A 48-hour extension to the Israel-Hamas truce will not pause the strategic dilemmas and political headaches wracking the Biden administration over the war.
Although the two extra days of hostage releases, the release of Palestinian prisoners and humanitarian aid pouring into Gaza validate an intense diplomatic effort in which the US is deeply involved, the situation remains delicate and a resumption of fighting ultimately seems likely.
— The most urgent question facing the White House is: Where are the Americans? Despite hopes that at least three US citizens would be released during the original four-day pause, only orphaned 4-year-old American-Israeli girl Abigail Edan came out of Gaza, to the deep disappointment of US officials.
— And while Israel is signaling it is open to another extension, it is also warning that an eventual resumption of its offensive against Hamas will be more intense than before the truce. That could cause more civilian casualties, like earlier in the war, which included bombing of civilian areas and sieges over Gaza hospitals. Any domestic political relief Biden enjoys during the pause, amid deep divisions in his Democratic Party ahead of next year’s election, is therefore unlikely to last long after air strikes begin again.
— There are also growing indications that Biden’s push for more than $14 billion in aid for Israel is running into even deeper uncertainty on Capitol Hill. The package has been caught up in controversies over a larger Ukraine aid package and US southern border security in a way that is underscoring how ungovernable domestic politics are now severely hampering Washington’s capacity to work its will abroad.
— While the administration’s stern warnings to its adversaries have so far helped contain the conflict, fears of regional escalation are not yet dimmed. The dangers for US personnel were underscored when American officials said Sunday that two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi rebel-controlled Yemen toward a US warship in the Gulf of Aden.
The missing Americans
US officials watched Hamas’ release of another 11 hostages on Monday – the final day of the original truce deal – especially carefully. They had hoped two American women who were abducted during the Hamas terror attacks on October 7 would be freed. But they did not emerge, leaving officials to pin their hopes on them being part of extended releases by Hamas over the next two days.
“It’s difficult to ascertain how they go about making up these lists,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday. “We certainly would hope in the next two days, in the next couple of installments, that we will see some Americans come out.”
Yehuda Beinin – whose daughter Liat Beinin, 49, is one of the two America women with dual Israeli citizenship – said that his family remained deeply worried for her and her husband Aviv Atzili, who is also believed to be a hostage. “We have no choice other than to remain hopeful,” he told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
Among the grave problems facing the administration is that it is still not certain how many Americans are being held in Gaza and whether all of those who Washington suspects are captive are still alive. “We think the number is less than 10, probably in the neighborhood of, you know, about eight to nine,” Kirby told reporters at a White House briefing. “But we don’t necessarily have firm, solid information on each and every one of them.”
Another complication is that 40 hostages are believed not to be held by Hamas but by other Palestinian militant groups, including Islamic Jihad, according to a diplomatic source, although it can’t be known for certain whether Americans are included among those.
A senior administration official said Monday that the White House does not believe “so far” that Hamas purposefully held back two American women who the US had hoped would be freed as part of Hamas’ release of 50 hostages over the four-day truce.
Hostage releases so far have concentrated on women and child captives and hopes are not high for the imminent release of young male hostages, who experts say will be viewed as a more valuable human currency by Hamas leaders as they seek to increase the price for hostage releases. Currently, the ratio stands at three Palestinians freed from Israeli jails in return for one captive from the October 7 attacks. Israel has also not released any males over the age of 18 years old. The possibility of a resumption of fighting if truces are not indefinitely extended is also creating deep uncertainty about the eventual fate of all the male hostages. Anxiety is especially acute for members of the Israeli armed forces who were captured.
Rachel Goldberg’s 23-year-old son, Hersh, was severely wounded and kidnapped by Hamas during its attack on the Nova Music festival. She told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday that none of the released hostages had been able to provide any intelligence about his whereabouts or condition. “We’re very, very worried. We feel like the clock is ticking, time is ticking,” Goldberg said. “Here is this extremely wounded young man, American civilian, and we’re worried like any parent would be.”
Security experts believe it’s likely that Hamas understands the potential increased leverage from holding onto US hostages. That includes the possibility they could lead to stepped up American pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend a pause that has given Hamas fighters time to regroup after relentless Israeli strikes and to dig in for a resumed operation that is still expected to unfold.
The return of lawmakers to Washington this week following the Thanksgiving break is likely to increase domestic heat on Biden to free Americans held captive in Gaza, especially from Republicans always looking to portray him as weak. “Apparently, Hamas is so contemptuous of President Biden and American power that they feel the imperative to release Filipinos and Thai hostages before they release American hostages,” GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said on Fox on Sunday.
When fighting begins again
While hostage releases and aid shipments into Gaza guaranteed under the original deal have offered blessed humanitarian relief to Palestinians, no one believes the truce will be permanent. US efforts to extend the pause are stepping up. Officials announced Monday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would head back to the region this week on a trip that includes stops in Dubai, the West Bank and Israel.
If fighting starts again, Israeli operations are likely to target areas including densely populated southern Hamas strongholds and teeming refugee camps, raising the likelihood of large civilian casualties and a consequent international backlash against Israel. Biden has already felt the political downside of such operations – internationally from US allies and domestically from key young, progressive and Muslim American voters he needs to show up in large numbers in next year’s election, and even, according to a Washington Post report, among his own staff. The likelihood therefore is that he’ll face a similar or even more intense political headache when the war begins again.
Biden has been isolated on this issue from many American and foreign leaders and officials that he would normally regard as political friends. That will raise the question of whether he will shift from his staunch refusal to call on Netanyahu to observe a permanent ceasefire – a move that would hurt Israel’s bid to crush Hamas.
Fears of escalation
Presidents rarely get credit for stopping disasters that don’t happen. But the Biden administration can claim vital success so far in ensuring that the conflict has not become a full regional war following its stern warnings to traditional adversaries and shows of military force – including the dispatch of two aircraft carrier groups to waters near Israel.
But while US foes like Iran have yet to dive into the conflict, and an escalation has so far been avoided, the administration must maintain constant vigilance.
In one sign of the risks, two ballistic missiles fell within 10 nautical miles of the USS Mason, a guided-missile destroyer in the Gulf of Aden that went to the aid of a tanker that came under attack from suspected Somali pirates, US officials said. The missiles were fired from areas controlled by Houthi rebels in Yemen, a Shia group backed in the past by Iran. Houthis have launched numerous attacks against US interests in the region, and Israel, since the October 7 Hamas assault. The USS Mason did not attempt to shoot down the missiles and the Pentagon has not said if the vessel was specifically targeted.
Mark Esper, who served as defense secretary in the Trump administration, warned against seeing the incident as a coincidence. “I don’t think the administration response has been sufficient with regards to attacks by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere,” Esper told CNN.
He added: “I know they are concerned — they fear that if they do too much it will escalate. My argument is just the opposite. If they don’t do enough, the attacks will continue, (and) at some point Americans will be killed and that’s when it will escalate.”