What Biden Would Do if He Were Serious About Ending the War in Gaza

Tom Brenner/Pool/Cnp/CNP/Zuma; Fatima Shbair/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Last week, Politico reported that President Joe Biden would “consider” conditioning military aid to Israel if the country launches a large-scale invasion of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering. “It’s something he’s definitely thought about,” said one of the four anonymous US officials cited as a source. This was about as weak of a position as could be imagined: The President had definitely thought about maybe doing something.
Still, even this proved too much. One day later, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the article was based on “uninformed speculation” by anonymous officials and that he wouldn’t be entertaining hypotheticals about how the US would respond to a major invasion of Rafah, which US officials have signaled they would accept in a more limited form. The dismissal was the latest indication of the administration’s almost complete unwillingness to even discuss imposing serious consequences on Israel for waging a war that has killed more than 30,000 people, most of whom were women and children.
Instead, the administration has adopted a newfound feeling of impotence. As State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller put it last month, “The United States does not dictate to Israel what it must do, just as we don’t dictate to any country what it must do.” The absurdity of this position was made clear when a reporter interjected, “Unless you invade them.” Miller couldn’t help but laugh.

It has been obvious for months that there are many things the Biden administration can do to restrain Israel and distance itself from a war that has been condemned throughout the world. The problem has not been a lack of options but a lack of political will. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now the president of the US/Middle East Project, told me, “I think many of us who had very low expectations of the US and of Biden have had a rude awakening as to how much lower the actual performance has been [compared] to even the lowest of low expectations.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s decision on Thursday to call on Israel to hold new elections is a sign of mainstream Democrats’ increasing awareness that the status quo is unsustainable. Still, neither Schumer nor Biden have supported more immediate and consequential steps such as limiting the transfer of US weapons to Israel.
Experts disagree about whether the United States could immediately force Israel to end the war. Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and others believe that Biden could likely end the war in short order with a phone call, absent domestic political constraints. Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told me he was more skeptical of Biden’s ability to quickly force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hand but agreed the United States has more leverage than it is using.
As evidence of how important US backing has been for Israel, Levy cited veteran Israeli journalist Yoav Limor, who wrote in Hebrew earlier this month that without “Biden’s support, Israel would long ago have been forced to stop the fighting in Gaza due to a shortage of weapons, while at the same time it would have been forced to deal with United Nations Security Council resolutions (and possibly sanctions) against it.” Still, Levy thought it might take weeks or months of sustained US pressure to compel Israel to change course.
In any case, Biden is under no obligation to provide thousands of bombs to a country whose leader has consistently ignored him as Israel wages a brutal war that has leveled much of Gaza and caused children to die of starvation. “We need to stick to our own values,” Ford said. “If our values say, ‘Starving children is way beyond the pale,’ then we need to react to that and take stern action, whether or not it changes Israeli policy.”
Here are what some of Biden’s current options look like, according to experts I spoke with this month:

Levy and others agree that restricting arms sales is the most important step the United States can take to influence Israel and help bring the war to a close. The country’s reliance on US weapons is made clear by the fact that the United States has approved and delivered more than 100 separate military sales for Israel—almost one per day—since the war began.
Among other weapons, the United States has sent tens of thousands of artillery shells and thousands of unguided “dumb” bombs. It is not known just how many of them have been used in Gaza, but Israelis have not hidden the fact that these weapons are essential to the war effort. “All of our missiles, the ammunition, the precision-guided bombs, all the airplanes and bombs, it’s all from the US,” retired Israeli Maj. General Itzhak Brik said in November. “The minute they turn off the tap, you can’t keep fighting. You have no capability.” 

The president has broad authority to restrict weapons transfers under US law. Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, worked for nearly a decade as a State Department attorney. He said the process by which Biden could stop more weapons from being sent to Israel is simple. “He tells the State Department, ‘Nope. Pause these transfers. We’re not doing this anymore.’”
An arms transfer memorandum released by the Biden administration last year states that the United States considers arms shipments on a “case-by-case basis” after taking into account US foreign policy interests, whether the weapons are more likely than not to be used to commit serious violations of international law, and other factors. Sarah Harrison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who was previously a Defense Department attorney, explains that the standard set by the policy doesn’t appear to be applied to Israel. 
There are many precedents for blocking weapons from being sent to Israel and other US allies. President Ronald Reagan halted the shipment of cluster bombs to Israel during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that Reagan called a “holocaust” in a private call with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In 2016, President Barack Obama limited arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to the number of civilians the country was killing with its bombing campaign in Yemen. The Biden administration has resisted many of Ukraine’s requests for advanced weapons systems.

There is a strong case that even if the Biden administration wants to keep sending military aid to Israel, it is legally prohibited from doing so. Section 620I of the Foreign Assistance Act blocks the president from providing military assistance to a country that restricts access to US humanitarian assistance. Aid organizations, reporters, administration officials, and Israel’s own finance minister have made it clear that Israel is restricting humanitarian assistance from the United States and other countries for people in Gaza. As a result, Dylan Williams, the vice president for government affairs at the Center for International Policy, said Biden “is not complying with the law at this point.”
Last week, 25 nongovernmental organizations—including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam—wrote a letter to Biden that called continuing to send military aid to Israel an “apparent violation of US law” in light of Israeli restrictions on humanitarian aid. Eight senators sent a separate letter to Biden last week about the Foreign Assistance Act that stated, “According to public reporting and your own statements, the Netanyahu government is in violation of this law.” One of the signers, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), told the New Yorker that he is “flabbergasted” that the president hasn’t invoked the Foreign Assistance Act to restrict military assistance to Israel. 

If Israel were letting in enough aid, the United States would not be airdropping food into Gaza and building a temporary port in Gaza. Ford has called the airdrops the greatest humiliation of the United States by Israel he has ever seen. He is struck by the fact that the US is acting as if it is “trying to get supplies into besieged people surrounded by an enemy of the United States.”
The president can get around the restrictions in the Foreign Assistance Act by notifying Congress that he believes providing military aid to Israel is in America’s national security interest, despite Israel restricting aid. But Biden has not done so. 
Williams said the administration could also potentially turn to the so-called Leahy Laws, which prohibit arms from being sent to foreign military units or individuals that are implicated in “gross violations of human rights.” The Independent recently asked retired Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy if providing arms to Israel currently complies with his namesake law. “No,” Leahy replied. “Is that succinct enough for you?”
Withdraw Support for Additional Military Aid
The Biden administration is urging Congress to pass a supplemental national security funding bill that includes $60 billion for Ukraine, $14 billion in security assistance for Israel, and $9 billion in humanitarian aid for Palestine, Ukraine, and other parts of the world. The bill has already passed the Senate with bipartisan support. It is now held up in the House, where Republicans are divided over the Ukraine funding.
If it passes, it would be the largest aid package for Israel since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter rewarded Israel and Egypt for signing a peace treaty. In contrast, this package would reward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for publicly ignoring Biden and subjecting Palestinians to what the president has called “indiscriminate bombing.”
Support UN Ceasefire Resolutions
On October 18, the United States was the only member of the 15-member UN Security Council to veto a resolution that called for “humanitarian pauses” to deliver aid to people under siege in Gaza. In December, it was the lone Security Council member to vote against a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Days later, when the entire United Nations voted on a ceasefire measure, the United States, Israel, and eight other nations voted no, while 176 countries voted yes or abstained. (The eight nations that joined the United States and Israel—including Austria, Liberia, and Nauru—are home to less than 1 percent of the world’s population.) Last month, the United States vetoed a third Security Council resolution that called for a halt to the war. 
The Biden administration does not have to vote yes for these measures to pass. Even if the US abstained, the resolutions would pass since no other permanent Security Council member is exercising its veto power. Williams pointed out that the Reagan administration allowed through 21 UN resolutions that were critical of Israel. 
“A responsible United States would be actually leading from the front and putting forward its own Security Council resolutions that would seek to impose a ceasefire,” Finucane said. “The US is just not doing any of that.”
Push for a Permanent Ceasefire
Vice President Kamala Harris made news earlier this month by calling for an “immediate ceasefire.” What initially got less attention was the part that came immediately after: “for at least the next six weeks.” In other words, Harris was backing the administration’s existing policy of pushing for a temporary pause in the fighting. Ford finds it “exceptionally peculiar” that the administration is “taking credit with Democratic voters” for trying to get a temporary ceasefire at the same time it is vetoing Security Council resolutions demanding an indefinite halt to the war.

The administration hasn’t said what would happen after a temporary ceasefire ends. “After six weeks, then what?” Ford asks. “The answer is implicit that the fighting resumes, as it did last time. How you’re going to maintain sustainable humanitarian access if the fighting flares up again after six weeks, they do not explain.”
Levy said the United States should put forward a ceasefire deal that actually has a chance of being accepted by both sides. With a six-week deal, Levy explained, Netanyahu “is going to go out to the cameras and say, ‘We have a 42-day pause and I’m preparing now to call up the reservists. Because on day 43, we’re going into Rafah.’ How do you expect Hamas to agree to that?”
There are other things Biden could do that are less directly related to the war, such as sanctioning top Israeli officials for their actions in the West Bank or moving to recognize Palestinian statehood. But after five months of war, there are still few signs that Biden will suddenly embrace the need to constrain Israel—and if he does it will come months too late.
“We’re [at] a minimum of 30,000 dead people,” said Levy, the former Israeli peace negotiator. “This level of death and destruction and starvation and displacement. Absolute carnage. And you are still arming them? You are still backing up their narrative? And the best you can come up with is a bit of optimism over an ice cream and expressions of frustration and name-calling? Oh, man. That’s really bad.”