Biden works to balance support for Israel as allies and the left push for restraint

Oct 22, 2023, 12:15 PM

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben G...

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden told a crowd of Democratic donors over the weekend about a decades-old photo he took with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an aside that seemed intended to illustrate his long support of Israel and track record of speaking bluntly with the conservative Israeli leader.

Biden said he’d written on the photo of himself as a young senator and Netanyahu as an embassy hand, “Bibi, I love you. I don’t agree with a damn thing you say.’” He told donors at a Friday night fundraiser that Netanyahu still keeps the photo on his desk and had brought it up during Biden’s lightning visit to Tel Aviv last week.

As expectations grow that Israel will soon launch a ground offensive aimed at rooting out Hamas militants who rule the Gaza Strip, Biden finds himself facing anew the difficult balancing act of demonstrating full-fledged support for America’s closest ally in the Middle East while trying to also press the Israelis to act with enough restraint to keep the war from spreading into a broader conflagration.

Biden has literally, and figuratively, wrapped Netanyahu in a warm embrace since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. He’s repeatedly promised to have Israel’s back as it aims to take out the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip and carried out the brutal attacks that killed 1,400 Israelis and captured more than 200 others.

But he also increasingly is paying greater public heed to the plight of Palestinians and the potential consequences of a hardline Israeli response.

White House officials say Biden, during his visit to Tel Aviv last week, asked Netanyahu “tough” questions about his strategy and the way forward. Biden himself told reporters on his way back from Israel that he had a “long talk” with Israeli officials “about what the alternatives are” to a possible extended ground operation. U.S. defense officials were also consulting with Israel on the matter.

“We’re going to make sure other hostile actors in the region know that Israel is stronger than ever and prevent this conflict from spreading,” Biden said Thursday in a nationally televised address on assisting Israel and Ukraine in their wars. “At the same time … Netanyahu and I discussed again yesterday the critical need for Israel to operate by the laws of war. That means protecting civilians in combat as best as they can.”

The pressure on Biden for a balanced approach comes from Arab leaders in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and beyond who have seen large protests erupt in their capitals over the crisis in Gaza. It also comes from European officials, who have expressed horror at the most brutal attack on Israeli soil in decades, but also underscored that the Israelis must abide by international and humanitarian law. Biden also faces scrutiny from people in the younger and more liberal wing of his Democratic Party, who are more divided over the Israel-Palestinian issue than the party’s centrist and older leaders.

Less than week into the war, dozens of lawmakers wrote to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging them to ensure the protection of Israeli and Palestinian civilians by calling for Israeli military operations to follow the rules of international humanitarian law, the safe return of hostages, and diplomatic efforts to ensure long-lasting peace. That was followed by more than a dozen lawmakers introducing a resolution urging the Biden administration to call for an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire.

Three members of the Democratic caucus — Reps. Delia Ramirez of Illinois, Summer Lee of Pennsylvania and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — wrote to Blinken last week about the “lack of meaningful information” about the status of U.S. civilians, particularly those in Gaza and the West Bank. The administration has said some 500 to 600 U.S. citizens may be in Gaza.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has suggested that the administration has demonstrated a double standard when it comes to valuing the lives of innocent Israelis and Gaza residents. Israel’s retaliatory bombing campaign has killed more than 4,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. Many of the victims are women and children.

“How do you look at one atrocity and say, ‘This is wrong,’ but you watch as bodies pile up as neighborhoods are leveled?” Omar asked at a news conference. “Israel has dropped more bombs in the last 10 days than we dropped in a whole year in Afghanistan. Where is your humanity? Where is your outrage? Where is your care for people?”

Inside the administration there has been debate over whether Biden is pursuing a policy too closely aligned to Israel’s.

Last week, at least one department official resigned, saying he could no longer support what he called a “one-sided” policy that favors Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

“I cannot work in support of a set of major policy decisions, including rushing more arms to one side of the conflict, that I believe to be short-sighted, destructive, unjust and contradictory to the very values that we publicly espouse,” Josh Paul, an 11-year veteran of the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, wrote in a statement posted to his LinkedIn account on Wednesday.

Other State Department officials have expressed similar concerns and some of them spoke at a series of internal discussions for employees that were held on Friday, according to people familiar with the events who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Many of those comments were angry and emotional, these people said.

Blinken sent a department-wide memo Thursday urging employees to remember the administration’s broader goals for equal justice and peace for both Israel and the Palestinians.

Biden administration officials, meanwhile, in their interactions with their Israeli counterparts have witnessed trauma — and rage — that is palpable.

The most significant announcement to come out of Biden’s visit to Israel this past week was getting Egypt and Israel to agree to allow a limited number of trucks carrying food, water, medicine and other essentials into Gaza via the Rafah border crossing

While the agreement to allow some aid into to Gaza appeared to be minor considering the enormity of the humanitarian crisis, U.S. officials said it represented a significant concession in the position Israel held before Blinken’s meeting with Netanyahu on Monday and Biden’s talks with the Israeli leader on Wednesday.

During the Blinken-Netanyahu talks, U.S. officials familiar with the discussions said they had become increasingly alarmed by comments from their Israeli counterparts about their intention to deny even supplies of water, electricity, fuel, food and medicine into Gaza, as well as the inevitability of civilian casualties.

Those comments, according to four U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, reflected intense anguish, anger and outright hostility toward all Palestinians in Gaza.

The officials said that members of the Israeli security and political establishment were absolutely opposed to the provision of any assistance to Gazans and argued that the eradication of Hamas would require methods used in the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II.

One official said that he and others had heard from Israeli counterparts that “a lot of innocent Germans died in WWII” and had been reminded of the massive deaths of Japanese civilians in the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Similarly, Biden and his top aides heard deep anguish from some of the high-ranking Israeli officials involved in the private talks, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

As he wrapped up his 7 1/2-hour visit to Tel Aviv, Biden compared the Oct. 7 assault to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people and he recalled the rage Americans felt and the desire for justice by many in the United States. He also urged the Israelis to remember American missteps after 9/11, an era that left the U.S. military ensconced in a 20-year war in Afghanistan.

“I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it,” he said. “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

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Biden works to balance support for Israel as allies and the left push for restraint