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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Biden ultimatum to Netanyahu: protect Gaza civilians, or else

A high-stakes call between Biden and Netanyahu on Thursday followed the deaths of seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen in an Israeli strike in Gaza.

President Joe Biden put his own and America’s credibility on the line in trying to change how Israel is fighting in Gaza.

Now, he waits to see how far Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will yield to the most significant tonal and strategic shift by his administration since the start of the war.

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If Netanyahu declines to take the “specific, concrete and measurable” steps in Gaza to ease civilian suffering and protect aid workers that Biden requested Thursday, the US president will face a critical choice. Is he prepared to allow Netanyahu to prolong his defiance on an issue that is creating a huge political risk in his reelection year with young, progressive and Arab American voters outraged over the war?

Or will Biden take the momentous step of conditioning the terms of US support for Israel in a war that was triggered by Hamas terror attacks in Israel that killed 1,200 people?

In one early sign that Biden’s message may be getting through, the Israeli security cabinet late Thursday approved steps including the reopening of the Erez crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip for the first time since the October 7 attacks, an Israeli official told CNN. The move could allow humanitarian aid to flow more easily into Gaza as famine looms.

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But a sustained Israeli pivot will be needed in the days ahead – one that survives potential escalations in the war against Hamas – to ease criticism of Netanyahu and to mitigate Biden’s own domestic political exposure.

A high-stakes call between Biden and Netanyahu on Thursday followed the deaths of seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen in an Israeli strike in Gaza. The tragedy appeared to galvanize more outrage than the killing of what the Gaza health ministry says are more than 30,000 people in the enclave, where Hamas embeds its forces in civilian areas.

It was an important moment because for the first time, the US is raising the prospect of conditionality in its so-far staunch support for Israel, by warning that its policy on Gaza could change without swift action by Netanyahu. Biden also called for an “immediate ceasefire,” officials said.

“If we do not see changes we need to see, there will be changes in our policy,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the call. The administration did not lay out how the US stance could change, although prominent Democrats are now speaking openly about imposing limits on how the Israel Defense Forces can use weapons manufactured in the United States. Among them is Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who is close to the president. The senator’s signal on Thursday that he was open to conditioning arms sales was the latest public statement by a senior Democrat that sounded like a warning to Biden that his political position is becoming unsustainable.

Despite repeatedly expressing its frustration with Israeli tactics, the White House has been unwilling or unable to impose any leverage on the prime minister. This fresh attempt to do so therefore crossed a significant line and if the new US push doesn’t deliver results, tensions between the allies are likely to become even more acute.