Administration officials are having what they describe as more difficult conversations with their Israeli counterparts as the US tries to shape the conflict — only to have Israel ignore them, according to several people familiar with the conversations who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.
They said the administration has ramped up its private messaging to Israel as impatience has grown. At the same time, the administration is still fulfilling Israel’s weapons requests, and so far hasn’t threatened any consequences against its key partner in the region.
The tense conversations highlight the risks of the Biden administration strategy, which has rested in large part on the idea that a close public embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would open space behind the scenes to deliver tough messages and shape Israel’s conduct of the war.
But that has proven a difficult balance as Israel steps up its campaign against Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and the European Union, and the civilian death toll in the Gaza Strip has risen to more than 11,000 people, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry. The administration has also come under growing pressure from Arab allies, who argue that the Biden administration’s embrace has given Netanyahu a green light to proceed.
At the same time, Netanyahu has so far swept aside US concerns about Americans who remain hostage in Gaza and the hundreds of Palestinian-Americans who haven’t been able to leave the territory, people familiar with the matter said.
“If your action plan is basically ‘there were 30,000 Hamas fighters, we’re going to kill them all and yes, there will be blood and damage, we’re sorry for that’ — that’s worrisome,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “That produces a humanitarian crisis inside of Gaza, that produces threats to the US citizens who still haven’t gotten out, and it probably escalates tension across the region.”
Some of the strain has centered on Israel’s campaign on the Shifa hospital in Gaza, which US and Israeli officials agree hides a major Hamas headquarters. Although the Biden administration concurs that Israel needs to root out Hamas, the fear is that Israel isn’t doing enough to protect civilians trapped inside. On Monday, President Joe Biden said Shifa “must be protected.”
On Tuesday night, Israel appeared to defy that warning, with the military saying troops were “carrying out a precise and targeted operation against Hamas” in the hospital.
Another sore spot is the future of the Gaza Strip, and Netanyahu’s shift from saying Israel doesn’t want to occupy the area again to vowing that Israeli forces will remain there indefinitely.
The officials said the US has been cautioning over and over that Israel needs to protect civilians. When the US asked what happened when Israel hit a refugee camp, the Israeli response was almost dismissive, with its leaders saying their objective had been achieved, the officials said.
Israel’s response is tinged with impatience and accusations of hypocrisy, with officials insisting that the US continues not to understand the trauma coming out of the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the devastation that was wrought, according to the American officials.
Israeli officials declined to comment on the conversations. But Israeli officials have acknowledged that they can keep up the campaign only for so long. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said in a briefing with reporters Monday that its international legitimacy will last another two to three weeks.
“We sense that there is international pressure on Israel,” he said. “It is not strong, but it is getting stronger.”
Now, the US has started to make its private anger with Israel more public. Last week, secretary of state Antony Blinken said “far too many Palestinians have been killed.” And National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Hamas terrorists’ use of civilians as shields doesn’t lessen Israel’s “responsibility to act in ways that separate terrorists from civilians.”
Biden has let some of his frustrations show too. On Monday, he told reporters he had “not been reluctant expressing my concerns” around fighting at Gaza hospitals. Last Thursday, Biden said the effort to implement humanitarian pauses in the fighting had “taken a little longer than I hoped.”.
Part of the growing US impatience is driven by pressure from other partners, especially in the Arab world. Some leaders believe that Biden’s embrace of Netanyahu — and his meeting with the war cabinet — on his visit to Israel last month gave the green light to the campaign that’s now unfolding.
“There’s just tremendous frustration with with the United States and what many see as a lack of credibility for the Biden administration,” said Karen Young, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “It’s going to take a long time to restore a sense of trust.”
Amid the concern, the US has pressed ahead with financial and military support for Israel, including by providing some of the weapons that Israel has used in its bombing campaign. That includes 155mm artillery shells that have drawn protests from aid groups for their poor accuracy.
“For the last 50 years, Israeli wars have ended because the United States stepped in and said, ‘it’s time to stop,”’ said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for International and Strategic Studies. “We’re certainly not at that point, but we’re closer to that point than we were when the president went to Jerusalem.”