December 8, 2023

The U.S. is in “uncharted territory” in dealing with the Israel-Hamas war as President Joe Biden becomes more critical of Israel amid pressure to rein in its actions in Gaza, a former U.S. National Security Council director has told Newsweek.

“As the war goes on, Biden’s more inclined to push for restraint than before now that Israel has had some very clear military success,” said Michael Doran, who was a senior director in the National Security Council (NSC) during the administration of President George W. Bush, where he coordinated U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

This may indicate that Biden is forming “red lines” for how the U.S. wants Israel to approach the conflict from now on—in addition to reiterating his support for a two-state solution when the conflict is over—though the president must weigh multiple competing interests.

How Joe Biden’s Tone Changed

During a visit to Tel Aviv days after the October 7 attacks by Hamas on southern Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage, according to the Associated Press, Biden pledged, “You are not alone.” On October 27, after Israel’s heaviest-ever airstrikes on Gaza spurred global protests, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said, “We’re not drawing red lines for Israel.”

U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Week in San Francisco, California, on November 17, 2023. Biden is facing pressure to rein in Israel’s military actions in Gaza.
Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski

That may no longer be the case. Biden’s tone had changed by November 2, when during a campaign speech interrupted by a protester who had called for an immediate ceasefire, Biden said for the first time that to secure the release of hostages, “I think we need a pause.”

After Israeli forces closed in on Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s biggest, which Israel says is a Hamas hub—a claim denied by the militant group—Biden then called for Israel to take “less intrusive” action in Gaza and warned that “hospitals must be protected.”

“There has always been a fine line between showing support for Israel and wanting to restrain it from the beginning,” said Doran.

Doran also said Biden faces unprecedented circumstances in the Middle East to balance. These include protecting American bases in the Middle East from Iranian proxies, which have carried out repeated attacks. The demonstrations in the U.S. could also cause him problems at the ballot box in 2024 among Muslim voters, particularly in Michigan.

These aspects make the conflict unique, Doran said, adding that it’s hard to compare it to previous wars in the region, when the White House had been “inclined to let the Israelis follow their military dictates because they knew they were of limited scope.”

“The goals of this operation, to destroy the military capability of Hamas and its ability to govern, are quite broad ranging and they will require the Israelis carry it through to the end,” said Doran, who is now director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The Two-State Solution

As the leader of Israel’s biggest ally, Biden has asked Congress to approve a $14.3 billion military aid package to Israel. But Western diplomats have said Biden must push Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s government to ease its military operation, the Financial Times reported, citing multiple sources including Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who told reporters that Israel had “two to three weeks” before it came under pressure to agree a ceasefire.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post on November 18, Biden said that while “a ceasefire is not peace,” there “must be “no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade, and no reduction in territory.”

In calling for a two-state solution, Biden said that Gaza and the West Bank “should be reunited under a single governance structure, ultimately under a revitalized Palestinian Authority (PA).” In response, Netanyahu said the PA “in its current form is not capable of” taking control of Gaza.

Palestinians get aid
Palestinians receive bags of flour in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on November 21, 2023. Continued Israeli airstrikes on Gaza present Biden with numerous political problems.
SAID KHATIB/Getty Images

Growing Calls For Restraint

Meanwhile, hospitals in the territory continue to be focus of the war, after 12 people were killed when a shell hit the second floor of the Indonesian Hospital, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, the AP reported.

This followed the World Health Organization’s evacuation of 31 premature babies from Shifa, at least 28 of whom were transported to Egypt.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Monday that the U.S. wants “longer pauses” and for “more humanitarian assistance” to enter Gaza, while before Israel turns its military operations to the south of the territory, it needs “answers for where civilians in southern Gaza can be safe.”

Miller said schools and hospitals must be “protected” and that “we don’t want to see them struck from the air,” adding that “far too many Palestinians have been killed.”

But Doran said that Biden still has to tread a fine a line in how his administration deals with Israel, beyond such relatively unspecific statements. “If Biden takes a very categorical position and begins arguing with the Israeli government, an unstoppable force is going to meet an immovable object.”

“We really are in uncharted territory,” he said. “I can also imagine it being difficult for Biden because the Israelis are incredibly united around these goals. No government—not a Netanyahu government, not any other government—can step away from these goals without losing the support of the electorate.”

Pressure From Within

There is also growing unease within Biden’s administration at Israel’s actions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has received internal memos through a channel allowing employees to register disapproval of policy, according to the BBC. Political appointees and staff members from government agencies have also expressed their discontent.

“The White House’s language, and policy, are no doubt being shaped by domestic political considerations,” Thomas Gift, director of the Centre on U.S. Politics at University College London, told Newsweek.

“With a vocal flank of Biden’s party demanding a ceasefire, the administration is trying to balance the need for strategic alignment with its regional ally and the imperative to respond to growing internal pressure among progressives at home.”