Washington: US President JoeBidenand his team have markedlyshiftedtheir toneontheIsrael-Hamascrisis in recent days, moving from unfettered support ofIsraelto emphasizing the need to protect Palestinian civilians inGazaahead of a looming Israeli ground invasion.
Bidenhas not changed his fundamental belief thatIsraelhas the right and responsibility to defend itself in the aftermath of the October 7 attack fromHamasmilitants that killed 1,400 people in southernIsrael, aides say.
But a rapidly rising Palestiniandeathtoll, the difficulty of freeing hostages held byHamasand an increasingly vocal outcry from Arab nations, European allies and some Americans at home, have pushedBiden’s team to support a humanitarian pause toIsrael’s attacks and focusongetting aid to Palestinians, say multiple sources inside the administration and out.
A White House official said theshiftin tone was basedon”the factsonthe ground” inGazawith a humanitarian crisis worsening and theBidenteam’s “conversations with countries around the world.”
There has been a tug ofwarbehindthe scenes amongBidenand his advisers about the US message, said one former official who is in touch with current officials.
“We’ve seen sort of an evolution from sort of full-throated, unconditional hugging ofIsraelto a little bit more nuance,” the former official said.
The administration had not expected Palestinian casualties to mount as fast as they have – now more than 7,000 dead inGaza, local officials say – or for the humanitarian situation to deteriorate so rapidly, a US official saidoncondition of anonymity.
“I think the framing has clearly changed, unsurprisingly, in response to changing circumstances and what appears to be an even greater looming catastrophe should the Israelis move intoGazawith a major campaign,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment forInternationalPeace.
Biden, 80, has evolved in the face of a challenging 2024 reelection bid, threats by some would-be supporters to withhold their votes over his lack of backing for Palestinians, and a warning from former President Barack Obama thatIsrael’s actions could backfire.
Israeli officials and their US supporters have privately voiced concern to Reuters that as more time passes since the October 7 atrocities committed byHamas, the more the world’s focus will beondeathand destruction from the Israeli assault inGaza.
Biden’s aides are urging their Israeli counterparts to take more time to carefully think through their exit strategy before a full-scale ground invasion, one US source said.
US officials have cautioned that crafting fine points of such a strategy “onthe fly,” as was often the case for the US in the early stages of the Iraqwar, would be a mistake, the source added.
US military advisers sent to the region are urging Israeli counterparts to be cautious because any invading force will face difficult fighting terrain and a warren of tunnels and booby-trapped buildings that could increase casualties among Israeli soldiers andGazacivilians, a separate source familiar with the conversations said.
In rare commentsonan active foreign policy crisis Obama,Biden’s Democratic predecessor and former boss, warned this week thatIsraelcutting off food and water toGazacould “harden Palestinian attitudes for generations.”
The White House did not respond when asked if the administration coordinated withBiden’s Democratic predecessor.
Arab leaders pressure
WhenHamasmilitants burst out ofGazaand attacked southernIsraelonOctober 7,Bidenoffered full-throated support forIsrael, saying he relayed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “Israelhas the right to defend itself and its people. Full stop.”
He did not mention the Palestinian people.
Addressing reporters before departing for the Middle EastonOctober 11, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the top objective of his trip was a robust show of solidarity withIsrael, including providing all the military equipment that it needs to defend itself.
“The United States hasIsrael’s back,” Blinken said. He didn’t mention humanitarian aid at all.”
During Blinken’s six-day trip, thedeathtoll inGazasoared from Israeli air strikes and concerns grew about food and water. Every Arab leader Blinken met in the region pressed him to urgently find a solution to the rapidly deteriorating situation inGaza.
Blinken relayed the concerns of Arab leaders, while others spoke to the US president directly.
The intense protests againstIsraelthat followed last week’s blast at a Palestinian hospital, which the United States andIsraelboth blamedonPalestinian militants, also alarmed US officials.
The protests were reminders of the risks of escalation during any ground assault, US officials said, because they show howIsrael’s adversaries could seek to wield disinformation to spark unrest.
The most rapidshiftin US policy has happened this week, to support a cessation inIsrael’s attacksonGazato allow aid in and people to escape.
AskedonOctober 23 aboutinternationaldemands for a humanitarian pause, White House security spokesman John Kirby said the United States wants to make sure “Israelhas the tools it needs to defend itself and to go afterHamasand that humanitarian assistance keeps flowing.”
A day later, Kirby and Blinken advocated for one publicly. Theshiftfollowed a plea from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for civilians to be protected and increasingly desperate appeals from UN organizations to allow in aid.
The US revised its own UN resolution from a focusonIsrael’s right to defend itself to include calls for all measures, specifically to include humanitarian pauses, to allow unhindered humanitarian access of aid.
Remarks made byBidenonWednesday are in contrast with thoseonOctober 7, and show a new direction. “Israelhas to do everything in its power, as difficult as it is, to protect innocent civilians,”Bidentold a press conference.
He offered a rare criticism as well ofIsrael’s “extremist settlers”onthe West Bank, accusing them of pouring gasolineona fire, and called for a “concentrated effort,” once the crisis is over, to work toward an accord under whichIsraeland a new Palestinian state would exist side-by-side in peace.
ButBidenalso expressed skepticism toward Palestinian estimates of thedeathtoll and a continued staunch support ofIsrael. He told the press conference that he had “no confidence” in the numbers the Palestinians were using aboutGaza’s dead.
(Published 27 October 2023, 06:35 IST)