The Biden administration faces pressure from progressive Democrats, Arab officials and even some U.S. diplomats to help end the Israel-Hamas war. But the White House doesn’t necessarily want to stop the fight — at least not yet.
Even if it did, Israel probably wouldn’t listen.
Those are some of the hard truths emerging from the cacophony of this conflict — reflected in conversations with eight diplomats, analysts and administration officials, as well as a review of what American, Israeli, Arab and other leaders have or haven’t said in public.
As the body count rises, the calculations could shift dramatically. For now, here’s a reality check on the decisions being made from Washington to Amman:
The United States doesn’t want to stop Israel’s war on Hamas.
When U.S. officials lay out their objectives in this new conflict, they mention four specifics: making it clear the U.S. firmly supports Israel; stopping the fighting from spreading beyond the Gaza Strip; freeing more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas; and helping ease the humanitarian crisis.
Stopping the Israel-Hamas war is not on the list.
That’s primarily because the U.S. agrees with Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas, a Palestinian network designated by Washington as a terrorist organization, even if it’s not entirely clear what that will ultimately look like. When asked last month by CBS News if he believed Hamas “must be eliminated entirely,” President Joe Biden said, “Yes, I do.”
For now, the administration is pushing Israel to allow pauses in fighting for humanitarian purposes and to be careful in its targeting. But it won’t support a longer-lasting ceasefire.
“We still don’t believe that a general ceasefire is appropriate at this time,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday. “When we talk about a general ceasefire, what that means is a complete cessation of fighting across all of Gaza, which we believe at this point in time benefits Hamas.”
Retired Israel Defense Forces Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s national security adviser from 2011 to 2013, said his country’s government currently feels no real push from the U.S. to end the war.
The only pressure, he said, “is that we will minimize the number of civilians that should be killed and the second one is to allow more humanitarian aid to the civilians in Gaza.”
What’s not said in public: Destroying — or at least degrading Hamas — is in the U.S. interest on multiple levels.
Hamas is a proxy of Iran, a major U.S. adversary, so dismantling it undercuts Tehran. Hamas is a destabilizing force in a region that remains critical to U.S. economic and security interests. The militant group also does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, making it a major barrier to a two-state solution, pointed out one U.S. official, who, like others in this story, was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
Plus, publicly breaking with Israelis could damage U.S. ties with a partner who is critical on fronts including intelligence sharing.
Israel would probably ignore the U.S. anyway.
The U.S. has significant tools it could use to pressure Israel beyond the mere words officials are sticking to now.
It could threaten to cut military aid to the country, stop defending it at the United Nations, or abandon long-term efforts to help Israel normalize diplomatic relations with Arab countries. Some congressional Democrats are even considering legislation to curtail intelligence sharing with Israel.
But the Biden administration has steadfastly rejected such moves.
Even in more normal times, the Israeli government has not always listened to Washington. For example, U.S. officials have for years fruitlessly urged Israel to stop building settlements on West Bank territory claimed by Palestinians.
When Biden was vice president, the Israeli government even announced new settlements while the American leader was visiting Israel.
The brutality of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack also has so shaken Israeli citizens that many support military moves they might have decried before. This means the U.S. has to contend with the demands Israeli politicians get from their own constituents.
That’s why U.S. officials view what would typically seem like small victories as big wins. Among them: Convincing Israel to permit some humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza and to ease up on a 24-hour evacuation notice to the residents in the northern part of the territory.
“You need to understand the public sentiment in Israel,” one Israeli official said. “Israelis, including center-left Israelis, are mad about why we let humanitarian aid in when our hostages are there and denied visits and we know nothing on their condition.”
As Amidror put it: “Israeli society has lost its naivete.”
Several Arab governments privately hate Hamas.
Many Arab leaders despise Hamas, not least because of its Islamist roots and Iranian ties. So they wouldn’t mind seeing the group degraded.
“There has been a big difference between Arab countries’ public and private reactions,” a senior Israeli official told reporters in Washington last month. Most Arab countries regard Hamas “as enemies and want them deterred.”
Despite their disdain for Hamas, many Arab leaders are publicly and privately urging the U.S. to pressure Israel to accept a ceasefire. That’s partly because they worry that citizen fury over images of dead and wounded Palestinians could turn against them.
“By sending a lot of equipment and a lot of money to Israel, [the U.S.] encourages them to push and to escalate rather than to look for a solution,” one Arab diplomat based in Washington said.
Israel does not appear to be heeding the warnings of people such as Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi to “stop this madness.” Officials insist they are doing what they must to spare civilians, but the level of Palestinian suffering is increasingly hard for Israel to explain.
Iran does not want a broader war.
Although Iran is not directly involved in the war, it is keenly interested in the conflict. Iran supports Hamas with funding, weapons and training, and has long sought to expel U.S. troops from the Middle East.
Tehran has seized on this moment to foment further instability in the region. Its proxies have attacked American troops in Iraq and Syria with aerial drones and rockets at least 38 times since Oct. 17, even as the Pentagon dispatches an increasing amount of firepower to the region.
But privately, U.S. officials say they believe Iran is simply trying to raise pressure on Washington, not provoke a wider regional war.
The best evidence for this calculation is the nature and scale of the attacks — particularly compared to Iran’s response to former President Donald Trump’s ordered assassination of a senior Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in 2020.
For one, the proxy groups have relied almost exclusively on cheap, one-way attack drones and rockets to launch the mostly unsuccessful strikes. Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder called such moves “harassing.”
And although Ryder said the U.S. would hold Iran responsible for the strikes, Tehran has not claimed responsibility for them.
By contrast, in January 2020, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched more than 12 ballistic missiles against multiple U.S. bases in Iraq, leaving more than 100 U.S. troops with traumatic brain injuries. Iran said it was revenge for Soleimani’s killing.
Tehran has not used the current crisis as an opportunity to ratchet up its harassment of commercial ships in the Persian Gulf, behavior that has previously drawn U.S. condemnation.
The limited U.S. response — or lack thereof — to the most recent attacks is also telling. Biden ordered an Oct. 26 airstrike against two facilities in Syria used by Iranian-linked groups, but the attacks did not kill any militants.