How Biden could get tough on Israel — if that’s what he wants

The US has ways to exert leverage. They all come with risks.

Biden and Netanyahu hug on the tarmac in front of Air Force One.

US President Joe Biden is welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. GPO/Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images Joshua Keating is a senior correspondent at Vox covering foreign policy and world news with a focus on the future of international conflict. He is the author of the 2018 book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, an exploration of border conflicts, unrecognized countries, and changes to the world map.

Since the war in Gaza began in October, the Biden administration has mostly pursued what’s been called a “bear hug” strategy when it comes to Israel, avoiding public criticism and upholding the country’s right to defend itself. This is partly out of genuine support for Israel following Hamas’s October 7 attacks, and also to preserve the ability to exert some influence over Israeli policy behind the scenes.

But for weeks now — in secondhand reported anecdotes, anonymous quotes, and occasional public statements — President Biden and his top officials have expressed mounting frustration over the Israeli government’s disregard for the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza from the country’s military strikes, its unwillingness to allow in more aid as the humanitarian crisis spirals, and its rejection of US-proposed models for Gaza’s post-war governance.

According to reports, the killing of over 100 Gazans outside an aid convoy last month was a “turning point” in the administration’s views of the conflict, crystallizing frustrations that had already been building.

In his State of the Union address on March 7, Biden called on Israel to “do its part” to protect civilians and allow more humanitarian aid, and in an unfortunately phrased hot mic moment afterward said that he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need to have a “‘come to Jesus’ meeting.”

But for all the talk, Washington hasn’t taken much action to pressure the longtime US ally and top recipient of US military aid into changing course. The US has quietly approved more than 100 separate military sales to Israel since October 7, according to the Washington Post. As long as this aid continues, Israeli leaders know they can safely ignore the sternly worded warnings that accompany it.

The most dramatic step the administration has taken to exert some leverage since the beginning of the war has been to slap sanctions on Israeli settlers accused of violence in the West Bank, including some new measures announced just this week. It’s a significant step beyond efforts the US has taken on settler violence in the past and one that enraged far-right politicians in Netanyahu’s government. But it’s still somewhat tangential to the ongoing war in Gaza.

All this has left the US in the bizarre and probably untenable situation of attempting to organize a costly and risky military operation to deliver aid to people under siege by one of its own closest allies, which is fighting with US-supplied arms.

But lately, there have been some tentative signs that a shift may be underway.

Biden said in a recent MSNBC interview that an Israeli assault on Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than a million Palestinian civilians have taken refuge, would be a “red line” for him — and seemingly left open the possibility of restricting the use of US-supplied weapons in Gaza.

An assault on Rafah may not actually be imminent, and the entire discussion could be made moot by a ceasefire deal. But if Israel does actually cross this “red line,” prompting a more aggressive response from the US, there are several points of leverage Biden could still employ.

Conditioning military aid

Most of the increasingly heated debate in the US over support for Israel understandably revolves around the nearly $4 billion per year in military aid Washington sends its ally.

Back in January, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that would cut off military aid to Israel if it were found to be committing human rights violations. But lately, there’s been growing support for some form of aid conditioning, not just from the left but from centrist voices like Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), long a staunch supporter of Israel. And Biden’s “red line” comment suggests that the president, who just a few months ago pledged not to do a “damn thing” to limit military aid to Israel, may be reconsidering.

This week, Barak Ravid of Axios reported that if Israel moves ahead with a Rafah offensive, “one of the options discussed internally between the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon is to impose restrictions on the use of US-made offensive weapons by the IDF in Gaza.”

That wouldn’t halt all armaments being sent to Israel — in his MSNBC interview, Biden made clear that he was not considering a full halt in arms deliveries and that there were no circumstances under which the US would stop sending ammunition for the Iron Dome air defense system that intercepts Hamas rockets.

As Vox’s Nicole Narea reported in December, the US has laws on the books requiring recipients of US military aid to be vetted for human rights violations, but critics say those laws have not historically been applied to Israel. A recent high-profile example of “conditioning” military aid is Ukraine, which has pledged, at Washington’s request, not to use American-supplied weapons to strike targets within Russia, which US leaders fear could lead to a direct US-Russia conflict.

Elias Yousif, an analyst with the Stimson Center, said that in the Ukraine case, Ukrainian leaders complied with American conditions because they “wanted to encourage the United States to see Ukraine as a reliable and trustworthy partner. And I just don’t know if Israel is as concerned with those issues at the moment.”

The US has placed some restrictions on arms transfers to Israel in the past. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration delayed deliveries of US F-16 fighter jets to show disapproval of Israel’s bombing of Beirut among other actions. In 2014, the Obama administration delayed deliveries of Hellfire missiles to Israel during a previous round of fighting in Gaza.

Such a move would hurt: While Israel is fairly self-sufficient in terms of high-end weapons systems and advanced military technology — indeed it’s one of the world’s leading weapons exporters — it relies on imports for most of its artillery ammunition and aerial bombs.

Still, even if the US cut supplies of precision-guided munitions, small diameter bombs, and other capabilities it has been supplying to Israel, “I am not sure it will have the immediate effect that some may hope,” said RAND Corporation military analyst Raphael Cohen.

It would likely force a change in strategy: Israel has already cut back somewhat on its use of airpower since the early days of the war due to global ammunition shortages. But massive quantities of these weapons have already been airlifted to Israel or released from US stocks already held within the country, for use not only in Gaza but in a potential conflict with Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border (which has begun heating up).

Israel has also made significant investments in its domestic artillery production. Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer noted on Wednesday that if the US restricted supplies of precision-guided munitions, Israel might simply resort to “much larger air bombs, which would cause even higher levels of casualties and destruction.”

Cohen pointed out that both Ukraine and Russia have shown that countries are often “more resilient about military supplies … than we sometimes give them credit for,” particularly when the stakes are perceived as existential, as they are for Israel’s government.

“I just don’t think that turning on and off the spigot [of weapons] is going to be very effective, particularly in this context, but it might in concert with a broader approach from the United States,” said Yousif.

In the end, conditioning or restricting military aid might be less about hampering Israel’s military capabilities than about sending a political signal — both to Israel and to Biden’s own supporters — that something has fundamentally changed in the US-Israel relationship.

“The only really significant thing that could penetrate the sense of complacency [in Israel] about American support is conditioning the military arms exports,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israel-based political scientist and public opinion expert.

But it remains to be seen whether that’s a signal Biden is really willing to send, despite both his frustration with Netanyahu and the political toll that relationship is taking on the president. Michael Koplow, chief policy officer of the Israel Policy Forum and a longtime observer of US-Israel relations, said some skepticism is warranted. “I think that the White House wants the Israeli government to think that conditioning assistance is a very real possibility,” he said. “I just question how much of a real possibility it actually is.”

The UN

Another step reportedly under consideration is to tamp down American defense of Israel at the UN Security Council. The US has traditionally acted as Israel’s shield on the council: Of the 89 times it has used its veto as a permanent council member since the UN’s founding in 1945, more than half involved Israel.

Washington has used its veto three times since the current war in Gaza began, most recently to block an Algerian-drafted resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in late February. It has abstained from two other resolutions, which called for increased humanitarian aid and brief pauses in the fighting.

The US has reportedly been working on its own ceasefire resolution, linked to Hamas hostage releases, since February, but it’s not clear if this will ever come to a vote or was merely meant as a kind of warning to the Israelis.

So far the US has been unwilling to allow any resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, particularly while negotiations over a ceasefire tied to hostage releases are ongoing. If it wanted to change tack, it could choose to abstain from a vote on a resolution like Algeria’s, vote for such a resolution, or sponsor its own.

The first option is the most likely, said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group. There’s some precedent for such action. The US abstained on a ceasefire resolution during 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, a previous war in Gaza, and nearly voted for it until a concerned lobbying campaign by Israel convinced the Bush administration to abstain instead.

“That’s the model for what the Biden administration would do in this context,” said Gowan. “If George W. Bush could do it, then Biden can do it.” The Obama administration also stood aside and allowed a vote condemning the construction of West Bank settlements during its lame-duck period in 2016.

The bully pulpit

Another idea gaining some momentum is that Biden should sidestep Netanyahu altogether and make his case directly to the Israeli people. Richard Haass, an influential veteran US diplomat and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has been the most prominent figure making the case that the president should travel to Israel and make a speech, perhaps to Israel’s parliament, laying out the case for why Israel must change course in Gaza. “It’s increasingly clear that the United States does not have a partner with this Israeli prime minister or government,” Haass told Politico. “A speech over the prime minister’s head would clearly show what the U.S. believes and could lead to a real debate in Israel.”

Biden’s visit to the country in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks was widely praised across the political spectrum in Israel. Though his approval there has likely faded a bit in recent months — particularly among right-wingers, given his administration’s sanctions on settlers — it’s still a safe bet that he’s more popular than Netanyahu, who only 15 percent of Israelis say should stay in office after the war.

“The president of the United States, as a lifelong friend of Israel, has a well of political capital right now with the Israeli people because he was so there for them in a moment of need and crisis,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Middle East peace lobbying group J Street, told Vox.

Ben-Ami feels that a high-profile speech in Israel that affirmed US support for the country and acknowledged the atrocities of October 7, but also laid a case for why Israel’s current course of action in Gaza is ultimately undermining the country’s security, would be a more effective way to exert influence than “reacting to events and doing things in a sort of one-off, tactic-by-tactic way.” Even if it didn’t change the Israeli government’s policies, it could change the tenor of the public debate in Israel and also answer critics of the Biden administration’s policies at home heading into a closely fought presidential election.

But such a strategy also carries risks. Koplow, of the Israel Policy Forum, says that while Netanyahu may be personally unpopular due to a range of controversies that predate the war, “something that maybe the White House underestimates is just how many people in Israel support Netanyahu’s goal of defeating Hamas come hell or high water. If there’s a perception that the US is putting pressure on the Israeli government to stop the operation against Hamas before the government is ready, and before the IDF is ready, I think that is going to backfire.”

Regime change?

One precedent both governments may have in mind is 1991, when President H.W. Bush controversially held up loan guarantees to Israel until it agreed to halt settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza and join a peace conference with the Palestinians. Though it may not have been Bush’s intention, the fight, and the sense that the all-important relationship with the US was suffering, badly damaged then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s standing and likely contributed to his defeat by Yitzhak Rabin in the 1992 elections.

Fast forward to today, the Biden administration hasn’t exactly been subtle about the fact that it would much prefer to be dealing with a new prime minister. Last week, Benny Gantz, who is both a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet and his leading political rival, met with senior officials in Washington including Vice President Kamala Harris — despite the Israeli prime minister’s opposition to the trip. Harris said in an interview several days later that Americans should “distinguish or at least not conflate the Israeli government with the Israeli people,” which could be taken to imply that the former is less worthy of support than the latter.

Then there was the striking language in the US Intelligence Community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, released this week. Contrary to Netanyahu’s stated desire to eliminate Hamas entirely, the report concluded that Israel would likely “face lingering armed resistance from HAMAS for years to come.” As for Netanyahu himself, the report stated that his “viability as leader … may be in jeopardy” and that distrust of his rule “has deepened and broadened across the public from its already high levels before the war.”

America’s spies concluded, with what seems like guarded optimism, that “A different, more moderate [Israeli] government is a possibility.”

This did not go over well in Jerusalem: An unnamed Israeli senior official told the press in a statement that “Israel is not a vassal state of the U.S.” and “we expect our friends to act to overthrow the terror regime of Hamas and not the elected government in Israel.”

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both a close ally of the White House and longtime staunch supporter of Israel, upped the ante with a speech on the Senate floor calling for new elections in Israel and describing Netanyahu as an “obstacle to peace.”

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel … the Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past,” he said.

Still, backlash from Netanyahu’s allies would become even more bitter if Biden actually did attempt to make a case directly to the Israeli people.

Ben-Ami made clear that while he thinks Biden should clarify his opposition to the Israeli government’s current conduct regarding the war in Gaza, he should stop short of trying to directly undermine Netanyahu. “It’s a very bad course of action for the United States to do anything with regard to any country where the explicit goal is to interfere in the domestic politics of the other country,” he said.

Of course, if Biden did attempt an end run around Netanyahu in the Knesset, the prime minister would hardly be in a position to complain: Netanyahu did exactly the same thing in the US Congress in 2015 to make the case against Obama’s nuclear deal.

Netanyahu’s allies have not exactly been subtle about the fact that they would prefer to be dealing with President Trump right now. But while both governments wait for the other’s potential downfall, it does little to move the war toward a conclusion, or stem the suffering of Gazans.

Correction, 7:10 pm ET: This story has been changed to reflect that Bernie Sanders is an independent.


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