To deter a full-scale assault on the Palestinian city of Rafah, the U.S. has provisionally halted the shipment of 3,500 large munitions to Israel. About a million Palestinians displaced by the conflict had been sheltering in Rafah, according to the United Nations, when the Israeli military began moving in. And for some time prior, the U.S. administration had been questioning Israel’s plans to take control of the city—the last remaining district of Gaza outside Israeli control—as Washington feared the bombs would add too many more civilian deaths to the roughly 35,000 Palestinians the Gaza Health Ministry estimates have been killed in the conflict so far.

Meanwhile, the relationship between U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been deteriorating for months, with the Americans repeatedly asking for greater military restraint in Gaza and the Israelis repeatedly ignoring them. In March, Biden publicly endorsed a speech by the U.S. Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, that referred to Netanyahu as an “obstacle to peace.” And in both houses of the U.S. Congress, more and more Democrats have called for the Biden administration to stop or put conditions on military assistance to Netanyahu’s government, amid widespread political pressure over the war.

Where is this all going?

Steven Cook is a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the new book, The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East. In Cook’s view, the current tensions between the U.S. and Israel may be flaring, but they aren’t fleeting; they represent a long-term shift in their relationship’s politics in both countries—and a critical test of Washington’s global power.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. has transferred more than US$3 billion annually in military assistance to Israel, giving the Americans what should be significant leverage over their much smaller partner. This isn’t the first time a U.S. president has tried to influence Israeli behavior by withholding weapons, Cook points out, but it may be the least effective. Since the Americans announced the pause in weapons shipments, the Israelis have only intensified operation in Rafah—making it Biden’s move.

Michael Bluhm: How do you understand Biden’s decision to withhold these weapons?

USAF Staff Sgt. Jasmonet Holmes

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