The Biden administration’s tone has carefully shifted in recent days when it comes to Israel’s response in Gaza, with reports indicating it’s encouraging the delay of a ground invasion in the hopes more hostages could be freed and humanitarian assistance could be let in.
Concerns about a clear, deliverable military objective for Israel in eradicating Hamas have added complexity to what is already a delicate situation as American officials have warned Israeli leaders not to repeat the same mistakes the U.S. did after 9/11.
U.S. officials have also recently characterized Gaza’s future as “left to be defined.” President Biden has already warned an Israeli occupation of Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, would be a “big mistake” while Israel, in turn, has said it does not plan to control “life in Gaza” but hasn’t indicated who would.
The crisis and all its complexities have plunged the Biden administration into a diplomatic and humanitarian quagmire in it wanting to unequivocally support Israel defending itself while remaining cognizant of a dire humanitarian crisis — all in the shadow of trying to prevent a larger conflict from potentially erupting across the Middle East.
In warning of such conflict Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the United Nations that while the U.S. does not want the war to widen, it is prepared to respond should outside actors take part — namely out of Tehran, Iran.
“We do not want this war to widen, but if Iran or its proxies attack U.S. personnel anywhere, make no mistake, we will defend our people, we will defend our security swiftly and decisively,” Blinken said, stressing to U.N. council members they should warn Iran not to open another front to the war against Israel.
“Act as if the security and stability of the entire region and beyond is on the line because it is,” he said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, calls for a cease-fire from the international community have bubbled up in recent days. President Biden appeared to leave a door open to that discussion but only after the hostages, which include some Americans, are released.
But John Kirby, a White House spokesperson on national security issues, said Tuesday that a cease-fire would benefit only Hamas, negating the notion that such a discussion would yield to any letting up of Israel’s aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
Kirby has also carefully maintained the U.S. has not set or discussed possible red lines with the Israelis over their offensive, maintaining it’s up to the Israeli military to determine if and when they should launch a ground offensive.
“All I can do is say what I’ve said before, that we have and will continue to talk to our Israeli counterparts about the importance of avoiding and minimizing civilian casualties and respecting innocent life and trying to prevent collateral damage as they try to go after legitimate Hamas targets,” Kirby said.
But press reports this week have indicated the U.S. is concerned with Israel’s lack of a military end game and that its ground offensive plan is questionable, and the U.S. is stressing the need to minimize civilian casualties. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Sunday on ABC News that he told his Israeli counterpart “to conduct their operations in accordance with the law of war.”
“One of the things we’ve learned is how to account for civilians in the battle space, and they are a part of the battle space, and we, in accordance of the law of war, we’ve got to do what’s necessary to protect those civilians,” Austin said.
Biden has also led the shift in rhetoric, gradually becoming more focused on the importance of protecting civilians and providing humanitarian aid in the nearly three weeks since the Hamas terrorist attacks that killed more than 1,400 Israelis and Israel soon retaliated.
In the days after those Oct. 7 attacks, Biden staunchly defended Israel’s right to respond with force and vowed the U.S. would have the Jewish state’s back.
Since then, Biden has said he relayed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the need for Israel to abide by the rules of war. In a speech in Tel Aviv, Israel, the president cautioned Israeli leaders against becoming consumed by rage and repeating the mistakes the U.S. made after 9/11, when it sent troops into Iraq and Afghanistan.
Biden has also begun to stress the need to get aid into Gaza after brokering a deal with Israel and Egypt to allow humanitarian supplies in. On Tuesday, Biden said the aid into Gaza was not moving fast enough.
Kirby said many factors are at play when it comes to the movement of aid, without providing details on what the holdup was as trucks continue to sit waiting at the Rafah border crossing.
“There’s lots of players involved here,” he said. “Hamas is obviously a player, Israel is a player, Egypt, the U.N.”
And in a marked shift in foreign relations compared to his early months in the White House, Biden phoned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of the kingdom the president once dubbed a “pariah” in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A readout of the call Tuesday indicated Biden and the crown prince agreed on pursuing broader diplomatic efforts to prevent the Israel-Hamas conflict from expanding. They also discussed the importance of working toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians “as soon as the crisis subsides.”
Some Democrats in Congress have been echoing the White House on toeing the line between support for Israel, humanitarian assistance and minimizing civilian casualties. Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said he has “grave concerns” about a ground invasion by the Israelis but that “Israel has the absolute right to attack Hamas.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday it’s going to be “very important” how Israel conducts operations.
“We want to see the campaign conducted in a way that will destroy Hamas and protect the innocent,” he said.
But the White House must also contend with the possibility a ground invasion of Gaza is inevitable.
“There’s no way you’re going to destroy Hamas from the air,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who came back Tuesday after leading nine other Senators on a trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt over the weekend.
“To say that you don’t need to go onto the ground to destroy religious Nazis named Hamas, it’s just illogical. And anybody who suggests that doesn’t understand.”
Laura Kelly contributed.