The White House is walking a careful line as it seeks to balance support for Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’s terrorist attacks with concerns about the humanitarian fallout in Gaza.
President Biden and top administration officials have publicly backed Israel’s right to defend itself and to respond with force after more than a thousand Israelis died in an assault launched 10 days ago by the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the White House has said Israel must abide by the laws of war.
But as Israel prepares for a ground offensive, world leaders have raised alarms about conditions in Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed, thousands of people have been displaced, and access to food, water and medical supplies has been strained. With a military operation, civilians may be trapped in the crossfire.
“Israel is going after a group of people who have engaged in barbarism that is as consequential as the Holocaust. And so I think Israel has to respond,” Biden said in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday.
“They have to go after Hamas. Hamas is a bunch of cowards,” Biden continued, adding he believes “the Israelis are gonna do everything in their power to avoid the killing of innocent civilians.”
Experts said public support for Israel is likely balanced by private conversations that express a need to be deliberate.
Amid their staunch and vocal support for Jerusalem, Biden administration officials appear reluctant to suggest any type of red lines for Israeli forces.
“I’m not here to draw red lines or issue warnings or give lectures to anybody,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last Tuesday.
Last Wednesday, John Kirby, a White House spokesperson on national security issues, broadly told reporters that “nobody wants to see any more innocent life lost” but emphasized that Hamas put civilians in danger and does not abide by the rules of armed conflict.
While the administration was quick to reposition American military assets in the region and provide munitions and Iron Dome interceptors to Israel, Biden and some of his top officials have been more outspoken in recent days about their desire for Israeli leaders to minimize the impact on civilians.
The president told a group of Jewish leaders at the White House last Wednesday that he had told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it was important that Israel “operate by the rules of war.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin echoed this in a Saturday call with his Israel counterpart, along with reiterating the importance of protecting civilians.
In the “60 Minutes” interview, which was recorded Friday, Biden said an Israeli occupation of Gaza would be a “mistake,” even as he suggested Hamas should be eliminated.
Experts said the Biden administration was likely focused on communicating its message to Israeli leaders privately while publicly projecting unwavering support in an effort to build trust in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks.
“I think the Biden administration’s strong instinct, led by the president, is if you want to have influence with the Israelis, there are some rules,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“One is you have to show them empathy early,” he added. “So what we’ve seen out of the Biden administration is the president, in particular, trying to keep Benjamin Netanyahu very close, with the purpose that when you need to have influence down the road you need to have that foundation of trust.”
The downside of that approach, Alterman said, is that the U.S. may face criticism from lawmakers and humanitarian groups who are pushing for a cease-fire or stronger warnings against Israel.
Human Rights Watch in recent days raised concerns about the use of white phosphorus in military operations in Gaza and Lebanon, which the group said put civilians and structures at serious risk because of its high flammability.
A group of 13 progressive lawmakers announced a resolution Monday urging the Biden administration to call for an immediate cease-fire and to send humanitarian aid to Gaza.
And United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned Sunday that the Middle East was on the verge of the “abyss” and stressed that Hamas must release the dozens of people it is holding hostage and that aid must be allowed into Gaza unimpeded.
Retired Gen. David Petraeus told CBS News on Monday that Israeli leadership must have a plan beyond its initial offensive against Hamas, warning of the potential for a drawn out conflict in the Middle East.
“It’s just really, really hard,” Petraeus said. “I mean, they don’t want to reoccupy, but if you don’t reoccupy, Hamas will reconstitute, and they know that, and so you’re going to go to enormous loss, casualties, the Israelis, civilians, of course, Hamas fighters, terrorists, and then you’re just going to leave? So I am sure they are searching for that answer.”
Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at CSIS, said the intensity of U.S. calls for restraint may depend on questions that will be answered in the coming weeks, such as how far the conflict spreads and how high the casualties mount.
“This war is likely to be more significant and brutal, based on what’s just happened in Israel,” he said. “So as we see casualties mount on both sides, including civilians, this will, I think, put pressure on political actors outside of Israel to try to keep those numbers down as much as possible.”