When President Biden stepped to the microphone in the East Room on Monday, he wasn’t there to talk about the rising casualties in the conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. He wasn’t there to talk about ways his Administration was working behind the scenes with Egypt and Qatar to broker a ceasefire. Instead, he did what he’s been trying to do for a week as violence in the Middle East has surged and calls for more U.S. involvement have grown louder: stay on message.
For 16 minutes he talked about how he’s handling the pandemic (rates are down in 50 states), his efforts to jumpstart the economy (sending tax cut checks to families with children), and working on sharing vaccines with countries that need it.
But as Biden turned to leave, a reporter asked the inevitable question: Will he insist on a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas? Biden came back to the microphone, but didn’t say much. “I’ll be speaking with the Prime Minister in an hour, and I’ll be able to talk to you after that,” Biden said, referring to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and walked out of the ballroom. He wasn’t seen in public for the rest of the afternoon.
Hours later, the White House press office released a terse statement about Biden’s call with Netanyahu. The penultimate sentence read that Biden had “expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed U.S. engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end.” Netanyahu’s office had a starkly different description from the exchange, telling reporters that Netanyahu planned to continue the destruction of Hamas military sites in Gaza.
It was the biggest break yet with the Israeli government since the fighting began eight days ago following an Israeli court case that could have evicted hundreds of Palestinians from their Jerusalem homes in Sheikh Jarrah. The court ruling was delayed, but the fighting has escalated into bombing and rocket barrages not seen in seven years. It has pushed the intractable and emotionally fraught Israel-Palestine conflict to the forefront of the global agenda, creating a headache for a new administration that has made clear that the region is not their top priority.
So far, the administration has, for the most part, hewed to the standard rhetoric of its predecessors, repeatedly asserting that Israel has a right to defend itself. Biden has yet to make a forceful public statement or insert himself openly into the fray, relying instead on what White House officials describe as “quiet, intensive diplomacy.” Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other administration officials have held over 60 calls with leaders in the region, including Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, according to administration officials, and while they have condemned the hundreds of people killed and injured and children being pulled from the rubble in Gaza, they have declined to say if they deem Israel’s response proportional to Hamas’ attack.
On the surface, there are plenty of reasons for Biden to want to break with Netanyahu. The two have known each other for more than three decades, going back to when Biden was a powerful senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Netanyahu was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York. Biden’s said he once inscribed a photograph to Netanyahu, writing: “Bibi I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you.”
It was during Biden’s time as Vice President when his relationship with Netanyahu came under moreserious strain. As Biden’s plane landed in Israel in 2010, Netanyahu tainted Biden’s trip by moving forward with new settlements in thePalestinian territories. Biden was there to assure Israel’s leadership that President Barack Obama was committed to Israel’s security. As Biden landed, Israeli officials announced 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran further frayed U.S.-Israel relations. Netanyahu criticized the deal and when he spoke about it to a joint session of Congress, Biden skipped the speech.
Netanyahu, for his part, has had generally tense relationships with most of the American presidents he’s worked with. And in the last decade, critiques of Israel’s expansion have become more mainstream as Netanyahu approved construction for hundreds of homes in the West Bank and implemented controversial legislation like the “Nation-State law,” proclaiming that Israel was solely the land of the Jewish people. In Washington, much of that criticism has emanated from the progressive wing of the Democratic party, exacerbated by Trump’s full-throated support for Israel.
But as President, Biden has not openly criticized Netanyahu’s actions, resisting pressure from progressive Democrats. “The U.S. must acknowledge its role in the human rights violations of Palestinians. This isn’t about both sides. It’s about an imbalance of power,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on May 13. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders expressed similar sentiments in a New York Times op-ed.
In doing so, Biden is merely maintaining a 73-year-old status quo. Ever since the United Nations declared Israel a state in 1948, U.S. criticism of the state has for the most part been relatively muted, and the billions of dollars provided in assistance rarely questioned. Even when relations between Obama and Netanyahu reached a nadir, criticism Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation was nowhere near the outrage currently unfolding.
The Biden Administration genuinely believes Israel has a right to defend itself from some 3,000 unguided missiles that have come from Gaza since May 10, which are by their very nature indiscriminate and designed to kill Israeli civilians. Eleven people living in Israel have been killed by rockets so far, according to the Israeli government. The majority of the rockets lodged by Hamas have been intercepted by the Iron Dome, the defense system that stops the rockets mid-air, or the death toll would arguably be far higher. In Gaza, Israeli munitions have killed more than 200 people.
“President Biden for more than 40 years has considered himself to be a close friend of Israel,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies. He “takes Israeli security very seriously.”
For now, Biden has determined it is in the U.S. interest to not publicly come out against Netanyahu, and to let the Israeli government continue to strike against Hamas as long as rockets are careening into Israel. “The whole perception is essentially ‘Biden knows what Netanyahu’s timeline is and he’s decided to give him time and space to continue their campaign against Hamas,’” says Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and adviser. The danger, Millers says, is that the conflict could spin out of either side’s control.
The longer the retaliatory barrages continue, and the deaths continue to mount, the harder it will be for Biden to stay out of it.
Some Democrats have been pleased with Biden’s response so far. They say Biden’s view of the conflict through a national security prism—and not a political one— is a welcome break from his predecessor. “Under Donald Trump, there was a misconception that he was supportive of Israel,” says Halie Soifer who advised Vice President Kamala Harris on national security in the Senate and is now CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. In fact, Trump, “politicized the U.S.-Israel relationship while recklessly neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
That dynamic has changed with this White House, Soifer says. “This is not a political calculation…. It’s a policy being determined by our national security interest.”
—With reporting by Alana Abramson