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U.S. support for Israeli government increasingly strained as Arab states demand cease-fire

Smoke rises from the Gaza Strip
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel on Thursday.
(Leo Correa / Associated Press)
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As Israel widens its war in Gaza, now in its third deadly month, Biden administration officials are struggling to shore up support for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu even as it appears to ignore U.S. advice and Arab anger worldwide mounts.

In New York at the United Nations and in Washington, where a high-level delegation of six Arab states or entities held meetings with U.S. leaders, calls for a cease-fire sounded louder than ever on Friday, leaving the U.S. standing all but alone in its opposition.

That despite what U.S. officials now acknowledge is Israel’s reticence to heed repeated pleas from President Biden and others in his administration to minimize civilian casualties as Israeli tanks, troops and air power pound parts of southern Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians fleeing the north have taken precarious refuge.

In his most direct public criticism of Israel to date, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said there was a “gap” between what Israel pledged to do and its actions in southern Gaza, which have steadily increased the death toll.

“As we stand here almost a week into this campaign into the south, ... it remains imperative that Israel put a premium on civilian protection,” Blinken said Thursday. “And there does remain a gap between … the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground.”

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Blinken has made four trips to Israel since the Oct. 7 attacks that Hamas militants inflicted on southern Israel, killing around 1,200 mostly civilians, kidnapping another 250 and committing torture and other atrocities, according to Israeli officials.

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Israel’s retaliation, with the stated goal of destroying Hamas, has leveled entire neighborhoods and killed more than 17,700 Palestinians, nearly three-quarters of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel said 97 of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting, Israel says.

Despite his intense and often rancorous talks with Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials, Blinken has been able to eke out only limited concessions. These have included the entry of some food, water and small amounts of fuel into the besieged Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials also agreed to a brief humanitarian pause — not a cease-fire, which Israel maintains Hamas would use to regroup — and for a week, fighting stopped, aid entered and 100 hostages were freed. But it collapsed Dec. 1, with each side accusing the other of violating the agreement. The U.S. blames Hamas, saying it refused to release a last group of mostly young female hostages.

Blinken’s most recent ask of the Israelis, delivered during meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week, was that the devastation of the northern section of Gaza not be repeated with the offensive in the south, and that Israel fulfill the requirement of international law to take better precautions to avoid civilian casualties.

His comments coincided with similar statements made by Vice President Kamala Harris in Dubai and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who warned that the killing of civilians only feeds militant groups.

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Biden telephoned Netanyahu on Thursday and “stressed that much more assistance was urgently required” in the Gaza Strip. He “emphasized the critical need to protect civilians” and separate them from Hamas through escape corridors and other means, the White House said.

Israel and the U.S. also disagree on the ultimate goal of the war. Israel wants to eradicate Hamas, a task some experts believe to be impossible, and Washington advocates removing Hamas as a governing force in the Gaza Strip so that it no longer poses a threat. The U.S. government also insists that any permanent resolution must include an independent, sovereign state for the Palestinians, which Netanyahu and many in his right-wing government reject.

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At the U.N. on Friday, the United Arab Emirates presented a resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza. The move came a day after U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres invoked a rarely used power by which he could convene the Security Council over an issue considered a threat to global peace. Israel objected, saying Guterres was taking the side of Hamas.

“There is no effective protection of civilians,” Guterres told the Security Council on Friday. “The people of Gaza are being told to move like human pinballs — ricocheting between ever-smaller slivers of the south, without any of the basics for survival. But nowhere in Gaza is safe.”

Thirteen countries in the 15-member body approved the measure, while Britain abstained. But the U.S. vetoed it.

“It’s not an issue about isolation,” Robert Wood, deputy U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told reporters. “We can’t just snap our fingers and the conflict stops.”

In Washington, foreign ministers from countries belonging to the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation met with Blinken and other senior officials to again drive home their demand for a cease-fire and opposition to Israel’s actions.

Already “Israel has suffered a strategic defeat,” Ayman Safadi, the foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, said in a conference at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington. “Israel is defying the whole world, even the United States.

“And the United States,” Safadi added, “has not come to the right degree of saying, ‘Enough!’”

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Jordan is a close ally of the United States and, until recently, one of only two countries in the Arab world that recognized Israel. Many such ties are now strained and may never return to their past cordiality.

Both Israel and the United States say preserving civilian life in Gaza is complicated because Hamas operates from inside neighborhoods and public institutions.

The Biden administration has fully endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself, but has added nuance to that message as the war drags on.

The question is how long Biden and his advisors can straddle the differences, particularly as not only Arab opposition grows, but so does domestic protest.

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