Biden pressures Israel to reach a cease-fire in Gaza, straining ties

Protesters opposed to the war between Hamas and Israel demonstrate on Wednesday ahead of a Department of Defense budget hearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

TEL AVIV, Israel — The Biden administration dispatched the head of the CIA to meet Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, part of an effort to limit Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah and push for a cease-fire deal with Hamas.

The visit came only hours after the Biden administration announced that it was withholding some military aid from Israel, in an unusually public rift between the two allies.


Taken together, experts said, the moves were indicative of President Joe Biden’s increasing frustration with the way Israel has conducted the war in Gaza — a conflict unpopular with many Democratic voters in an election year.

Still, the steps were unlikely to change the overall course of the conflict, they said.

“It’s pent-up frustration on Biden’s part, which eventually broke,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel. “The administration has been walking a tightrope between its very strong support for Israel and domestic pressure.”

As the war in Gaza has dragged into its seventh month, the death toll has climbed past 34,000, with many of those killed women and children, according to Gaza health officials, who do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. In the process, Biden has slowly moved from a position of full-throated support for Israel’s right to defend itself after October’s Hamas-led terror attack to a campaign of consistent pressure intended to limit civilian casualties and increase humanitarian aid to the besieged Palestinian enclave.

That shift has created growing cracks in the countries’ decadeslong relationship, which have widened most recently over Israel’s declared plan to invade Rafah, a city the Israelis say is a key Hamas military stronghold but where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians have taken refuge in tent cities. Hamas on Sunday launched a rocket attack from Rafah on an Israeli position near another vital crossing at Kerem Shalom, killing four soldiers.

In view of Israel’s long-threatened assault on Rafah, U.S. officials said Tuesday night that Biden had paused an arms shipment to Israel last week to prevent the U.S.-made weapons from being used in an invasion.

The president withheld 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs, fearing they could be dropped on Rafah, officials said.

Lloyd Austin, the U.S. defense secretary, told a Senate committee Wednesday that the United States had been clear “from the very beginning that Israel shouldn’t launch a major attack into Rafah without accounting for and protecting the civilians that are in that battle space, and again, as we have assessed the situation, we have paused one shipment of high payload munitions.”

Alon Pinkas, a former diplomat for Israel, said that the U.S. decision was motivated by mounting American frustration with Netanyahu, as well as pressure from some congressional Democrats to more closely supervise Israel’s use of U.S. arms. And, he added, it was a signal to Israel that a full-scale invasion of Rafah could have further consequences.

“The logic behind this is a warning: If you don’t get your act together, there’s a lot more obstructions that could happen,” Pinkas said.

But if the move by the United States was intended to send a message to Israel, it lacked some teeth.

The Biden administration is not halting all weapons to Israel and, at this point, has not made a final determination on how to proceed with the bombs withheld last week.

In fact, officials said the administration had just approved the latest tranche of aid amounting to $827 million worth of weapons and equipment. The administration intends to send “every dollar” of the money just appropriated by Congress, the officials said.

Tensions between Biden and Netanyahu have grown steadily in recent months. During a phone conversation a month ago, Biden for the first time threatened to rethink U.S. support for the war if Netanyahu did not change course, according to a White House summary of the call. While Biden did not explicitly say he would limit or cut off arms during the call, that was an implied possibility.

Since then, the White House has credited Israel with responding to the president’s demands by doing more to limit civilian casualties and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. In some ways, Israel has gradually moved closer to what some U.S. military officials had been seeking from the start: a more surgical campaign prioritizing targeted operations.

But differences over a possible invasion of Rafah and the terms of a cease-fire deal being negotiated by international mediators have led to new tensions between the White House and the Israelis.

Negotiators from Israel and Hamas were in Cairo on Wednesday amid a renewed international push on a proposed deal for a cease-fire, although Israeli officials said that major gaps remained between the sides.

In a sign of the growing urgency, Netanyahu met with Burns on Wednesday afternoon in Israel, according to an Israeli official who requested anonymity to discuss the talks. Another person briefed on hostage negotiations confirmed that Burns was traveling to Israel.

Burns has been shuttling across the region in recent days, trying to clinch a cease-fire deal that would see the release of hostages held in Gaza and Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

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