As humanitarian conditions in Gaza have spiraled into catastrophe, the Biden administration has grown increasingly vocal about the need to protect Palestinian civilians and expand the flow of humanitarian aid. President Biden has raised such concerns directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu, as have Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior U.S. officials with their counterparts. But these efforts have done little to halt the human toll: Israeli bombardment has killed 20,000 Gazans (not counting those yet to be pulled from the rubble) and displaced well over one million people. With U.N. agencies now warning of looming famine and widespread disease among the population; a huge wave of secondary mortality is feared if the conflict continues. The Biden administration is publicly warning Israel that its southern offensive must do far more to protect civilians and enable aid access, as required by international law. But Netanyahu has not given these pleas any more heed in Gaza’s south than he did in the north. If the White House is serious about protecting Gaza’s civilians, they will need to do more than urge that Israel adhere to the law. They must make clear they will hold Israel accountable if it fails to do so – including placing real restrictions on U.S. support.

The Biden administration would do well to apply the lessons learned by the Obama administration (in which we both served) during its support for Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen. In an open letter that eerily parallels the current crisis in Gaza, many of the most senior officials now serving President Biden publicly acknowledged “the folly of unconditional support” for Saudi military operations in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

In a public letter after leaving government service, the currently serving Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Ambassador to the U.N., Director of National Intelligence, USAID Administrator, and numerous other leaders from Biden’s White House, State Department, and Pentagon all urged that the U.S. cut support for a war that had similarly spiraled into humanitarian catastrophe. The letter urged that U.S. support not be a “blank check” as civilian casualties rose in Yemen with no end in sight. It acknowledged that the Obama policy (which they had crafted) of maintaining U.S. military support while pressing for adherence to international humanitarian law (IHL) had failed – to devastating effect. And it condemned the Trump administration for pretending – over the objection of professionals in the State Department – that the Saudi coalition was sincerely working to reduce civilian harm when that was manifestly not the case.

Sadly, many of these same officials are repeating in Gaza the very errors they condemned in Yemen. Since the horrific October 7 attacks by Hamas that killed 1,200 people in Israel and captured 240 hostages, the Biden administration has sought to unwaveringly support Israel’s military campaign against Hamas. At the same time, the administration has increased its emphasis (albeit belatedly) on protection and humanitarian aid for Gaza’s civilians, in line with Israel’s obligations under international law. The President, Blinken, and other U.S. leaders now talk publicly about the importance of civilian protection, and are reputedly pushing even harder in private. There is clearly a deep unease with the IDF’s apparent disregard for civilian harm, exemplified by an IDF spokesperson comment that the military’s “emphasis is on damage, not accuracy.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Deputy Jon Finer have both declined multiple times to publicly affirm that Israel is conducting the war in compliance with international law.

U.S. officials have argued – as they did on Yemen – that maintaining U.S. support for the Israeli offensive will ensure greater leverage on civilian protection. However, U.S. concerns have not induced Israel to halt apparent violations, and show little prospect of doing so. The U.N. estimates that 45% of Gaza’s housing stock was damaged or destroyed in just the first month. Nearly 20,000 people have been killed, at a rate far faster than other recent conflicts. These deaths have included a shattering number of children and entire families. International aid groups are unable to safely operate. Israel’s “complete siege” on Gaza, in the words of the Defense Minister, continues to block the entry of most life-sustaining goods and services. None of these things indicate a serious attempt to conduct this operation in line with international law. This devastation in Gaza is raising Congressional concerns as well, with a large group of Senate Democrats pointedly questioning whether Israel’s rules of engagement measure up to U.S. standards for avoiding civilian harm – and what steps the administration will take to ensure Israel adheres to IHL.

The latter question is key, as so far the administration’s concerns have not prompted a public break with Netanyahu, or any serious reassessment of the scope of U.S. support for the war. Sustaining U.S. military support as a partner country disregards its law-of-war obligations poses both severe legal and reputational risks to the United States. But to date, the U.S. has not articulated consequences for Israel if these pleas continue to be ignored – instead it has maintained the kind of blank-check support that failed Yemen. As Israel has now shifted the weight of its military operation to Gaza’s south – after pushing one million Gazans there, purportedly for their own safety – and with no concrete sign of phasing down the war effort, Biden must move past quiet diplomacy.

The lessons of Yemen loom large. The Obama administration’s inability to steer the Saudis away from civilian harm suggest that if the U.S. is serious about protecting Palestinian civilians, the President will have to apply real leverage. In 2015-2016, the Obama administration harbored grave concerns about Saudi law-of-war violations in Yemen, but continued to supply bombs, refuel planes, and train pilots who were part of the Saudi and UAE-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthi militias. Echoing Biden’s approach with Israel today, the U.S. relied on quiet diplomacy rather than real U.S. leverage in order to steer the Saudi defense ministry (then led by newcomer Mohammed bin-Salman, in the honeymoon phase that preceded his murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi) toward respect for the laws of armed conflict and reduction of civilian harm.

The U.S relationship with Israel is different from the U.S.-Saudi relationship, particularly in terms of its resonance in domestic U.S. politics. But in both instances the U.S. was supporting an ally in combating a valid security threat, while strongly disagreeing with their tactics, and making little headway in translating that support into influence over the conduct of the operation.

This U.S. approach to the Saudi-led coalition failed, at great cost in Yemeni lives. Despite extensive quiet diplomacy and discreet legal advice on law-of-war adherence, the Saudi military continued to routinely and indiscriminately strike civilian targets. Between March 2015-August 2016, the UN estimated that 3,799 Yemeni civilians had been killed. Millions of people experienced hunger and malnutrition. Three million people were displaced. By the time of the former officials’ letter in November 2018, the civilian death toll exceeded 6,800.

Obama administration officials grew increasingly uncomfortable with being connected to the Saudis’ repetitive violations of the laws of armed conflict, not to mention the domestic and international condemnation that they engendered. The U.S. compiled humanitarian “no-strike lists” to protect humanitarian sites from airstrikes, then made these lists progressively more expansive as it became clear the Saudis considered any school, bridge, or other piece of infrastructure fair game if it was not specifically listed. But the violations continued. The dam finally broke for the Obama administration after a series of egregious strikes on civilian targets in the late summer and fall of 2016, culminating in “double-tap” airstrike on a large funeral in October 2016. Only then did the U.S. trigger a review of U.S. military support, leading to a decision to curtail U.S. support for the Saudi offensive. Sadly, President Trump reversed this decision soon after taking office.

The Yemen experience echoes the difficulty that Biden faces reconciling unqualified support for Israel’s military offensive with protecting Gazan civilians. The President’s strategy presumes – as Obama’s did – that Netanyahu can be sufficiently influenced by tough talk in private. But this approach during the northern Gaza offensive had little to show for it – Netanyahu appears to believe that this talk can be ignored without penalty. As the Obama administration likewise found in trying to constrain Saudi law-of-war violations in Yemen, quiet diplomacy won’t deliver as long as it remains de-linked from any prospect of real U.S. leverage.

Over two million Palestinians in Gaza have lived through two months of an unprecedented bombing campaign that has killed thousands, wiped out families, and leveled civilian infrastructure including entire neighborhoods. Gaza’s death toll in that time exceeds triple the toll Yemen reached in three years (in a territory with 30 million fewer people). With Israel’s effective blockade of food, water, and fuel remaining in place, the aid that has been allowed to enter is nowhere near sufficient to avert a humanitarian disaster.

The Biden administration has a choice to make. Netanyahu’s government has shown no signs of heeding U.S. concerns on civilian harm as long as the administration continues pushing forward with arms packages and providing global diplomatic cover – no matter what is conveyed to Israel privately. And while there have been modest improvements on humanitarian aid, these remains nowhere close to the scale required to truly change the humanitarian trajectory. Israel’s conduct of the war continues to produce a cataclysm for Gaza’s civilians. The U.S. needs to signal far more clearly that there are red lines on what it will tolerate, and tangible consequences if Netanyahu ignores those red lines.

Instead of deflecting questions about whether the IDF’s conduct is legal, U.S. officials should publicly convey their private concerns. They should announce that U.S. government lawyers and policymakers will hold Israel’s conduct to the same standards expected of any other country, and let the chips fall where they may (which they should be doing in any case to meet legal requirements for any new arms transfers). The administration should activate the IHL and human rights accountability frameworks embedded in U.S. security assistance mechanisms, including the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, the Civilian Harm Incident Response Guidance (CHIRG, focused on monitoring the use of U.S.-supplied weapons), applying the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP), and initiating Leahy Law review of individual IDF units involved in particularly questionable military decisions, such as the strikes on the Jabaliya refugee settlement. The administration should also maintain strict oversight to prevent any U.S. arms from being provided to settler groups in the West Bank. Finally, it should publicly demand an end to Israel’s siege tactics and aid blockages – which are overtly prohibited under international law.

These kinds of measures would be entirely consistent with existing U.S. legal obligations – and would send a much firmer message to Netanyahu that U.S. support is not a license to ignore international law. And if these measures do not produce a sufficient shift in Israeli military conduct, the administration needs to be prepared to hit pause on parts of the aid package.

Just as President Obama belatedly did with Yemen, it is time that the Biden administration rethink its approach toward the civilian protection and IHL in Gaza. The humanitarian, legal, and reputational cost of maintaining blanket public support for Israel’s military offensive is too high. If Prime Minister Netanyahu insists on ignoring the growing U.S. insistence on relieving suffering in Gaza, President Biden must be prepared to indicate that he is willing to reassess U.S. involvement. A blank check posture of support will not deliver.

IMAGE: Palestinian children stand in front of a pile of debris following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 21, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)