Since October, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been animated by a single goal: to contain the conflict in Gaza and prevent it from spiraling into a wider regional war. Recent events suggest that the American strategy is failing. Each day brings news of missile attacks and counter-strikes across an ever-widening zone of combat. Besides Hamas, the IDF is skirmishing with Hezbollah in northern Israel and Lebanon. Following deadly terrorist bombings by the Islamic State in early January, Iran fired missiles at alleged militant sites in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Pakistan, which retaliated with strikes that killed nine people. The United States has repeatedly struck installations in northern Yemen following Houthi attacks on shipping traffic in the Red Sea.
In statements about the strikes in Yemen—supported by a coalition of more than twenty countries—Biden-administration officials such as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have repeatedly insisted on the need for “de-escalation.” But ordering more bombings is an odd way to pursue that goal. Experts on the region confirm what common sense suggests: that bombing Yemen and re-sanctioning the Houthis as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” group will not only fail to stop their attacks on ships in the Red Sea but will further enhance Houthi legitimacy in the eyes of Yemeni citizens, who remember all too well the carnage inflicted by American bombs dropped by Saudi warplanes during Yemen’s civil war. President Biden seems at least partially aware of the futility of his administration’s current policy—pursued with neither congressional authorization nor clear criteria for ending the strikes. Asked by a reporter whether the airstrikes in Yemen were working, the president replied, “Well, when you say ‘working’—are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”
It’s hard to take seriously the Houthis’ claim that their actions in the Red Sea are meant only to pressure Israel and the United States to end the bloodshed in Gaza—there’s nothing better to distract from problems at home than clashing with a powerful, hated enemy abroad. Even so, the Biden administration should refrain from further rounds of attacks in Yemen and call the Houthis’ bluff by pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza. This would do far more than just expose the hollowness of Houthi “solidarity” with Palestinians. It would also help the United States restore its badly damaged global reputation as the enabler of Israel’s disastrous campaign in Gaza.
Even as Israel claims its war in Gaza is “winding down,” the humanitarian crisis there becomes more dire by the day. According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, as of mid-January more than twenty-five thousand Palestinians have been killed, nearly half of them children. Of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million, more than 1.9 million have been displaced, many forced to live in tent cities in the south. Gaza’s infrastructure has been reduced to rubble: according to the World Bank, the twenty-nine thousand munitions fired by Israel have damaged or destroyed 70 percent of homes, 77 percent of health facilities, 76 percent of commercial sites, 68 percent of telecommunications, half of all roads, and some 342 schools. The UN reports that Gaza has become “uninhabitable,” “a place of death and despair” where essentially the entire population faces crisis-level food insecurity and lacks electricity and access to safe drinking water. About 335,000 children under the age of five are at risk of severe malnutrition and stunting. Israel’s continued restrictions on aid trucks entering the Rafah gate along the Egyptian border put many Gazans at risk of dying from treatable medical conditions.
It is not unreasonable to ask whether Israel’s campaign in Gaza has involved serious war crimes. UN officials have raised alarms about the possibility of genocide since November; in January, Israel was forced to defend itself against formal charges brought by South Africa at the UN’s International Court of Justice in the Hague, which could order Israel to comply with provisional measures to cease hostilities and preserve evidence of possible genocide. Observers disagree over the strength of South Africa’s case. But the fact that Israel has taken pains to respond seriously to the charges indicates it is aware of how the world views its actions in Gaza. Whether that’s enough for it to change its behavior remains to be seen.
The party most directly able to influence Israel is the United States, which, with its unstinting support of the war, bears some of the blame for the catastrophe in Gaza. It is now long past time that the Biden administration and Congress use the United States’ considerable leverage to force a ceasefire and demand that Israel allow more humanitarian assistance into Gaza. Washington should also make it clear that Netanyahu’s repeated, very public rejections of the “two-state solution” are unacceptable and will have consequences. Measures to make Israeli military aid subject to congressional review, which senators Bernie Sanders, Chris Van Hollen, and Tim Kaine have proposed, would be a good start. What’s become clear since the Hamas attacks on October 7 is that security in the Middle East cannot be enforced with missiles or ceaseless bombing. The first step toward renewed peace is stern diplomacy—which until now the United States has lacked the courage to engage in.