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US leverage over Israel moves by ‘millimetres’ as it looks to secure hostage deal

The worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Israeli threat to launch a ground offensive in Rafah expose Washington's limited appetite to wield its leverage
A Palestinian woman gestures near debris and destroyed vehicles following an overnight Israeli air strike in Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza, on 22 February 2024 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the Israeli threat to launch a ground offensive in Rafah expose the US’s limited appetite to wield its unrivalled leverage against Israel, even as it impedes Washington's policy goals. 

On Thursday, the White House's top Middle East advisor, Brett McGurk, arrived in Israel as the UN painted a picture of lawlessness and hunger stalking Gaza. 

New data released by the UN showed a staggering decline in aid entering the enclave. The daily average of aid trucks reaching Gaza between 9 to 20 February was just 57, compared to 200 in January. The plunge comes as humanitarian workers warn that the besieged enclave is on a "very rapid path towards famine”.

Coaxing Israel to allow more aid into Gaza is just one dilemma facing McGurk. The primary is pushing for a deal to pause fighting in Gaza so an exchange of captives can be held between Israel and Hamas.   

Reaching a truce that would free the roughly 130 hostages Hamas is still believed to hold has become the main axis on which US diplomacy revolves. 

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From Washington’s perspective, such a deal would give the US space to deescalate tensions with Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis, surge aid into Gaza, and provide a political reprieve going into an election for Biden as he faces stiff criticism among progressives over his support of Israel, current and former US officials have told MEE.

Biden wants the deal to be extended to a “sustained pause in the fighting" which the White House believes will give them space to start early conversations with Arab allies about a two-state solution and a final settlement to the conflict. 

Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said the talks had raised the "possibility of progress”, but they could face a reckoning if Israel follows through on its pledge to launch a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah, the southern Gaza border town where 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering in squalid conditions.

Palestinians in Gaza
Palestinian men check the debris at a building in Rafah, on 22 February 2024 (Said Khatib/AFP)

Israel has given Hamas a deadline of early March to release the hostages or face an onslaught in Rafah. But Hamas has shown little willingness to move beyond its demand of a permanent ceasefire and the release of thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called those demands "delusional".

US leverage with Hamas, designated a terror organisation by Washington, is limited. It is negotiating with the group via Qatar and Egypt. 

The administration’s push to avert a Rafah offensive and seal a hostage deal comes as many say the US is conducting diplomacy with one hand tied behind its back, handicapping the full weight of leverage it can deploy against Israel to achieve its policy goals. 

“Until the Biden administration makes more effective use of US leverage, there will continue to be a big gap between what they ask of the Netanyahu government and what that government actually does,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, told Middle East Eye.

Moving by millimetres

President Joe Biden threw the US’s full weight behind Israel’s military campaign after 7 October, when Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups killed about 1,139 people and took 250 hostages back to Gaza.

Washington’s unconditional support for Israel was in part the gut reflex of a US president who has championed himself as an ally of Israel his entire political life. But it was also described by US officials as a way for Washington to maintain influence in the conflict, and better shape the political and humanitarian impacts of the war.

Instead, as fighting grinds on with no end in sight, Netanyahu has baulked at most US initiatives.

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In addition to threatening a ground invasion of Rafah and constricting Gaza aid, he has flatly rejected US calls to support political talks on the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Meanwhile, the Israeli army is constructing a buffer zone in Gaza that goes against US demands to maintain the territorial integrity of Gaza. 

Israel’s actions have fuelled tensions with the administration. The most visible sign of that has been an increase in Biden's public criticism.

In December, he said the US’s closest Middle East ally was conducting an “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, and earlier in February said the military campaign was “over the top”.

That came amid a White House media leak in which Biden had called Netanyahu an “asshole”.

Besides the public rhetoric, the US says it was reviewing reports that Israel harmed civilians in Gaza under guidelines to monitor countries receiving US arms.

But Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, described the administration’s approach as “moving by millimetres".

“None of this amounts to a policy change by the Biden administration,” he told Middle East Eye, “and despite gaps on key issues, it hasn’t changed the administration's first priority which is to back Israel’s right to self defence".

Investment trap

Former and current US officials have told MEE there is no appetite within the administration to wield the US’s most powerful lever of influence against Israel: arms transfers .

Washington is Israel's biggest military patron, sending about $3.8bn in military aid to Israel each year. Since October, the White House has twice bypassed Congress to rush military assistance to Israel, removing another lever, the potential for Congressional oversight, that could slow down arms transfers.

And even as Biden has criticised Israel in recent months, he has publicly lobbied Congress to approve an additional $14bn in military aid.

'The administration understands that it is in an investment trap' 

- Aaron David Miller, Carnegie Endowment

Besides putting it at odds with calls from its Arab and Muslim partners to demand an immediate ceasefire, the gap between the administration's rhetoric and actions has frustrated some of its closest western allies.

Earlier this month, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell took a veiled swipe at the US when he said: “if you believe that too many people are being killed [in Gaza], maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people being killed”.

But Biden is far from alone.

Even lawmakers in Congress who have been critical of Israel are unwilling to restrict arms sales, or at the very least, condition military assistance on the US's stated policy objectives. 

The defence bill allocating $14bn in aid to Israel, and tens of billions more for Ukraine, passed the Senate by a vote of 70 to 29.

Katulis said proponents of cutting military aid to Israel misjudge how profoundly Hamas’s 7 October attack shook senior US administration officials.

The US's unconditional embrace of Israel since 7 October also means they are now intimately tied to the successes and failures of its offensive in Gaza. 

“The administration understands that it is in an investment trap. They are so tethered to the Israeli war that creating an open breach with Netanyahu will leave them with no policy,” Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previously told MEE.

Donkey car Rafah
Palestinian refugees in Rafah, southern Gaza, on 22 February 2024 (Said Khatib/AFP)

As the war grinds on, it has seeped out beyond Gaza's borders, morphing into a shadowy proxy contest between Tehran and Washington over who calls the shots in the Middle East. 

In Yemen, Houthi rebels are waging war against commercial shipping, in what they say is solidarity with Palestine. Israel is exchanging near daily fire with Hezbollah along the Lebanese border and Iran-backed groups in Syria and Iraq are attacking US forces. 

Hamas also receives training and support from Iran, making it a Mediterranean linchpin in Tehran’s so-called "axis of resistance", in the view of multiple US officials who have spoken with MEE. 

“The US is engaged in active combat in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria against Iran-backed forces,” Katulis said. “Ultimately when it comes to the wider chessboard in the region, the US and Israel are aligned.”

'Israel raises the price'

The White House is also weighing domestic politics. 

Restricting arms sales or conditioning them on an immediate ceasefire may help restore confidence in Biden among progressive voters and Arab and Muslim Americans in the key swing state of Michigan. But it would also lead to backlash from Israeli lobbying groups, just as Biden gears up for a likely general election against Donald Trump.

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“Israel is very good at raising the price politically," Frank Lowenstein, the former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the Obama administration, told MEE.

While Biden has faced fire on the progressive left for his unconditional support of Israel, he could face pressure from Republicans in Congress for not doing enough to back Israel. 

“The way to look at Biden’s tools of leverage with Israel is not what the administration can theoretically use against the Israelis, but what are the costs and benefits of doing so," Lowenstein said. 

With arms transfers off the table as a lever of power, the US has few tangible tools at its disposal. One arena where the US can cajole and coax Israel is the United Nations, Lowenstein said.

Venting at the UN

On Tuesday, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. It marked the fourth time the US has weilded its veto power to shield Israel from resolutions and amendments criticising it. 

US ambassador to the UN Linda-Thomas Greenfield defended the vote, saying that calls for an immediate ceasefire without a demand for Hamas to release the roughly 130 hostages it is believed to hold would derail negotiations for a deal.

Humanitarian and aid groups slammed the US move, while Russia and China gloated at Washington’s isolation on the world stage.

The vote was 13-1, with the United Kingdom abstaining and the US casting the lone veto.

In response, the US drafted its own resolution.

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It offers Washington’s sharpest formal criticism of Israel to date.

According to the draft resolution viewed by MEE, it calls for “a temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable” and “lifting all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance at scale”.

The text also underlines Washington’s frustration with Israel’s threat to invade Rafah, demanding it “not proceed” with a major ground offensive there, which could “result in further harm to civilians and their further displacement including potentially into neighbouring countries”.

“It is a shot across Bibi’s bow in a way,” Lowenstein said. “The Israelis are extremely sensitive about the UN. They view it as a hostile body and rely on the US to protect them there.”

But Katulis said the small shift in tone underscored the limits of the conditions the US is willing to impose on Israel. 

“The UN does have impact, but is it practical in shaping a pause in fighting? The UN tends to be an arena for people to vent.”

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