Biden’s Diplomatic Dilemma: Managing the Israel-Hamas Conflict

President Joe Biden is grappling with the challenge of balancing support for America’s closest ally in the Middle East with international demands for more robust protection for civilians in Gaza. He must also avoid a broader Middle East war. Biden and his senior aides have advised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to consider the long-term impact of a strategy that calls for “mighty vengeance” on Hamas.

The president has spoken with Netanyahu several times, part of the administration’s push to buy more time to secure the release of hostages, the extraction of Palestinian Americans trapped in Gaza, and delivery of basic supplies for civilians fleeing Israeli airstrikes. Bident facilitated a deal between Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, allowing a few dozen trucks to pass through the Rafah Border Crossing with relief supplies. Four hostages have been released from over 200 people abducted by Hamas during their October 7 attacks on Israeli soil.

Israeli airstrikes since October 7 have killed over 5,000 people in Gaza and displaced over a million people, according to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health. The Biden administration is seeking more time to prepare for attacks on U.S. interests in the region from Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen, which are likely to intensify once Israel begins its ground invasion. Despite additional U.S. military assets deployed to the region, at least 13 drone and rocket attacks have been launched against American forces in Iraq and Syria.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a forceful defense of Israel’s military actions at the United Nations Security Council meeting, urging council members to condemn Hamas’ atrocities. Blinken repeated calls to protect civilian lives, stating that food, medicine, and water must flow into Gaza and to the areas people need them, and humanitarian pauses must be considered for these purposes.

The Israeli government has been hesitant to determine whether Israel has violated the laws of war or set clear military goals for its ground invasion and post-war agenda. The administration has not dictated operational steps and has not set any red lines for Israel. Republican senators propose redirecting aid funds for Gaza to replenish Israeli’s “Iron Dome” system, while progressive Congress members push for a cease-fire.

The majority of Americans are on the Israeli side, but this may not continue if things worsen. Josh Paul, former director of congressional and public affairs at the State Department’s bureau handling arms transfers and security assistance to foreign governments, resigned in protest over an administration policy that he said amounts to a green light for Israeli retaliation regardless of the toll on civilians. The Conventional Arms Transfer Policy guides these decisions, but there was no policy debate or questions about pause and taking into account regular policies and legal requirements.

The United Nations has drawn parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, according to Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group. Diplomats, including Arab diplomats, have been questioning why Palestinian civilians don’t deserve the same protection as Ukrainian civilians.

Following a U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning violence against civilians and allowing aid delivery without including Israel’s right to self-defense, the administration is “negotiating in good faith” to draft a new resolution that underlines that right. Gowan attributed Washington’s willingness to seek compromise as part of its effort to compete against China and Russia for the goodwill of countries in the Global South.

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