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Biden in a bind on Israel as US escalates pressure on Netanyahu

The killing of seven international aid workers providing food assistance to starving Gazans has put President Biden in a bind over his policy on Israel, even as the president seethed over what he called a lack of discretion to protect civilians.

Biden this week issued his sharpest tone yet toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning that U.S. policy as it relates to Gaza would now be determined by “immediate” steps Israel must take to mitigate an “unacceptable” humanitarian situation.

That did little to bridge the gulf growing between Biden and Netanyahu. Their rhetoric in recent weeks suggest growing strains between the two leaders, despite the U.S.’s insistence that their relationship is no different than it has been over several decades.  

The errant strike pushed the White House to a critical point and left it navigating a thorny diplomatic situation that has become a sustained humanitarian disaster caused in part by a blockade on aid sent to help Palestinians, alongside a death toll pushing past 30,000. All the while, the U.S. remains Israel’s key supplier of lethal weapons.

What some are characterizing as a contradiction has put the administration in an awkward spot of having to both defend Israel while calling for more parameters on its military operation amid its increasingly public frustrations with Netanyahu.

That comes despite the climbing Palestinian death toll — one that Biden himself has contested — a majority of whom are women and children, and this week’s indiscriminate killing of the aid workers, who are now counted as among the 200 humanitarian workers killed in Gaza since the start of the war.

Things have been especially delicate on the matter of Rafah, the southern Gaza city in which some 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltered, having heeded calls from Israel to leave their homes in the northern Strip while the military hunted down Hamas militants in retaliation for the killing of 1,200 Israeli’s on Oct. 7 and the taking of hundreds of hostages. 

The U.S.’s ground game in supporting Israel compared to its public pleas tilting toward humanitarian concerns — including its abstention of a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for a cease-fire — gives the appearance the administration pursuing two different things, posing a problem of perception, said Lester Munson, a former longtime staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including during years Biden served on the panel.

“Those two activities, while you can argue there’s a continuity there that makes sense, it does occasionally look like the administration is speaking out of both sides of its mouth and that perception is growing the longer the conflict goes on,” Munson said. 

Asked how that might make Biden look to the rest of the world, Munson said: “The risk is that the president looks weak.”

Firm tone, weapons transfer

Biden’s tone in addressing the attack that killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers was markedly more tense than previous tragedies that took the lives of United Nations staff, as well as attacks on hospitals and refugee camps where people were sheltering. But Biden acknowledged that the killing of celebrity chef Jose Andres’ staff was “not a stand-alone incident.”

“This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed,” Biden said. “This is a major reason why distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza has been so difficult – because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians. Incidents like yesterday’s simply should not happen.”

But at the same time, his administration on Monday, the same day as the attack, approved another major weapons transfer to Israel, albeit one it contends was green-lit by Congress years before the war began as part of a decade-long security agreement. 

The weapons transfer, despite the unfortunate timing of its approval on the same day as Israel’s strike on the aid worker convoy, is not directly connected to the conflict and will take years to reach Israel, a State Department spokesman said.

That hasn’t placated criticism from within the president’s own party, with pressure mounting to start considering placing conditions on aid.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and who speaks to Biden often told CNN Thursday that Israel’s war tactics “don’t reflect the best values of Israel or the United States.”

“We’re at that point,” in terms of supporting conditioning aid to Israel should it have no provisions for civilians and make good on its intentions to launch a massive incursion on the southern city of Rafah, Coons said. “I’ve never said that before. I’ve never been here before.”

“The challenge is to make it clear that we support the Israeli people, that we want to and will continue to have a strong and close relationship with Israel, but that the tactics by which the current prime minister is making these decisions don’t reflect the best values of Israel or of the United States,” he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Tuesday the Israeli military assistance, to the tune of $3 billion a year, does not need additional notice or approval “of any kind” even if circumstances change, asserting the weapons go to “self-defense.” 

“We’ve been focused on trying to make sure that October 7th can never happen again,” Blinken said. “But having said that, the security relationship we have with Israel is not just about Gaza, Hamas, October 7th.  It’s also about the threats posed to Israel by Hezbollah, by Iran, by various other actors in the region, each one of which has vowed one way or another to try to destroy Israel.”

Possible policy shift, but few details

Blinken’s tone became sharper on Thursday, too, when he indicated the U.S. would be open to changing its policy if calls to better protect civilians aren’t heeded but, like the White House, was scant on details on what that would entail.

The timing of the latest weapons transfer as well as Biden’s shift in leaving open changing U.S. policy on Israel left administration officials doing a delicate dance while fielding tough questions about what such a change would look like in light of the latest weapons transfer.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, during a tense exchange with a reporter on Thursday, maintained that Biden’s support of Israel was still “rock solid.”

“How is [Biden’s] support unwavering, but you’re also reconsidering policy choices?” Kirby was asked.

“Both can be true,” Kirby responded. 

“They cannot be true. They’re completely different things,” the reporter shot back.

Kirby waved off the question, responding, “Come on. Come on, now.”

“Our support is ironclad and consistent. It’s not going to — not going to stop. It’s not going to waver, but will there perhaps be some policy changes we might have to make if we don’t see policy changes out of Israel? Yes,” Kirby said.

The tough talk between Biden and Netayahu seemed to have moved the needle. By Friday, Israel had agreed to open border crossings to allow more aid into Gaza and released the findings of an investigation into the World Central Kitchen aid workers that resulted in the dismissal of two military officers. 

The White House would not make a definitive correlation between those changes and Biden’s talk with Netanyahu the day before. While the U.S. welcomed the changes, Kirby told reporters Friday that “a lot of work is ahead and we’re prepared to continue to work as we have to see that these things are put in place in a sustainable way.”

Source: The Hill

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