Biden Takes Muted Approach To Violence In Israel And Gaza

May 15, 2021
Originally published on May 16, 2021 5:45 pm

Updated May 16, 2021 at 8:44 PM ET

As Hamas rockets have rained down on Israeli cities, Israeli airstrikes and artillery have crumbled buildings in the Gaza Strip, and violent mobs have attacked one another in Israel's streets, President Biden has remained mostly muted about the escalating crisis.

Biden did not issue any hastily arranged remarks on the Middle East violence, or even bring up the topic himself when he appeared in public. The times Biden spoke publicly on the matter came when reporters specifically asked about it. And when he talked, the president appeared to weigh every word very carefully, and spoke in muted tones.

"My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later," Biden said at the White House on Wednesday.

"Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory," Biden added. "My hope is that we'll see this coming to conclusion sooner rather than later."

This low-key public approach, the White House says, is by design. The Biden administration is prioritizing behind-the-scenes diplomatic outreach by Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and others.

"Constant contact" is how Biden phrased it to reporters. He has personally spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Blinken spoke to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. A State Department envoy has traveled to the region. And calls are being placed to officials in Egypt, Jordan and Qatar — countries the White House sees as having communication and influence with the Hamas militants launching rocket attacks.

Biden's cautious public response is perhaps amplified by the lingering contrast to how President Donald Trump weighed in relentlessly on every global topic, including even how to put out the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral and a mysterious, nonexistent crisis in Sweden.

"I think so far they're striking the right balance of making sure it's clear it's a priority of talking to as many sides as they can, but also not creating these expectations that the U.S. is going to swoop in and magically end this," said Ilan Goldenberg, who helped coordinate the U.S. State Department's Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy toward the end of the Obama administration. He now heads the Center for a New American Security's Middle East Security Program.

Like many areas of Mideast diplomacy, Goldenberg said, presidential statements are a high-wire act. On one hand, "it's important for the president to weigh in and make clear it's a priority, because that sends a message to all the parties in the region that the U.S. cares about this issue."

But weighing in too much creates its own problems, according to Goldenberg, especially because the Biden administration has made it clear that it is much more interested in focusing foreign policy resources on competition with China and economic issues that directly affect the American middle class, rather than getting caught up in Middle Eastern conflicts that have frustrated numerous U.S. presidents.

"Having the president or other senior officials weighing in relentlessly and constantly starts to diminish [efforts], because we can't actually follow it up with the kind of action, that decisive action that ultimately ends the conflict," Goldenberg added.

Asked what the White House has been able to change through its phone calls to Israeli, Palestinian and other regional leaders, a national security official, speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive matters, pointed to a decision to change the route of an Israeli parade through Jerusalem to avoid an area that has been a point of conflict, as well as the delay of a key Israeli Supreme Court decision about whether Palestinians can legally be evicted from Jerusalem homes to make way for Jewish settlers.

"I don't know if the U.S. intervention was decisive in that, but it was significant and meaningful and I think played a role," Goldenberg said. "Unfortunately, it came a little too late and things had already escalated."

Even as he has limited his public statements, Biden has been criticized for what he is — and isn't — emphasizing.

Many former Trump White House officials have panned Biden for not making a more high-profile show of support for Israel. They view the Abraham Accords that Trump adviser Jared Kushner helped forge between Israel and a number of Arab neighbors as among the administration's most lasting accomplishments. The accords were actually lauded by Biden officials as they took over earlier this year.

At the same time, several progressives argue Biden has been muted in his sympathy for Palestinians being killed in Gaza, particularly his statement that "there has not been a significant overreaction" by Israel, referring to Israel's air and mortar strikes in retaliation to the rocket attacks.

As of Sunday, more than 180 people have been killed in Gaza over the past week. At least 10 people have been killed in Israel.

Netanyahu made a point to thank his "friend, President Biden," for acknowledging Israel's right to defend itself in an otherwise blistering statement Friday that warned Hamas militants "are paying, and will pay, a very heavy price for this. This is not yet over."

"If we have historically said and committed to a role as an honest broker, then we must fulfill that role," New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said on the House floor Thursday. "The president and many other figures have said Israel has a right to self-defense, and this is a sentiment that is echoed across this body. But do Palestinians have a right to survive?"

"This is not about both sides," she added. "It's about an imbalance of power."

Israel has much heavier firepower and, along with Egypt, has restricted the movement of people and goods into Gaza for years.

The White House has pushed back against that characterization. A national security official argued that every statement the administration has released has broadly condemned violence that results in civilian casualties, no matter where it originates.

Still, given the criticism, it was notable that a Friday afternoon Biden statement marking the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr noted "the situation in the Holy Land is weighing on Muslims everywhere."

"Palestinians — including in Gaza — and Israelis equally deserve to live in dignity, safety and security," Biden said in the statement. "No family should have to fear for their safety within their own home or place of worship. We think most about the children in these societies who face trauma from a conflict far beyond their control."

Biden's restrained messaging continued on Sunday in a video statement, beside first lady Jill Biden, honoring the Muslim holiday.

"We will defend the right of all, as we stand with you," the president said, addressing the Muslim community.

"We also believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live in safety and security and enjoy equal measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy," Biden added. "My administration is going to continue to engage Palestinians and Israelis and other regional partners to work toward sustained calm."

NPR's Emma Bowman contributed to this story.

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We now turn to the White House, where President Biden's public response to the conflict between Gaza and Israel has been notably restrained. He has, however, sent Mideast envoy Hady Amr to Israel to help try and bring down the temperature in a volatile situation.

NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow joins us. Scott, thanks for being here.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: This conflict has demanded the attention of many U.S. presidents. Why have we not heard more publicly from President Biden?

DETROW: Well, the White House says this is deliberate and that the administration is focusing its efforts on behind-the-scenes diplomacy. I talked to a White House official about this who said it's a complicated situation. Things are changing very quickly. And the White House just wants to be very cautious about what it does and does not weigh in on. That is, obviously, among many other things the Biden administration is doing, a very drastic shift from how the last administration approached things.

Ilan Goldenberg played a big role in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy during the Obama administration. He said it is good for a president to address this all in public. It shows it's a priority for the U.S. But at the same time, he said...

ILAN GOLDENBERG: Having the presidents or other senior officials weighing in relentlessly and constantly publicly starts to diminish that because we can't actually follow it up with the kind of decisive action that ultimately ends the conflict.

DETROW: And Goldenberg said the U.S. does have an important role here. But it's not the central role. It's more of a mediator. And, of course, more broadly, President Biden has tried to deemphasize the American foreign policy focus on the Middle East. And he's really centering his foreign policy around competing with China and on areas that improve economic conditions for middle-class Americans.

SIMON: As we've noted, Scott, there is a State Department envoy in the Middle East now who is speaking with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. What else has the administration been doing?

DETROW: It seems like a lot of phone calls, a lot of officials spending a lot of time on the phone. And the White House is emphasizing how much it's talking to countries like Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, places, it says, where officials have influence with Hamas militants who are firing rockets into Israeli cities. I asked an official whether any of this has helped, if they can point to a specific example where the White House has eased tensions. They said that they believe they've played a role in easing tensions in the margins in some places. One example would be encouraging Israeli officials to delay a court ruling on whether Palestinians can be evicted from homes in Jerusalem, which is a contentious issue that did play a role in the beginning of tensions here.

SIMON: To return for a moment to what we're seeing in public, what's the response been to what the president has said on the record?

DETROW: You know, on one hand, Biden has been criticized by some former Trump officials saying he's not been quick enough to stand with Israel. But there has been also loud outcry from progressive corners, including many members of the House, who are frustrated with how often Biden has emphasized Israel's right to defend itself rather than the toll that Israeli airstrikes and mortar attacks are having in Gaza.

Here's Biden earlier this week talking about those Israeli strikes.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There has not been a significant overreaction.

DETROW: The White House is disputing this criticism and arguing it's regularly decrying any violence that harms and kills any civilians. But I did note that Friday afternoon, in a statement celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid, President Biden did make a point specifically to say, and here's the quote from it, "Palestinians - including in Gaza - and Israelis equally deserve to live in dignity, safety and security." And that, "no family should have to fear their safety within their own home or place of worship." So the president making a point to say that Palestinians deserve security and safety as well.

SIMON: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.