Menu Close
Two men sit facing each other and extend their hands toward each other. They sit in front of Israeli and U.S. flags.
President Joe Biden greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York City in September 2023. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Biden steps up pressure on Israel − using the key levers available against an ally with strong domestic support

The fraying relationship between the U.S. and Israel over the latter country’s conduct of its war in Gaza got even worse on April 4, 2024, several days after Israel killed seven aid workers in a drone strike. President Joe Biden spoke to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and warned him that the U.S. would put conditions on future support for Israel based on how Israel addresses concerns about civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel must permit more food and other supplies into Gaza, the president said, and agree to an immediate cease-fire.

The Conversation’s senior politics and democracy editor, Naomi Schalit, spoke with American University foreign policy scholar Jordan Tama about the extraordinary threat Biden made to Netanyahu, whose country is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II.

What do you see happening here?

Biden’s threat to set conditions on support for Israel based on Israel’s behavior in Gaza is a very important step. Clearly the threat got through to Netanyahu, because he immediately took a series of steps designed to try to address the U.S. concerns, from committing to opening aid corridors into Gaza to disciplining military officers associated with the deaths of the aid workers, although there has been no word on progress toward a cease-fire. Netanyahu certainly doesn’t want to lose U.S. support.

At the same time, Netanyahu has a history of taking some superficial actions and making statements designed to placate the U.S. without necessarily following through. Or in some cases, he has taken a step or made a statement and then taken another action that undermines that first step and exacerbates the U.S. concern.

The Biden administration is going to need to monitor in a very concrete and close-up way what Israel is actually doing with allowing aid into Gaza and how it uses military force in Gaza. There are going to be bumps in the road and continuing questions about what Israel is actually doing and whether it’s actually meeting U.S. concerns.

The wreckage of a vehicle that has been bombed and burned.
A vehicle in which employees from the World Central Kitchen were killed in an Israeli drone attack in Gaza on April 2, 2024. Yasser Qudihe/Middle East Images via AFP

The White House summary of the discussion between Biden and Netanyahu referred to “specific, concrete, and measurable steps” that Biden wanted Israel to take. But there weren’t any specific details of those steps. Why?

Most likely, Biden was more specific than the publicly released summary was. But it would make a lot of sense for Biden to be conveying a threat at a relatively broad level and then Secretary of State Antony Blinken or other U.S. officials to be getting much more concrete and fine-grained in their conversations with the Israelis.

It’s not necessarily advantageous for the U.S. at the presidential level to lay out benchmarks that are so specific. That then boxes in the U.S. Events can evolve, and you want the president to have some leeway in what steps he’s going to take next.

But you need specificity in order for the threat to take hold and for the Israelis to realize, “We really need to do X, Y and Z in order for the U.S. to be satisfied.”

It’s really politics to do it this way, isn’t it? By not giving the specifics to the public, Biden’s avoiding a situation where he can be humiliated by Netanyahu.

I think that’s right. It’s important for the president to maintain the ability to adjust the expectations and benchmarks a bit based on future events. If the president just says, “We will stop aid to Israel if Israel does not allow X number of trucks into Gaza,” well, maybe Gaza will need a different number of trucks two weeks from now than it does now.

So you want to set out the principle that the U.S. cares a great deal about aid getting into Gaza. If Israel doesn’t allow sufficient aid into Gaza, we are going to restrict our support and we are going to continue to monitor conditions on the ground.

What are the U.S. options for ensuring that Israel deals substantively with the humanitarian crisis and works in good faith toward ending the war?

Military aid is not the only kind of support the U.S. offers or can offer to Israel. It’s not the only thing that Israel cares about. But military aid is certainly very important. So one major way that the U.S. can condition support for Israel is by threatening to withhold military aid. And that has gradations, too. It can be restricting certain kinds of military aid that are likely to be used in Gaza and most likely to cause civilian harm there.

It can also mean delaying the delivery of aid as a further threat before you entirely cut it off. So there are different levers that can be pulled. But there’s also diplomatic support. For instance, the U.S. has often helped protect Israel at the U.N. Security Council by vetoing resolutions that are critical of Israel. Recently, the U.S. only abstained rather than vetoing an important resolution. The U.S. can abstain or even support future resolutions that would put more international diplomatic pressure on Israel.

Public statements by the president are also important. So if Israel engages in further actions that the U.S. considers contrary to its goals, or harmful to civilian welfare in Gaza, the Biden administration or Biden can issue harsher public statements critical of Israel.

There’s even a forceful lever of imposing sanctions on certain Israelis, as the U.S. has done with a group of Israeli settlers who had committed violence in the West Bank. There’s the possibility that the U.S. could impose sanctions on other Israelis based on conduct such as human rights violations.

A large crowd of people stand near the US Capitol and hold Israeli flags that are white with blue stars.
People gather for a ‘Stand with Israel’ rally in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13, 2023. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Is there a history of the U.S. making this kind of threat to other countries to withhold support?

Yes. Recently, the U.S. threatened to withhold military aid to Turkey if Turkey did not support Sweden’s accession to NATO, which seemed to induce Turkey to agree to Sweden joining NATO. A few years earlier, the U.S. was threatening to withhold support for Turkey if it purchased some weapons systems from Russia. The U.S. said “No, you’re a member of NATO, you need to rely on U.S. weapons systems.” The U.S. threatened to withhold support for Pakistan at times in recent decades, based on the extent to which Pakistan was supporting U.S. counterterrorism goals in South Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan with regard to the Taliban throughout the post-9/11 years.

This is actually a very common story in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has, and has had, many allies who are imperfect, just as the U.S. is. So this often raises this question of whether the U.S. should restrict support for them.

But none of these countries had the domestic support in the U.S. that Israel does.

That’s true. So this has a higher profile. It makes it more difficult for a president to threaten to withhold support. And it also means it gets a lot of attention when it happens. The amount of attention given to this action by Biden greatly outweighs the amount of attention given to U.S. relations with Turkey or Pakistan.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,700 academics and researchers from 4,983 institutions.

Register now