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100 days of war in Gaza: Biden fails to achieve basic policy goals

US efforts to cobble together a plan for post-war Gaza lay bare the contradictory goals the administration has failed to resolve
Palestinians react amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following an Israeli bombardment in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on 14 December 2023, (AFP)

The US's top diplomat came to Israel this week carrying a message from Washington's regional allies: Israel's neighbours are prepared to invest in Gaza's security and reconstruction.

"But it is essential to them that there also be a clear pathway to the realisation of a Palestinian political state," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. 

By holding out to Israel the carrot of regional buy-in for the post-war fate of Gaza, Blinken seemingly tried to leverage the US's Arab partners and Turkey to sway Israel in a way that the Biden administration has been unable, or unwilling, to do alone.

But Blinken's comments, during his fourth visit to the region since the war broke out following the 7 October Hamas-led attacks, also underline how, 100 days after the onset of the crisis, Washington is still no closer to moving the needle on one of its primary goals.

The US lobbied Israel to delay its invasion of Gaza as it pressed its ally to come up with a post-war plan for the besieged enclave's future. 

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"Since 7 October, the US has prioritised above all else Israel's right to defend itself," said Brian Katulis, senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "But most of its other goals are incomplete.

“The administration's weakest link remains reaching some sort of consensus on a Gaza endgame."

Instead, the Biden administration has been occupied with other issues. 

'Significantly get out of Gaza'

US diplomats spent recent days scolding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political allies for floating a forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and a return of Israeli settlements to the besieged enclave.

The recent assassinations of senior Hamas and Hezbollah officials in Lebanon have also sparked fears of a wider regional war that could drag in the US.

At the same time, the US has had to divert valuable military resources to fend off missile and drone attacks on commercial ships by Houthis in Yemen; the Biden administration, along with the UK on Thursday, lost patience and has launched strikes against the Houthis.

There are signs that as the war reaches 100 days, and attention slowly turns to US presidential elections, fatigue is setting in among Biden and his senior staff.

'Biden is holding his nose against protests about civilian Palestinian casualties'

- James Jeffrey, Wilson Center

Biden's pledge to give Israel the military tools it needs to "finish the job" against Hamas is now followed by a campaign promise that he is "doing all that he can" so Israel can "significantly get out of Gaza".

Biden set the tone of the conflict with his October wartime visit to Israel. Analysts and officials say that decision effectively created an impression of US ownership of Israel's offensive.

Backing Israel unconditionally has left the US open to criticism that it is participating in an Israeli bombing campaign which Biden himself described as "indiscriminate", as 23,000 Palestinians, mainly women and children, have been killed in the war in Gaza so far and many are still unaccounted for. 

A hearing on Friday ended two days of testimonies at the International Court of Justice, in a genocide case brought against Israel by South Africa, with the latter demanding the top UN court order an end to Israel's military attacks in Gaza.

An estimated 70 percent of Gaza's homes have been damaged or destroyed in Israeli air strikes since the fighting started after Hamas-led attacks killed 1,140 people in southern Israel and around 240 hostages were taken back to Gaza. 

US officials defended Biden's embrace of Israel as a practical way to give the US more leverage to shape Israel's military campaign and respond to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but little progress has been made on that front.

This week, Biden's top allies in Congress issued a stark assessment of that plan. 

"Secretary Blinken and President Biden had been right to insist on two things: a reduction in the unacceptable levels of civilian casualties, and much more cooperation when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance," Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said after a visit to Egypt's Rafah crossing into Gaza.

"We've not seen that," he said.


The tension between supporting Israel militarily and reducing Palestinian suffering in Gaza is just one of the diplomatic dilemmas facing the administration.

US efforts to produce a workable plan for post-war Gaza lay bare the competing and contradictory goals the administration has been unable to resolve at the 100-day mark of the war. 

Washington wants a "revitalised" Palestinian Authority (PA) to take over Gaza. The PA has conditioned its return to the besieged enclave on the creation of an independent Palestinian state comprising Gaza, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government not only opposes the PA's return to Gaza, but is against the creation of a Palestinian state.

Blinken and Abbas
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, on 10 January 2023 (AFP)

"There is a fundamental difference with Israel over the role of the PA in Gaza. After 100 days, the US still hasn't been able to square that difference," David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a previous assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Further muddying the waters, the PA's ageing political leaders say they are open to a national unity government that includes some Hamas factions in Gaza.

'The war has destroyed US credibility abroad'

 - Chas Freeman, Fmr US Amb. Saudi Arabia

The PA's dominant faction, Fatah, and Hamas fought a bloody conflict with each other in 2007 and seized control of the Strip, though they had fought sporadically after Hamas won elections in 2006.

However, experts say the PA would be unable to govern Gaza without some Hamas backing. The PA is viewed by many Palestinians as being a corrupt Israeli collaborator.

Recent polling shows a surge in support for Hamas in the occupied West Bank and steady backing in Gaza since the group launched its 7 October attack on Israel. 

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has floated the most detailed post-war plan for Gaza to date on the Israeli side.

It calls for Palestinians to administer the Gaza Strip, but rules out a return of the PA and envisions a "multinational task force" led by the US and Arab states to oversee Gaza's reconstruction. Under the plan, Israel will also maintain overall security control of Gaza, but it does not address the resettling of displaced Palestinians in Gaza.

"What the Israelis have offered so far is unworkable," Schenker said.

The US's regional allies say they want to see a ceasefire in Gaza before engaging in serious talks about a day-after plan. But privately they also have competing interests in Gaza, with Turkey and Qatar more open to Hamas and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates wary of the group.


Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said Blinken's trip this week underscored the toll the war in Gaza has taken on the US's "convening power".

"Blinken came to Israel with promises of support for a post-war Gaza plan by Turkey and the Arab states, but it was just that, promises. No one committed to anything." 

Gaza family bombed
Members of the al-Qedra family, who were injured during Israeli bombardment, receive treatment at Nasser hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, on 16 December 2023 (AFP)

Freeman says the US is increasingly isolated on the world stage as a result of its support for Israel.

At the UN, the US has had to exercise its veto power three times to defend Israel from global criticism since the war erupted. Inside the region, the US has been unable to recruit key allies to join a naval task force to guard the Red Sea against Iran-aligned Houthis who are attacking commercial ships in what they say is solidarity with Palestine. 

This week, the International Court of Justice began hearing a genocide case against Israel introduced by South Africa.

The US slammed the case as "meritless". But even among the US’s western allies, calls for an end to the fighting are growing.

The UK, Germany and France have stepped up their calls for a ceasefire. The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, says the international community needs to "impose" a solution to the conflict.

"There is a tremendous disconnect between the administration and what's happening globally," Freeman said. "I think the war has destroyed US credibility abroad. That has real-world consequences when you consider the war in Ukraine and competition with China.

"Other countries are going to sit these things out."

'Displacement out of desperation'

The Middle East has also seen an outpouring of support for Palestinians over the last 100 days that poses a challenge to some of the US's closest regional partners.

In Jordan, a key US ally, protesters have denounced Biden and called on Hamas to attack Israel with more rockets.

In Saudi Arabia, where the Biden administration was working to normalise ties with Israel, 96 percent of people now say that Arab countries should cut all ties with Israel.

'We are looking at the formula for an endless war that Biden warned the Israelis against from day one'

- Brian Katulis, Middle East Institute

The Arab world has been galvanised by 24-hour coverage of the war and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza.

Half of the besieged enclave's population is at risk of starving, according to the UN. Around 1.9 million people, about 85 percent of the Strip's population, are displaced.

A million Palestinians are crammed into the town of Rafah, on the border with Egypt, where water-borne diseases are spreading and people have been forced to sleep, and defecate, on the street.

While Biden has publicly pledged to oppose a displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, a former senior US intelligence official told MEE that the humanitarian crisis has set the stage for "displacement out of desperation".

The war in Gaza has revived memories of the Nakba or "catastrophe", when Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes in 1948 after the creation of the state of Israel. A refugee crisis at Egypt’s border with Gaza could spark political upheaval in Cairo, a key US ally.

'Escalation trap'

The Biden administration also faces a brewing crisis along Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

Fighting between Iran-aligned Hezbollah and Israel has ebbed and flowed since the start of the war, displacing about 80,000 Israelis.

But the risk that the conflict could widen, threatening the administration's claim to have contained the fighting to Gaza, has grown over the last two weeks.

Israel was blamed for the recent killing of the deputy political leader of Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, in a Beirut suburb that is a Hezbollah stronghold. A few days later, Israel assassinated Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah's elite Radwan force.

"The US is stuck in an escalation trap," Freeman said. "Israel is openly courting an expansion of the war with these assassinations."

But Schenker believes the Israeli strikes are paying off.

Fighters of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces during the funeral of a member of the group killed in a US air strike in Baghdad, on 26 December 2023 (AFP)

"It's clear Hezbollah has decided not go to war on behalf of the Palestinians," he told MEE. "Israel is taking the opportunity to raise the price for Hezbollah's adventurism on its southern border."

Meanwhile, American troops in the region have been attacked more than 115 times since mid-October by Iranian-aligned groups, according to the Pentagon.

In response, the US launched a strike on Baghdad that killed a senior member of the Popular Mobilisation Units, a group of Iran-backed Shia militia groups in Iraq. 

The strike has sparked a crisis in Washington's delicate diplomatic ties to Baghdad. Iraq's prime minister, Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani, called the attack "unjustified" and said he would move to expel more than 2,000 US troops in response. 

Besides the Baghdad strike, the US had generally refrained from escalating against Iranian-aligned groups out of concern it could spark a wider war, but even that restraint has run its course.

Among Tehran's so-called axis of resistance groups, Yemen's Houthis have proven to be the most assertive, launching missile and drone attacks that have disrupted shipping in the Red Sea, a passage-way for 12 percent of global trade.

The US, along with the UK, has been forced to respond by launching several strikes targeting Yemen over the past week, with the Houthis vowing to respond in kind. 

'An endless war'

But others say that, after 100 days, the US isn't in as dire a situation as some say.

"The administration is in a better place than they think they are," James Jeffrey, a former senior US official now at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told MEE.

Jeffrey said those who believe the US could dictate terms to Israel to end the fighting overestimate the US's leverage with an ally that has fought three wars with its Arab neighbours and decades of lower-level conflicts with Palestinian fighters since its founding.

"If we pull our support from Israel, let me tell you, they will keep fighting. And that's not because of some plot by Bibi [Netanyahu] to stay in office, that's because the Israeli public realises that 7 October presented the spectre of an existential crisis to Israel's future," he told MEE.

He says the US has achieved its goal of giving Israel the space to push its offensive against Hamas while staving off a widening war.

"Biden is holding his nose against protests about civilian Palestinian casualties because he wants Hamas degraded," Jeffrey said. "As do our Arab allies, although they can't say it in public."

In private conversations, some US officials chaff at allegations that Washington's support for Israel is eroding its position in the region.

Israeli soldiers
Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas, on 3 January 2024 (AFP)

"If we hadn't supported Israel fully after Hamas's attack, what would our Arab partners think," A former senior US official told MEE, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They would say we abandoned an ally like we did with Mubarak in 2011," referring to the former president of Egypt who resigned in 2011 amid mass protests. "You are damned if you do, damned if you don't."

Israel estimates that it has killed 8,000 Hamas fighters in Gaza, but the group's senior leadership in the enclave remains, and Hamas continues to hold more than 100 hostages. On Wednesday, a senior Hamas official said they would not be returned alive until Israel agrees to a full ceasefire in Gaza. 

Katulis, at the MEI, said that, 100 days into the war, the US and Israel have failed to define what a successful degradation of Hamas looks like.

US officials now admit publicly that Israel will be unable to eliminate the group, echoing the warnings they have received from Arab capitals. 

"It's an open question," Katulis said. "And that means we are looking at the formula for an endless war that Biden warned the Israelis against from day one of this conflict."

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