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Does the U.S. have the power and leverage to stop the Israel-Hamas war?


In his State of the Union address last night, President Biden noted the dire situation in Gaza.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of whom are not Hamas - thousands and thousands of innocents, women and children, girls and boys also orphaned. Nearly 2 million more Palestinians under bombardment or displacement, homes destroyed, neighbors in rubble, cities in ruin, families without food, water, medicine - it's heartbreaking.

MARTÍNEZ: Biden faces increasing pressure from voters and some Democrats in Congress to do more to end the war. But what power and leverage does the United States actually have with Israel to stop the war completely? We reached out to Shibley Telhami to find out. He's the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

So there's a seemingly common refrain that if President Biden wanted to end the Israel-Hamas war, he could simply just do it with a phone call. Is it really that simple? Could he do it with this war with one phone call?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Let's put aside for a minute American domestic politics, which are a huge part of any equation for a president, for sure. But if you put that aside, suspend that for a minute, yes, the president of the United States can make a call, and in pretty short order, I think the Israelis would follow through if, in fact, he conditions aid to Israel. There is no question that even in the - certainly in the short term, that Israel is highly dependent on the United States. This was clear in this war. Israel has the top cutting-edge technology that it needs to have an edge over all its opponents, enemies in the Middle East, thanks to the United States, but more importantly, in the United Nations, the United States obviously protects Israel against actions that could be consequential, especially in the Security Council, where the U.S. has been vetoing multiple resolutions, even cease-fire resolutions.

So in this particular case, though, during the war, just keep in mind the following - number one, even despite the fact that Israel has the most powerful military in the Middle East, it has needed immediate supplies from the U.S., you know, so much so that the State Department had to bypass congressional approval to get there. And the U.S. dispatched, you know, aircraft carriers in the region to make sure that other parties don't enter the fight in a way that would make it impossible for the Israelis to fight on multiple fronts. So there's no question that the U.S. wields enormous power, if it really decided to, in fact, exercise that power.

MARTÍNEZ: So you mentioned earlier, in order for this scenario to work for a president to make that one phone call to end something like this, that we would have to put political pressures internally in the U.S. aside. So let's put them back in for a second. So what are those pressures or considerations that would prevent a president from making that kind of phone call?

TELHAMI: Well, there are two layers of pressure. The immediate pressure is congressional. And in general, Israel has had quite a bit of support in Congress, certainly among Republicans, where support is extremely strong, but also among Democrats. So Democrats are divided on the question of Israel, increasingly so, including in Congress, for sure. But still, I think Israeli prime ministers - like Benjamin Netanyahu's been at it for many, many years - have understood that Israel has direct leverage and that a lot of the support in Congress could put pressure on the president to not go through with any threat, especially given that this particular president right now is in the middle of a very difficult presidential campaign. So, sure, that layer is very strong.

MARTÍNEZ: How much support does Israel need from the United States to have their military function? Could the war continue if aid from the U.S. was cut off?

TELHAMI: Oh, no question, it can't - not on the same - in the same way, in the same scale. Again, there are two indicators of that. The one indicator is the need for even munitions in the middle of the war to carry out the certain operations the Israelis were carrying out, the need for American protection with the Navy to prevent expansion of the war where Israel could fight multiple fronts and the need to prevent certain U.N. resolutions that would tie Israel's hands further. So all of these obviously indicate that Israel would suffer dramatically and its military options would be more limited if, in fact, the U.S. stopped support. But theoretically, you know, Israel is a strong country militarily, has its own military industry, has a very well-trained military and certainly could fight, but not on the same scale, not in the same way, not with the same objectives.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. Professor, thanks.

TELHAMI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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