US President Joe Biden expressed support for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers in a telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but stopped short of demanding an immediate end to 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 came with his administration under pressure to respond more forcefully, despite its determination to wrench the US foreign policy focus away from Middle East conflicts.
Biden’s comments on a ceasefire were open-ended and similar to previous administration statements of support in principle for a ceasefire.
That is in contrast to demands from dozens of Democratic lawmakers and others for an immediate halt by both sides, but the statement 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.
Biden “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians,” the White House said.
An administration official familiar with the telephone call said that the decision to express support and not explicitly demand a ceasefire 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 late on Monday told Israeli security officials 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 an envoy to the region. It has also declined to press Israel publicly and directly to wind down its latest military operation in the Gaza Strip.
Ceasefire mediation by Egypt and others has shown no signs of progress.
Separately, the US on Monday blocked for a third time what would have been a unanimous statement by the UN Security Council expressing “grave concern” over the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the loss of civilian lives.
The final US rejection killed the Security Council statement, at least for now.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that the US was focusing instead on “quiet, intensive diplomacy.”
Biden has been determined to wrench US foreign policy away from Middle East and Central Asia conflicts, including withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan and ending support for a Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen, to focus on other policy priorities.
Internationally for the US, that means confronting climate change and dealing with the rise of China, among other objectives.
That shift carries risks, including weathering flaring violence as the US steps back from hotspots.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Denmark on the first stop of a tour of Nordic nations, on Monday said that the US was ready to spring in to help if Israel and Hamas signal interest in ending hostilities — but that the US was not demanding that they do so.
“Ultimately, it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a ceasefire,” Blinken said.
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