The Biden administration showed no new signs on Friday that it was prepared to take a tougher line on Israel’s military operation against Hamas as desperate conditions in Gaza grew even worse, with civilian deaths rising and aid groups warning of shortages of water, food and medicine.
Biden officials say Israel must do more to limit civilian casualties and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. But that still leaves America’s position far from that of many Arab countries, which are demanding an immediate cease-fire and blame Israel for what they call a profoundly disproportionate response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
During a visit to Washington on Friday, ministers from Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations said at a news conference that the Israeli offensive must stop, with Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, accusing Israel of committing a “massacre.”
In New York on Friday, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution drafted by the United Arab Emirates that called for a humanitarian cease-fire — a lonely position against 13 votes in favor.
While under growing pressure at home and abroad, the Biden administration has been trying to persuade Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians. But it has not publicly threatened Israel with any specific consequences if it does not. White House officials brush off talk of cutting or conditioning military aid to Israel and say they have not given Israel a firm deadline to finish its offensive in Gaza.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken indicated that the United States remained dissatisfied with civilian deaths and humanitarian conditions in Gaza about a week after new fighting broke a pause to allow for the release of hostages held by Hamas and prisoners held by Israel. Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, which left about 1,200 people dead, has claimed more than 15,000 lives, according to Gazan health authorities.
At a news conference in Washington, Mr. Blinken said that “there does remain a gap” between Israel’s stated “intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground.”
During a visit to Tel Aviv last week, Mr. Blinken said he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders that they must designate safe areas for civilians, avoid further displacement of Gazans and prevent damage to critical infrastructure like power stations. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Vice President Kamala Harris have also urged Israel to conduct its operations with more care.
Mr. Blinken said on Thursday that Israel has taken some positive steps, including by “evacuating neighborhoods instead of entire cities,” creating safe areas and “having a more narrowly focused area of where this military operation is actually being conducted.”
Israeli officials argue that they are in an impossible position, fighting an enemy in Hamas that embeds itself among civilians and that, they charge, seeks to maximize Palestinian deaths to make Israel appear cruel to the world. Israeli leaders say that even as they often take unusual steps to warn civilians about impending attacks, they cannot defeat a fanatical enemy in a dense urban area without great collateral damage.
But in Washington and at the United Nations, Arab diplomats expressed anger at Israel’s renewed offensive, which U.S. officials concede is again incurring casualties at a high rate and adding to Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. Those diplomats — from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority — met with Mr. Blinken at the State Department on Friday afternoon. Turkey’s foreign minister also joined the visiting group, the Arab-Islamic Ministerial Committee.
And on Capitol Hill, some Democrats say the United States must move beyond talk to pressure Israel. “I do think the Biden administration can be doing more to exercise our leverage under these circumstances,” Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said. “When words are not matched by strong actions, the United States looks feckless.”
“The Biden administration should call for a pause” in Israel’s military campaign, he added, “until it receives a verifiable plan of action to secure the objectives that the president has put out and that the secretary of state has described as ‘imperative.’”
Mr. Van Hollen is working with a dozen other Democratic senators on an amendment to the military aid package President Biden has requested for Israel and Ukraine. The amendment would require weapons approved in the measure for any country to be used in accordance with U.S. and international law, and would create new reporting requirements to clearly establish whether those standards have been met.
Biden officials support pauses in the fighting to deliver more humanitarian relief into Gaza and to secure the release of more hostages held by Hamas and other groups, although they say that exchanges of those hostages for Palestinian prisoners stopped abruptly last week when Hamas reneged on commitments to release Israeli women in captivity.
But the United States, like Israel, opposes a long-term cease-fire on the grounds that it would allow Hamas’s leadership to survive and threaten Israel, perpetuating the cycle of violence.
Nor have U.S. officials been willing to publicly propose a time limit for Israel to finish major military operations, which analysts say could take several more weeks or months.
“We have not given a firm deadline to Israel, not really our role. This is their conflict,” Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, said at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington on Thursday. “That said, we do have influence, even if we don’t have ultimate control over what happens on the ground in Gaza.”
Dennis Ross, a Middle East policy official in several presidential administrations, said Mr. Biden would probably continue resisting domestic and international pressure to take a harder line on Israel’s campaign in Gaza.
“If there’s a sudden, big humanitarian disaster, like if you had a hospital that got hit again — that would create an immediate tipping point,” Mr. Ross said, recalling an October explosion at a Gaza hospital that set off protests across the Middle East before evidence emerged suggesting the damage had been done by a misfired Palestinian rocket and not Israeli forces.
Barring that, Mr. Ross said he could envision a point, if the offensive drags on, where the administration might quietly slow its delivery of munitions to Israel. But, he added, “I don’t see the Biden administration ever saying, ‘OK, we’re cutting you off.’”
Some U.S. officials warn privately that even the perception of a U.S. break with Israel might encourage the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, to attack Israel — an outcome the U.S. hopes to avoid.
And Mark Mellman, a U.S.-based pollster who has advised Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, warned that public pressure on Mr. Netanyahu was likely to backfire.
Sharp criticisms or threats to modify U.S. aid to Israel, Mr. Mellman said, only serve “to help the right in Israel.” He said Mr. Netanyahu, who was politically embattled even before many Israelis blamed him for failing to prevent the Oct. 7 attacks, would relish the opportunity to position himself as standing up to Mr. Biden’s pressure in the name of Israel’s security.
There are signs Mr. Biden agrees with that theory. Asked in late November whether he might support conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on an Israeli plan to limit civilian deaths, the president called the idea “a worthwhile thought.” But his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, clarified on NBC’s “Meet the Press” days later that Mr. Biden had only “acknowledged the idea.” Mr. Sullivan said the president believed the approach of “direct presidential diplomacy behind closed doors with the Israelis and with our Arab partners” was producing results.