As Israel's pariah status grows, what will the US do next?

Illustration - Analysis - Gaza/Israel/US
5 min read
09 April, 2024

More than half a year into Israel’s annihilatory campaign in Gaza, the besieged enclave’s residents face mass death through famine and disease.

Without a ceasefire, Gaza’s humanitarian disasters can only worsen while Israel’s war machine continues making the Strip even more of an uninhabitable territory.

Throughout much of the past six months, the Biden administration has maintained that the White House can’t do much to change Israeli actions in Gaza.

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On 26 March, the US Department of State’s spokesperson Matthew Miller asserted that Washington “can’t dictate” to Israel because it is a “sovereign country, and the United States can’t dictate to any sovereign country”.

But developments which unfolded earlier this month illustrate the extent to which Miller’s claim was dishonest.

The reality is that Washington has been Israel’s enabler during this war and the US has always been able to instantly stop it, but for political purposes has chosen not to do so.

"What happens next is entirely an American decision"

Killing of the World Central Kitchen aid workers

On 1 April, an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza killed six international aid workers on a World Central Kitchen (WCK) team, including Australian, British, and Polish citizens, and a Palestinian driver.

That episode resulted in a phone conversation between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later that week. Biden was reportedly “very angry” at the Israeli leader over the WCK incident.

According to the readout released by the White House, Biden stressed that “strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are unacceptable” while also emphasising that an “immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilise and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians”.

The White House’s statement also said that Biden “made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers”.

WHO officials investigate the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza following Israel's military operation, which caused widespread destruction and deaths. [Getty]

The US president went as far as telling Netanyahu that Washington’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Gaza “will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps”.

It appears that Biden had to demonstrate that he was doing something to pressure Israel. The response from many influential US lawmakers such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and outraged citizens across America to the killing of the WCK aid workers on top of the international community’s calls for a ceasefire over the past six months has intensified pressure on Team Biden to finally start using US leverage to rein in Israel’s rogue conduct.

Following that conversation between Biden and Netanyahu, Israeli officials announced their plan to open the Erez crossing point and increase the entry of aid into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing.

On 7 April, the Israeli Defence Ministry’s Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced that 322 aid trucks had entered Gaza that day. Until that point, never had so many aid trucks entered the enclave in a single day since Israel’s war on Gaza began in October 2023.

"You can't distribute aid unless there's a ceasefire. Biden demanded a ceasefire [on 4 April but …] there's no report that Israel has stopped firing. I think that's the real test here"

“This tells us that, despite denials from the US, Israel is in fact blocking aid and that even the slightest pressure from the US can have an impact,” said Dr Assal Rad, a Middle East scholar, in an interview with The New Arab.

Nonetheless, one has to ask, why did that episode, which resulted in the death of some citizens of Western countries, cause a higher level of outrage among elites in Washington than the high-tech slaughter of more than 30,000 Palestinians over the past six months?

Put simply, it all comes down to a total disregard for Palestinian lives on the part of US policymakers.

“The attention on this tragedy [with the WCK aid workers] has distracted from the destruction of al-Shifa and highlighted the dehumanisation of Palestinians, whose deaths in the tens of thousands and clear starvation had not prompted even this mild reaction from the Biden administration,” observed Dr Rad.

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It is important to avoid overstating the impact of Israel allowing some more aid into Gaza as long as the Israelis continue bombing the enclave.

“You can’t distribute aid unless there’s a ceasefire. Biden demanded a ceasefire [on 4 April but …] there’s no report that Israel has stopped firing. I think that’s the real test here,” Dr Nader Hashemi, director of Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, told TNA.

What will happen next in Gaza is unclear. However, Dr Hashemi believes the humanitarian crises plaguing the blockaded strip of coastal territory will worsen. He is sceptical about Biden’s recent talk of the need for implementing a ceasefire, protecting international aid workers, and addressing humanitarian disasters in Gaza leading to any alleviation of Palestinian suffering in the enclave.

The reason why is that Biden’s call with Netanyahu was “just a threat to Israel that Israel can still do whatever it wants, [but] if it doesn’t coordinate policy with the United States more closely, then, possibly down the road, the United States might try to use its leverage over Israel to rein Israel in - but that remains to be seen,” explained Dr Hashemi.

Biden has offered Netanyahu "unlimited" support in his war on Gaza [Getty]
The Biden administration's statements reflect a change in tone, but the important questions pertain to the White House's actions. [Getty]

The ball is in America's court

Ultimately, while the Biden administration’s statements reflect a change in rhetoric and tone, the important questions pertain to the White House’s actions and not its words. “What happens next is entirely an American decision,” Mouin Rabbani, a political analyst and co-editor of Jadaliyya, told TNA.

In this upcoming period, will the White House enable Israel’s onslaught on Gaza to continue with total impunity with only verbal differences being expressed through statements and political theatre, or will the Biden administration take the necessary steps to de-escalate and bring a ceasefire into place as a result of domestic and international pressure?

When asked this question, Rabbani replied, “Hard to tell, since US conduct…makes it difficult to determine if it genuinely opposes or will ultimately go along with Israel’s initiatives to produce further regional escalation”.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero