The Potential Impact of the Growing Rift Between Israel and Washington

As the war in the Middle East rages into the new year and concerns over the Palestinian death toll mount, officials are rapidly and openly diverging from the administration’s initial messaging of devout support for Israel.

In perhaps his harshest criticism of Israel’s top brass to date, President Biden remarked during a fundraiser last month, that the Israeli government was losing international support for their war in Gaza. He also referred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as running “the most conservative government in Israel’s history” and someone who “doesn’t want a two-state solution” to Israel’s protracted conflict with Palestinians. The candid condemnation came just hours after Netanyahu publicly vowed to resist growing American pressure to put the Palestinian Authority in charge of Gaza once the war simmers and Israel achieves its objective to oust Hamas from its governing role.

“On one hand, the U.S. supports Israel’s right to defend itself, in particular after an attack on its homeland, which in American minds may echo September 11. On the other, the U.S. will need to understand the tradeoffs of supporting an ally which continues to draw intense scrutiny from the international community on how it is conducting its attacks,” Scott Siler, a political risk expert and professor in the Elliott School’s Security Studies program at George Washington University, told The Cipher Brief. “This then becomes a broader issue than simply foreign policy and more amoral and an ethical dilemma for the U.S. national security establishment and even the nation as a whole.”

“We certainly all recognize more can be done to reduce civilian casualties,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Air Force One last month.

At a press conference just a day earlier in Washington, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cautioned that it is “imperative” that Israel “put a premium” on the protection of civilians in Gaza, pointing out that there is “a gap between the intent to protect civilians and the actual results we (officials) are seeing on the ground.”

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – speaking at last month’s Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California –
told the audience that he personally urged Israel’s leadership to drastically increase access to humanitarian aid, stressing
that “in this kind of fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population.” And at a news conference skirting the COP28 summit last month, Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized that the U.S. position is “unequivocal” in that “international humanitarian law must be respected” and “too many innocent Palestinians have been killed.”

According to Siler, the divergence could impact Israel in two ways: one, is the support the U.S. continues to provide Israel on the world stage, and two, is the material and other military support the U.S. provides.

“(It will become) hard to provide the latter without the former. Things become even more entangled if Israel uses U.S. material in an attack that causes civilian casualties. For example, (there is) news of Israeli forces using white phosphorus provided by the U.S. in an attack in southern Lebanon where multiple civilians were killed. The attack occurred in October, and the phosphorus was supplied as part of the military assistance the U.S. provides to Israel on an annual basis,” Siler explained. “For some context, the U.S. spends billions yearly on foreign military aid that goes to hundreds of countries. Therefore, a non-zero chance exists that materiel used by a foreign military may cause a civilian death whether intentionally, accidentally, or indiscriminately.”

Subsequently, the Biden administration also says it is investigating reports by Amnesty International and The Washington Post that Israel used U.S. supplied-white phosphorus in violation of international law.

Over nearly three months of fighting, some 2.3 million people have been forced from their homes in Gaza as battles splinters across both sides of Gaza. Israel says its force provides information to civilians regarding how to reach safe areas and that the prevailing harm is due to the actions of Hamas, an accusation the militant group repeatedly rebuffs.

In addition to outside pressure, the Biden White House also faces intense internal pressure to curb Israel’s offensive against Hamas. This dissent illuminates a strong divide on Israel that is especially prevalent among the younger generation. Blinken is the recipient of several internal memos expressing disapproval of the U.S. policy, while open letters are percolating through USAID collecting
more than a thousand signatures, another to members of Congress and a third conveyed directly to the White House signed by hundreds of staff and political appointees disgruntled with the U.S. position.

The opposition, internal and external, comes with political concerns given the fast-approaching 2024 presidential election and the delicate balance between Washington’s pro-Israel lobbies and the changing demographics in critical swing states, including
an expanding Arab American community in Michigan.

From the viewpoint of Jonathan Ruhe, Director of Foreign Policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy, the widening rift is “driven partly by domestic politics in the run-up to an election year.”

“Recent polls keep showing how Biden’s genuine moral clarity on Israel isn’t shared by his base. Thus, you have key officials like VP Harris and Sec. Blinken virtue-signaling U.S. concerns about Israel’s ostensible heavy-handedness, at the same time the president reiterates his unshakeable support for Israel and for its determination to eliminate Hamas,” he explained. “Another root cause is the view, which has supporters across the administration, that Israel’s conduct raises the risks of a wider war and, with it, more attacks on U.S. forces.”

White House national security aide Jon Finer said at a recent conference in Washington that while the administration can’t dictate a deadline to end the war to Israel, the U.S nonetheless does “have influence,” even if it does “not have ultimate control over what happens on the ground in Gaza.”

But the extent of that influence as the conflict continues, remains questionable. Israeli officials have divulged that Washington
advised them not to go into Gaza, but they embarked on a ground operation anyway.

U.S. officials have, however, said that they halted the opening of another potential frontier of the war by deterring Israel from launching an attack on Hezbollah in the Lebanese border region.

“Israel will always be willing to listen to the U.S. but ultimately will follow its own path,” said Siler. “This approach is driven partly by the need for U.S. support, as mentioned above, and partly by its maximalist goal of destroying Hamas.”

According to Ruhe’s assessment, while Israel is resolved to eliminate Hamas, the U.S. could influence the timeline, costs, and parameters of victory.

“The pace, quality, and predictability of U.S. material support for Israel’s rapid expenditure of munitions is a key factor here, and one where Congress has as much a role to play as the administration,” he continued. “The U.S. pressure to wrap up operations could push Israel to declare something like ‘victory’ after it takes out key Hamas leaders – but potentially before it could more fully root out Hamas’ infrastructure on and under the ground in Gaza. The administration’s claims that it is successfully pressuring Israel on the humanitarian front is overstated since Israel has its own strong self-interest to prevent chaos and collapse in Gaza.”

Kamran Bokhari, Senior Director for Eurasian Security & Prosperity at the Newlines Institute contends that “as the biggest ally of Israel, the United States has considerable leverage over Jerusalem’s calculus” and that Washington’s emerging stance is likely to have a big impact on actions going forward.

“The unprecedented scale of growing global opposition to Israel in the wake of the worst ever humanitarian crisis in Gaza renders Israel all the more dependent upon Washington’s support. The growing divergence means Israel will not be able to continue with its offensive for too long. This increases the pressure on Jerusalem to achieve its military objectives in a shrinking window of opportunity,” he said. “What this means is that civilian casualties could significantly increase because of the Israelis intensifying their military operations.”

And from Bokhari’s view, “the United States is the only actor in the world with the ability to influence all stakeholders in this conflict.”
Despite public disparity, the State Department invoked an emergency provision in the Arms Export Control Act and proceeded last month with a government sale to Israel of 13,000 rounds of tank ammunition – to the tune of $106 million – circumventing the typically mandatory congressional review procedure for foreign trades.

“U.S. pressure could complicate how Israel pursues victory and could undermine stated U.S. goals, too. There are direct tensions and tradeoffs in pressuring Israel to defeat Hamas decisively, quickly, and at a minimal cost. And the more this pressure plays out in public, the more Tehran, Beirut, and Yahya Sinwar will feel emboldened that Israel won’t actually finish the job against Hamas, and the more they’ll recover from their initial shock and dejection upon seeing America’s immediate and robust support for Israel after October 7,” Ruhe cautioned.

However, he also asserted that “repairing this rift is relatively easy.”

“The U.S. is already doing many of the right things – sending Israel defense assistance, building up our forces, underscoring Israel’s right to self-defense, decrying growing antisemitism. But the U.S. messaging on Israel’s conduct in Gaza counterproductively inflames global anti-Israel sentiment, heartens Iran and all its proxies as well as Russia and China, and sours our Arab partners on normalization and other U.S.-led initiatives,” Ruhe added. “To this end, the U.S. needs to stop pressuring Israel to terminate its operation by a predetermined impending deadline –the more strategic patience Israel feels it has, the more operational precautions it can afford to take.”

Originally published in The Cipher Brief.