Biden calls for cease-fire in Israel-Hamas fighting as pressure mounts to halt violence
By Anne Gearan, John Hudson and Sean Sullivan,
President Biden on Monday called for a cease-fire to end a week of fierce fighting between Israel and Hamas militants, urging both sides to “protect innocent civilians” in a statement that amounted to a subtle rebuke of the Israeli government, a close ally of the United States.
Biden “reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks” during a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the White House said. But in adding that Biden “expressed support for a cease-fire,” the administration went further than previous accounts of U.S. interactions with Israeli officials in describing the closed-door diplomacy and suggesting a private push.
Even as pressure mounted from fellow Democrats and others urging a cease-fire, Biden administration officials had stopped short of joining their calls until Biden spoke to Netanyahu and then issued a carefully worded statement afterward.
On the whole, the comments from Biden and his top advisers reflected their determination to cautiously navigate the ongoing conflict. The administration had declined to weigh in earlier Monday on whether Israel’s military assault against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip is proportionate to the risk posed by Hamas rocket fire, as behind-the-scenes efforts to bring conflict to a close continued.
Biden’s conversation with Netanyahu was their third since the deadly exchanges began, amid rising political pressure in the United States to do more to rein in Israeli airstrikes that have killed over 200 Palestinians in Gaza.
The death toll among Israelis from rocket fire and rising Israeli-Palestinian violence stood at 10, and at least 15 Palestinians have died in clashes in the West Bank.
Pressed during her daily press briefing on whether Biden still believes Israel’s military response has been proportionate, White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to answer directly.
“We’re not going to give a day-by-day evaluation,” said Psaki, who stressed the concerns that Biden communicated in weekend phone calls to Israeli and Palestinian leaders about lives lost on both sides of the conflict.
Biden and other U.S. officials have repeatedly endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks, which target Israeli towns and cities indiscriminately.
“The role we are playing, the action, the prism we are making all of our decisions through is how can we help bring an end to the violence and bring an end to de-escalate the situation on the ground,” Psaki said. “And our calculation at this point is that having those conversations behind the scenes, weighing in with our important strategic partnership we have with Israel, also with other countries in the region, is the most constructive approach we can take. So our approach is through quiet, intensive diplomacy, and that’s where we feel we can be most effective.”
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The muted tone reflects a decision by the Biden administration that heavy public pressure on Israel is likely to backfire. Multiple U.S. officials are applying some pressure and offering advice behind the scenes, with the goal of winding down the conflict, ideally within days.
It is not clear whether either Israel or Hamas would agree to a formal cease-fire, but U.S. and some Arab officials have signaled that a de facto agreement to end hostilities may suffice.
Egypt is a key go-between and had achieved some success last week in persuading Hamas to temporarily stop firing long-range rockets into Israel. The conflict has since escalated, however, and Israel appears to be following a pattern from past conflicts with Hamas, in which Israel attempts to quickly run down a list of Hamas targets before agreeing to pull back.
“The Israelis have a list of Hamas targets they want to hit, so they’re not open to a cease-fire” now, said one State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions.
One Western diplomat familiar with discussions said there is a “race-the-clock” aspect to the Israeli actions, with the clock being the buildup of international pressure to end active hostilities because of civilian loss of life. Israel maintains that Hamas intentionally endangers civilians by locating military targets among homes, schools and ordinary commercial buildings.
Pressure from the United States is often most persuasive, both from administration officials and from members of Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that he agrees with colleagues who put their names to a letter Sunday calling for an immediate cease-fire.
“I want to see a cease-fire reached quickly and mourn the loss of life,” Schumer told reporters.
Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and 28 Senate Democrats had called for a cease-fire, broadening the previous notes of criticism of Israel and the Biden administration’s response that came largely from liberal Democrats.
Young, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) joined a statement saying: “Israel has the right to defend itself from Hamas’ rocket attacks, in a manner proportionate with the threat its citizens are facing. . . . Both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further.”
Asked for her response to growing calls inside the Democratic Party for the United States to take a harder line against Israel, Psaki said political considerations must not be the primary focus.
“Our message is sometimes you have to step back from politics for a moment. It’s not easy to do,” Psaki said. “And we recognize and agree that watching the lives lost of these Palestinian children, of these families — the fear you see in the eyes of the Israeli people, it is heartbreaking.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken drew short of calling for a cease-fire or a statement at the U.N. Security Council on Monday.
“We are ready to lend support if the parties seek a cease-fire,” Blinken said at a news conference in Copenhagen as part of an unrelated tour of Nordic countries.
When asked why the United States would not sign on to efforts at the United Nations to advance a cease-fire, Blinken said, “We are not standing in the way of diplomacy.”
“The question is, will any given action, or any given statement, as a practical matter, end the violence?” he said. “If we think there’s something, including at the United Nations, that would advance that, we’d be for it.”
Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan both spoke with their Israeli counterparts on Monday.
Blinken “expressed deep concern at the inter-communal violence,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“The two discussed the path forward, and the Secretary noted that the United States would remain engaged with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other regional stakeholders as part of our diplomacy to ease tensions and put an end to the hostilities.”
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For days, the United States, a staunch protector of Israel at the United Nations, has blocked efforts by China, Tunisia and Norway to move the Security Council forward on a statement, including a call for a cessation of hostilities.
Blinken’s qualified support for a cease-fire — only if the parties themselves agree — has been interpreted as an accommodation of Israel’s goal to hit more Hamas targets. Israel also dislikes the term “cease-fire” because it could imply that Hamas is a legitimate government able to negotiate a formal agreement.
“It’s a pretty clear signal to Israel that it has time to finish the job on its terms,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. official who has advised both Republican and Democratic administrations on Middle East issues, said waiting on Hamas or Israel to endorse a cease-fire is a recipe for further violence.
“The longer this goes on the greater danger of a mass-casualty event either by errant Hamas rockets or Israeli air/artillery,” he said. “Biden is clearly giving Netanyahu the time and space and political support.”
“Clearly, Biden et al. have had conversations with Netanyahu about his timeline for ending this. And the IDF isn’t done yet,” he said, using the acronym for the Israel Defense Forces.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a leading voice in the region criticizing Israel’s conduct during the current conflict, on Monday condemned the Biden administration’s decision to approve new weapons sales to the Netanyahu government.
“You are writing history with your bloody hands in this incident, which seriously, disproportionately attacked Gaza and caused the martyrdom of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said after a cabinet meeting in Ankara, in comments that wildly inflated the death toll from Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza.
Hudson reported from Copenhagen. Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.