As US resists ceasefire calls, what is Biden’s endgame in Gaza?

The Biden administration says it is pushing to avoid regional escalation while fully backing Israel’s bombing campaign.

Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023.
US President Joe Biden embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Tel Aviv on October 18 [File: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Washington, DC – The United States is firmly resisting calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, but as the war rages on — killing thousands and risking an all-out regional conflict — questions are arising over its aims in backing the Israeli offensive.

US President Joe Biden has pledged unconditional support for Israel while warning against an expansion of the conflict, two goals that experts have said amount to competing priorities.

“Not only are they at odds with each other, but the higher priority of the administration appears to be supporting Israel, rather than making sure that there is no dangerous escalation,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute, a think tank that promotes diplomacy.

US officials said they are asking Israel “tough” questions about its military operation in Gaza, including what the war’s long-term objectives are. However, Washington’s own endgame remains largely undefined.

The White House has repeatedly denied any “intention to put US boots on the ground”. But the US is nevertheless bolstering its military presence in the region, and according to recent media reports, the Pentagon has sent advisers to help Israel plan its looming ground invasion of Gaza.

And despite Biden’s stated desire not to see the conflict expand, there are indications that it may still. There have been frequent clashes between Israel and the armed group Hezbollah in Lebanon, and US troops in the region have suffered targeted — albeit limited — attacks blamed on Iran-allied groups in recent days.

While these skirmishes remain contained, analysts warned that they could quickly escalate by design or miscalculation.

No clear objectives

So what is the US plan beyond enabling the Israeli military campaign logistically with military aid and politically with diplomatic cover at international forums?

“There does not appear to be a clear endgame from the Biden administration,” Parsi said. “When it comes to this strategic image, it’s very difficult to be able to discern a clear strategy that actually would have the desired results.”

The conflict began on October 7, when the Palestinian group Hamas launched a surprise attack against Israel from Gaza. More than 1,400 people were killed, and dozens were taken captive.

Israel responded with a declaration of war the following day. It has since led a continuing bombing campaign that has killed more than 6,500 Palestinians in Gaza.

Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based rights group, said it appears that the Biden administration has not “formulated” a clear objective despite fully backing Israel’s war in Gaza.

Biden has called for eliminating Hamas, but Shapiro said military efforts to root out the group are unlikely to succeed.

“So for them to be launching this kind of open-ended, unclear mission with a big named goal in mind that bears no resemblance to reality just seems [like] folly,” he said.

“And I’m sure it’s going to come back eventually to harm American interests in the long term.”

Even more unclear, Shapiro added, is the fate of Gaza after a prospective Israeli ground invasion.

Biden has voiced opposition to re-establishing a permanent Israeli presence inside the besieged Palestinian territory, as it had in the past. From 1967 until 2005, thousands of Israeli ground troops were stationed there.

Brian Finucane, senior adviser for the US programme at the Crisis Group think tank, drew a parallel between the ambiguity of Israel’s endgame in Gaza and questions about US strategy.

“The US objective in supporting Israel is undefined to some extent because Israel’s own objectives in Gaza are undefined,” Finucane told Al Jazeera.

He added that even if Israel topples Hamas, it has not articulated what might replace the Palestinian group, which currently governs Gaza.

Finucane also said “there appears to be some tension” between Washington’s support for Israel and its push to avoid a wider conflict. If the Biden administration is unsuccessful in deterring Iran and its allies from widening the conflict, a larger, regional war could end up involving US forces.

“And that should give policymakers in the Biden administration real pause. They should consider taking the advice they’re offering to the Israelis themselves: Think through how is it going to play out,” Finucane told Al Jazeera.

“What is the US endgame if we were to — God forbid — get into an armed conflict with Hezbollah, or a deepening conflict with Iran-back groups that are targeting US forces in Iraq and Syria with drones?”

Palestinians recover a body from the rubble of the destroyed Al Shawa family house following an airstrike in Gaza
Palestinians recover a body from the rubble of the destroyed al-Shawa family house following an Israeli attack in Gaza on October 25 [Mohammed Saber/EPA]

‘Negative consequences’

After the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for restraint in any future military endeavours, reflecting wider public fatigue towards overseas conflict.

But Finucane said the “atrocities” of Hamas’s attack on October 7 “have shifted the conversation” in Washington.

Shibley Telhami, a professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, said neither the US nor Iran seem interested in a broader military confrontation.

“However, they all could be dragged into this by some miscalculation or huge expansion of the war in Gaza,” Telhami said.

He stressed that the US should not blindly back Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war efforts, as that stance might trigger direct American engagement in the conflict.

“You cannot leave that in the hands of an extremist Israeli government, whose ministers are known to have views that are both at odds with American interests and at odds with American values,” Telhami told Al Jazeera earlier this month.

Parsi, of the Quincy Institute, also stressed that attempts to deter Iran from joining the fray could prove to be unsuccessful without applying pressure to Israel as well to show restraint.

“It will very well lead to the very nightmare scenario I think the Biden administration wants to avoid,” he said.

For now, the Biden administration is allowing Israel to carry out its intense bombing campaign, which has wiped out entire families in Gaza, according to Amnesty International. US officials have ruled out even discussing a ceasefire, saying that those conversations would ultimately benefit Hamas.

Washington is also preparing a $14bn aid package for Israel, including billions in military assistance.

Jon Hoffman, a foreign policy analyst at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank, connected the current US policy to its broader approach in the Middle East.

“I don’t know the Biden administration has a clear objective here besides praying this doesn’t spiral into a broader regional conflict,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It should be clear from the past several decades that continuing to throw money, weapons and military assets at the region often has negative consequences.”

Source: Al Jazeera