President Joe Biden expressed support for a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers in a call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, but stopped short of demanding an immediate stop to the eight days of Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket barrages that have killed more than 200 people, most of them Palestinian.
Biden’s carefully worded statement, in a White House readout of his second known call to Netanyahu in three days as the attacks pounded on, came with the administration under pressure to respond more forcefully despite its determination to wrench the U.S. foreign policy focus away from Middle East conflicts.
Biden’s comments on a cease-fire were open-ended, and similar to previous administration statements of support in principle for a cease-fire. That’s in contrast to demands from dozens of Democratic lawmakers and others for an immediate halt by both sides. But the readout of the call to the Israeli leader showed increased White House concern about the air and rocket attacks —including Israeli airstrikes aimed at weakening Hamas — while sticking to forceful support for Israel.
The U.S. leader “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians,” the White House said in its readout.
An administration official familiar with the call said the decision to express support and not explicitly demand a cease-fire was intentional. While Biden and top aides are concerned about the mounting bloodshed and loss of innocent life, the decision not to demand an immediate halt to hostilities reflects White House determination to support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.
Netanyahu told Israeli security officials late Monday that Israel would “continue to strike terror targets” in Gaza “as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens.”
As the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting since 2014 raged, the Biden administration has limited its public criticisms to Hamas and has declined to send a top-level envoy to the region. It also had declined to press Israel publicly and directly to wind down its latest military operation in the Gaza Strip, a six-mile by 25-mile territory that is home to more than 2 million people. Cease-fire mediation by Egypt and others has shown no sign of progress.
Separately, the United States, Israel’s top ally, blocked for a third time Monday what would have been a unanimous statement by the 15-nation U.N. Security Council expressing “grave concern” over the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the loss of civilian lives. The final U.S. rejection killed the Security Council statement, at least for now.