(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden’s advisers have insisted for months to allies at home and abroad that his embrace of Israel has resulted in the least bad outcome in the Gaza war by reining in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impulses and preventing even worse bloodshed.

That stance is coming under more scrutiny as harrowing scenes emerge from Gaza again and again. Last weekend, an Israeli airstrike at a refugee camp in Rafah killed 45 people, prompted fresh calls for Biden to cut off additional arms shipments and drew condemnation from US allies France and Germany. Samantha Power, Biden’s chief for humanitarian aid, said on Wednesday that Israel’s actions were having “catastrophic consequences.”

Netanyahu called the bombing a “tragic mistake,” and the administration said it would not prompt Biden to freeze additional arms shipments to Israel. 

Even as the pressure mounts, the White House has made clear it’s determined to push ahead with Biden’s policy of near-unconditional support for Israel. US officials argue that they have shaped Israel’s actions behind the scenes, tempering its desire for a full-scale invasion of Rafah or for choking off the Gaza Strip completely. Turning their backs on Israel, they argue, would only prompt its government and military to act with even less restraint. 

Biden’s policy “is hard to execute and harder to communicate,” said Mara Rudman, who held senior Middle East diplomatic roles in the Obama and Clinton administrations and is now a professor at the University of Virginia. She said the current course best preserves US interests in the region, and the president “has accurately judged the risks on shifting course is greater, and less likely to meet objectives.”

From the beginning, US officials have set their sights on securing a deal that could end the war and free the remaining hostages held by Hamas militants as part of broader US-led diplomatic initiative. That effort seeks to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia in exchange for creation of a Palestinian state that could lead to longer-term stability in the Middle East. Achieving that goal remains Biden’s chief focus.

“This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world,” Biden said in a graduation speech at Morehouse College on May 19, several days before the Rafah strike that killed the 45 civilians. “Leadership is about fighting through the most intractable problems.”

Even with renewed violence in Rafah, US officials maintain that Israel has avoided the type of large-scale military operation Biden and his advisers have warned against. They also say that despite high-profile mistakes involving civilian deaths, Washington’s support for Israel goes well beyond the immediate war to include broader regional and strategic concerns about Iran, which backs Hamas as well as Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

It’s a stance that has put the US increasingly at odds even with close allies such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who have made their criticism far more open. Other critics of Israel’s actions say Gaza’s displaced citizens are at risk of being forced out of the enclave altogether.

“The atrocious dilemma of whether Palestinians should exit Gaza — or not — is one that Israel has the clear responsibility to avoid,” Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told the Security Council Thursday. He said that a new wave of displacement “will only create one more intractable problem and make a solution to this decades-long conflict impossible to find.”

The risks for the Biden administration grow bigger the longer the conflict drags on, and Israel’s national security adviser is now warning the war could last another seven months, well past the US elections in November. 

Internal strife is also growing in Israel. The opposition National Unity party, headed by war-cabinet member Benny Gantz, has submitted a bill for the dissolution of parliament in a bid to force early elections and oust Netanyahu.


“World opinion is moving more starkly against Israel and creating a greater gap between the United States and its allies and partners,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “As the Biden administration tries to slowly move to a more critical view, much of world opinion is even more sharply hostile to Israeli actions.”

Attempts to deviate from the existing Israel policy haven’t yielded any diplomatic breakthroughs or political gains for Biden at home. Facing campus protests over Gaza and the potential for damaging protest votes from progressive Democrats in the election, the Biden administration halted a shipment of large bombs in an effort to pressure Israel into pursuing a more targeted approach in Rafah. 

But the move provoked a backlash from Republicans who accused Biden of abandoning Israel and Democrats who said Biden should go further and cut off all weapons shipments. In Israel, Netanyahu vowed to press ahead anyway and one of his far-right cabinet ministers tweeted that Biden at least pleased Hamas — the group that sparked the war on Oct. 7 by killing 1,200 and kidnapping 250 others from southern Israel. 

“It’s a very thin tightrope,” said Brian Katulis, a former US official now at the Middle East Institute. He said Biden is “trying to manage a very complicated situation, but not be overly ambitious about how much time, energy, and attention he personally pays to this.”

Similarly, after Biden ordered an investigation into whether Israel used US weapons in violation of international law, the final State Department report merely concluded that it was “reasonable to assess” Israel had violated international law, but couldn’t identify specific incidents — prompting anger and confusion, given many human rights groups with less resources than the US government have investigated particular violations.

“It’s been a flaw of this administration throughout that it tends to make decisions that go too far for those on its right flank, don’t go anywhere near far enough for those on its left flank and end up pleasing no one and therefore damaging its own political capital,” said Josh Paul, a former State Department official who resigned over the administration’s Israel policy. “We just seem to be giving more time and more rope to Netanyahu to continue this.”

--With assistance from Justin Sink, Courtney McBride and Augusta Saraiva.

(Updates with Netanyahu response to strike, in third paragraph.)

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