The US is facing a difficult balancing act when it comes to Israel

Members of the UN Security Council during discussions over a resolution on the Israel-Hamas war and the situation in Gaza  (Getty Images)
Members of the UN Security Council during discussions over a resolution on the Israel-Hamas war and the situation in Gaza (Getty Images)

The US has been Israel's staunchest ally when it comes to the war on Hamas. But as the civilian death toll in Gaza has spiralled, Washington has come to look increasingly isolated as international pressure has grown for a fresh ceasefire.

The White House has been clear that Israel has a right to defend itself following the 7 October attack by Hamas inside Israel that killed 1,200 and saw 240 people taken hostage into Gaza. Israel has been bombarding the territory from the air, as well as using ground military operations and a blockade that has left supplies of food, water, fuel and medical supplies running low. But the US stance has definitely shifted some – even if that core point has remained – in the wake of Israel extending ground operations into southern Gaza after a week-long truce ended last month. Health officials in Hamas-run Gaza say the death toll in the besieged Strip is nearly 20,000, with the UN laying out the horrific conditions residents face.

A number of nations, including the UK, have said that too many civilians have died, with the US pushing Israel for more precise targeting of Hamas saying it needs to protect civilians like it has said it will. In the same vein, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday that fears of a wider regional war in the Middle East would likely lessen if Israel transitions its military mission in Gaza to lower-intensity combat operations.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called for a sustainable ceasefire, while the 193-member UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire last week. That vote was 153-10, with 23 abstentions.

The US has blocked two resolutions brought by members of the 15-member UN Security Council, which unlike the General Assembly’s votes carry legally-binding language. The last vote was on 8 December for a resolution which carried similar wording to the text passed by the General Assembly. The draft resolution on the table Monday morning called for an "urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities," but this language was watered down in a second version circulated on Tuesday amid intense negotiations between the US and other members. The current resolution calls for “the urgent suspension of hostilities to allow safe and unhindered humanitarian access, and for urgent steps towards a sustainable cessation of hostilities."

The aim is to try and reach something that Washington can at least abstain on, allowing the resolution to be passed. The US has repeatedly called for condemnation of the Hamas attack to be made clear, but it seems the White House wants to take a harder line on other issues than those in the UN mission in New York. The word "cessation" seems to be one red line, while there is also concern about a clause putting the UN in charge of inspecting trucks to ensure they are actually carrying humanitarian goods. Israel is against any wording that challenges the current authority of Israeli units to inspect aid entering the territory.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, signs of a shifting US position emerged. Multiple votes on the proposed resolution were delayed as talks between the US ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and her international colleagues continued. Speculation that the US administration may abstain or support this latest version was further raised by a last-minute trip to Washington by the ambassador on Tuesday evening, where she met with President Biden.

The Independent has reached out to the State Department for a sense of the tone and tenor of the discussions, but the agency has yet to give any public indications of how the US delegation will vote.

"We continue to engage extensively and constructively with a number of countries to try to resolve some of the outstanding issues in this Security Council resolution," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

"We want to make sure that the resolution... doesn't do anything that could actually hurt the delivery of humanitarian assistance, make it more complicated. That's what we're focused on," Mr Blinken added. "I hope we can get to a good place."

The leader of Hamas made his first visit to Egypt for more than a month on Wednesday for talks on a possible new ceasefire and hostage releases, and there is clearly pressure building on Washington. Israel is said to be at the table for talks over hostages, with more than 100 captives still in Gaza after dozens were released by Hamas as part of the previous week-long truce.

The White House will have to balance its support of Israel while avoiding an appearance of being out of touch with the prevailing winds of international opinion. It is a tough balancing act, and the debate inside the UN Security Council, where discussions continue after a vote on a Gaza resolution has been postponed twice already, are an illustration of that.