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analysis

U.S. President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House on May 17, 2021 in Washington.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

There are carrots in the American pantry. There are sticks in Washington’s broom closet. With bombs raining down on Gaza and rockets blasting into Israel, the question is whether the White House has the inclination, motivation or courage to reach into the pantry or open the broom closet.

“However much leverage the United States may have, the Biden administration shows no interest in exercising it,” said Andrew C. Bacevich Jr., president of the non-partisan Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “They appear disinclined to do anything meaningful themselves.”

The White House statement saying President Joe Biden “expressed his support for a ceasefire” in a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reflected the tentative and careful approach the administration is taking as the Middle East conflict enters its second week. The carefully crafted remarks – hardened a day later when administration officials said Mr. Biden has warned Mr. Netanyahu that he could not hold off Israel’s critics indefinitely – underlined the opposing forces buffeting the President in his first foreign-policy challenge.

“Biden wants to support Israel,” said Leila Farsakh, a University of Massachusetts, Boston, expert on the Middle East. “But he also wants to reopen the nuclear negotiations with Iran. That’s a difficult line to walk.”

Mr. Biden cannot, with a speech or a telephone call, restrain Israel nor press Iran-backed Hamas forces to cease their attacks. The days when a diktat from Washington (or from Langley, Va., the headquarters of the CIA) could alter the destiny of a faraway country, as they did in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), are in the past.

But the fulcrum on which American leverage sits is broad. On it rests foreign assistance (US$3.3-billion in military aid, plus US$500-million in missile defence, to Israel, plus US$235-million to the Palestinians in economic, development and humanitarian assistance); trade (US$13.1-billion with Israel in 2019, at least US$9-million with the West Bank); and the prestige that a stable, warm relationship with the United States conveys.

“Israel benefits tremendously, not just from concrete things like dollars and American support in the United Nations,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank. “It also benefits from the signal that the U.S. is behind it. If that signal is not there, things can be very difficult for Israel.”

For that reason, this week’s repeated blocking by the U.S. of a UN Security Council resolution backing an immediate ceasefire was an important signal for Israel. So were the repeated Biden assertions of the boilerplate language speaking of “Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attack.”

Analysts believe Mr. Netanyahu will not be responsive to Mr. Biden’s entreaties until his goals in the conflict – including the destruction of the Hamas tunnel network used for fabricating missiles – are essentially met.

“If the U.S. presses in a serious way, Israel will have to be more receptive to American demands, arguments or requests,” said Dan Arbell, scholar-in-residence at the Center for Israel Studies at Washington’s American University. “If Israel hasn’t achieved its goals, it will resist. But if most of its goals have been met, there’s a good chance it would stop the operation.”

On the left of Mr. Biden’s party, some voices have called for sanctions against Israel. During the 2020 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermonter who became Mr. Biden’s principal rival, set out a threat to Israel now supported in the party’s progressive wing: “You get US$3.8-billion every year. If you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza.’'

In a measure of the impatience with Mr. Biden, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a prominent Jewish group that describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and is less supportive of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies than the establishment-oriented Israel lobby AIPAC, described Israel’s escalation as “horrific” and asserted that “the Biden administration has simply not done enough to demand, broker and achieve an immediate end to the violence and destruction.”

Almost no one in American politics is advocating a U.S. withdrawal from involvement in the region. “It’s in our interest to be involved with both Israel and the Palestinians, because this region does not stay self-contained,” said a national security official in both the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations. “Even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can lie dormant for a while or simmer at a low level, it always heats up again.”

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