By Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden and his team have markedly shifted their tone on the Israel-Hamas crisis in recent days, moving from unfettered support of Israel to emphasizing the need to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza ahead of a looming Israeli ground invasion.
Biden has not changed his fundamental belief that Israel has the right and responsibility to defend itself in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack from Hamas militants that killed 1,400 people in southern Israel, aides say.
But a rapidly rising Palestinian death toll, the difficulty of freeing hostages held by Hamas and an increasingly vocal outcry from Arab nations, European allies and some Americans at home, have pushed Biden’s team to support a humanitarian pause to Israel’s attacks and focus on getting aid to Palestinians, say multiple sources inside the administration and out.
A White House official said the shift in tone was based on “the facts on the ground” in Gaza with a humanitarian crisis worsening and the Biden team’s “conversations with countries around the world.”
There has been a tug of war behind the scenes among Biden and his advisers about the U.S. 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 of Israel to 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 in Gaza, local officials say – or for the humanitarian situation to deteriorate so rapidly, a U.S. official said on condition 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 into Gaza with a major campaign,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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 that Israel’s actions could backfire.
Israeli officials and their U.S. supporters have privately voiced concern to Reuters that as more time passes since the Oct. 7 atrocities committed by Hamas, the more the world’s focus will be on death and destruction from the Israeli assault in Gaza.
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 U.S. source said.
U.S. officials have cautioned that crafting fine points of such a strategy “on the fly,” as was often the case for the U.S. in the early stages of the Iraq war, would be a mistake, the source added.
U.S. 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 and Gaza civilians, a separate source familiar with the conversations said.
In rare comments on an active foreign policy crisis Obama, Biden’s Democratic predecessor and former boss, warned this week that Israel cutting off food and water to Gaza could “harden Palestinian attitudes for generations.”
The White House did not respond when asked if the administration coordinated with Biden’s Democratic predecessor.
ARAB LEADERS PRESSURE
When Hamas militants burst out of Gaza and attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, Biden offered full-throated support for Israel, saying he relayed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Full stop.”
He did not mention the Palestinian people.
Addressing reporters before departing for the Middle East on Oct. 11, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the top objective of his trip was a robust show of solidarity with Israel, including providing all the military equipment that it needs to defend itself.
“The United States has Israel’s back,” Blinken said. He didn’t mention humanitarian aid at all.
During Blinken’s six-day trip, the death toll in Gaza soared 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 in Gaza.
Blinken relayed the concerns of Arab leaders, while others spoke to the U.S. president directly.
The intense protests against Israel that followed last week’s blast at a Palestinian hospital, which the United States and Israel both blamed on Palestinian militants, also alarmed U.S. officials.
The protests were reminders of the risks of escalation during any ground assault, U.S. officials said, because they show how Israel’s adversaries could seek to wield disinformation to spark unrest.
The most rapid shift in U.S. policy has happened this week, to support a cessation in Israel’s attacks on Gaza to allow aid in and people to escape.
Asked on Oct. 23 about international demands for a humanitarian pause, White House security spokesman John Kirby said the United States wants to make sure “Israel has the tools it needs to defend itself and to go after Hamas and that humanitarian assistance keeps flowing.”
A day later, Kirby and Blinken advocated for one publicly. The shift followed a plea from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for civilians to be protected and increasingly desperate appeals from U.N. organizations to allow in aid.
The U.S. revised its own U.N. resolution from a focus on Israel’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 by Biden on Wednesday are in contrast with those on Oct. 7, and show a new direction. “Israel has to do everything in its power, as difficult as it is, to protect innocent civilians,” Biden told a press conference.
He offered a rare criticism as well of Israel’s “extremist settlers” on the West Bank, accusing them of pouring gasoline on a fire, and called for a “concentrated effort,” once the crisis is over, to work toward an accord under which Israel and a new Palestinian state would exist side-by-side in peace.
But Biden also expressed skepticism toward Palestinian estimates of the death toll and a continued staunch support of Israel. He told the press conference that he had “no confidence” in the numbers the Palestinians were using about Gaza’s dead.
(Reporting By Steve Holland, Phil Stewart, Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk, Trevor Hunnicutt and Michelle Nichols. Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)