Two months into the war in Gaza, Washington continues to support Israel’s campaign against Hamas. While the Biden administration has worked to extend a temporary truce for hostage/prisoner exchanges, it remains opposed to a permanent ceasefire, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken says “would simply leave Hamas in place able to regroup.” Still, with over 17,000 Palestinians dead, a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, protests proliferating, and U.S. forces in the region increasingly being targeted by Iranian proxy militias, it’s unclear how long the administration will maintain its current position. If the past is prologue, the clock is ticking.
Israeli officials say it will take months to achieve its objectives in Gaza, an ambitious agenda that includes hostage release, the degradation of Hamas’ military infrastructure, and the end of its rule over the territory. Amid burgeoning international pressure to end the war, Washington has encouraged pauses in combat operations, not only to allow the return of Israeli hostages but to facilitate the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to Gazans. The belief is that increased aid will avert a humanitarian catastrophe, giving Israel more time to continue its campaign in the south. At the same time, the administration is warning Israel that if high Palestinian civilian casualties persist, it could bolster the popularity of Hamas, replacing, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put it, “a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
The Biden administration is taking a beating at home and abroad for its stance. In the aftermath of the brutal October 7 Hamas attack, however, Washington recognizes—in the words of Secretary Blinken—there cannot be “a reversion to the status quo.” Going forward, the challenge for Washington will be to sustain its support for Israeli military operations while preventing a regional war, avoiding diplomatic isolation, and further stressing regional partnerships. Squaring this circle will be no mean feat. In early November, France, which initially backed Israel’s campaign, called for a ceasefire. Yesterday, only the United States voted against a ceasefire resolution in the UN Security Council, with the United Kingdom abstaining.
While the situation today in Gaza is unprecedented, Washington has faced similar diplomatic challenges. In many ways, the U.S. position in the current crisis resembles what occurred during the 2006 war between Israel and another Iran-backed proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah. That July, shortly after Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier to Gaza, Hezbollah conducted an unprovoked cross-border raid, killing several IDF troops and capturing two, sparking a war.
Over the course of the thirty-four-day conflagration, Hezbollah fired over 4000 rockets into Israel, and Israel dropped an estimated 7000 bombs and missiles on Lebanon. The final days of the war culminated in a large-scale Israeli ground invasion of south Lebanon. Overall, nearly 160 Israelis and 1200 Lebanese were killed in the month-long fighting, which displaced half a million Israelis and a million Lebanese.
Like the current crisis in Gaza, international calls for a ceasefire started almost immediately after the war commenced. Days into the fighting, then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice resisted the international consensus. “A ceasefire would be a false promise,” she said, “if it simply returns us to the status quo.”
Still, as the war progressed and casualties in Lebanon mounted, diplomatic pressures spiked. As Rice recounted in her 2011 memoir No Higher Honor, “the international community was moving from despair at the humanitarian toll to the predictable stage of blaming Israel.” Weeks into the war, Rice reported that she met with then-Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz and told him that “time was running out” and that she “couldn’t hold the ground” and continue to oppose a ceasefire for much longer.
While Rice sought to end the war, she also recognized that absent the “right ceasefire terms,” Hezbollah would be “handed a victory for its aggression.” Ultimately, the terms secured by the Bush administration for the ceasefire were encompassed in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 (UNSCR 1701). The resolution enlarged the footprint (almost seven-fold) and the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)—peacekeepers stationed along the Israel-Lebanon frontier since 1978—and tasked the group to patrol south Lebanon and ensure that Hezbollah could not rearm. It was, according to Rice, an “imperfect solution,” but an arrangement that would stabilize the border. UNIFIL, she wrote, had been “a capable force in keeping the peace.”
The Bush administration was well-intentioned, but Rice’s confidence in UNIFIL was misplaced. UNIFIL proved feckless. It took five years, but Hezbollah succeeded in rebuilding and, since then, has dramatically upgraded its arsenal. Today, the threat along Israel’s northern border hasn’t reverted to the status quo of 2006; it is significantly worse.
To be sure, Israel underperformed during its 2006 campaign against Hezbollah. Not only was the IDF unprepared for the conflict—lacking sufficient intelligence, targets, and training for the mission—as Rice notes in her book, the Israelis “didn’t really have a firm grasp on their strategic objectives.” Consequently, although the Bush administration supported the Jewish State, it concluded that the continued combat would not improve Israel’s security and pulled the plug on the war.
As with the initial weeks of the 2006 war, until now, Washington has gone to extraordinary lengths to provide Israel with time to degrade Hamas’ capabilities and destroy its military assets in north Gaza. It’s not certain, however, that the Biden administration will continue to oppose a ceasefire—allowing Israel to move to the next, less intensive phase of operations in the south—especially if the hostage-prisoner exchange truce is extended. As the war drags on, the administration will be increasingly concerned with Palestinian civilian casualties, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the prospect that the conflict will widen. Concerns about the impact of eroding diplomatic capital for other priority U.S. agenda items like Ukraine and the potential implications for the 2024 presidential elections will also loom large.
For the time being, it appears the Biden Administration will persist in its support for Israel’s operations in Gaza. That’s largely because after October 7, Washington instinctively understood that Hamas had become a strategic problem for Israel. Absent a decisive setback for Hamas in this war, Hamas will emerge—like Hezbollah in 2006—with a “divine victory,” and Gaza will revert to the situation on October 6, with disastrous consequences for Israel’s deterrent posture and an unsustainable crisis of confidence in Israel over the state’s inability to defend its people.
Yet U.S. support for the campaign will not last indefinitely. Indeed, at this point, the administration’s continued forbearance will probably be measured in weeks rather than months. Regardless of when the Biden administration finally succumbs to pressure for a ceasefire, however, it should learn the lesson of 2006. UNSCR 1701 ended the war in Lebanon, but the resolution almost certainly guaranteed another, even more destructive, future Israel-Hezbollah conflagration. The takeaway from 2006 is that a bad ceasefire—a truce that leaves Hamas in place—will merely defer the next round of bloodletting.
David Schenker is the Taube Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Linda and Tony Rubin Program on Arab Politics. Confirmed by the Senate on June 5, 2019, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs through January 2021. In that capacity, he was the principal Middle East advisor to the secretary of state and the senior official overseeing the conduct of U.S. policy and diplomacy in a region stretching from Morocco to Iran to Yemen, with responsibility for eighteen countries, the Palestinian Authority, and Western Sahara.