emerged suggesting that the damage was caused by a Palestinian rocket and not by Israeli forces.

In addition, Mr. Ross said he could envision a point, if the offensive drags on, where the administration could quietly slow the supply of ammunition to Israel. But, he added, “I don’t see the Biden administration ever saying, ‘OK, we’re cutting you off.'”

Some US officials privately warn that even the perception of a US break with Israel could encourage the Iran-backed Lebanon-based Hezbollah militant group to attack Israel – an outcome the US hopes to avoid.

And Mark Mellman, an American pollster who has advised Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, warned that public pressure on Netanyahu could backfire.

Harsh criticism or threats to modify American aid to Israel, said Mr. Mellman, they serve only to “help the right wing in Israel”. He said that Mr. Netanyahu, who has been politically embattled even before many Israelis blamed him for failing to prevent the Oct. 7 attacks, relished the opportunity to position himself as a counter to Mr. Biden’s push for Israel’s security.

There are signs that Mr. Biden agrees with that theory. Asked in late November if he might support making US aid to Israel conditional on an Israeli plan to limit civilian deaths, the president called the idea “worth thinking about.” But his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, clarified on NBC’s “Meet the Press” a few days later that Mr. Biden was merely “acknowledging the idea.” Mr. Sullivan said the president believed the approach of “direct presidential diplomacy behind closed doors with the Israelis and our Arab partners” was yielding results.

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