Three days after Hamas terrorists slaughtered more than 1,400 people, President Biden assured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that he supported his vow to “avenge this black day” and to turn Gaza “into a ruin” from the air and on the ground.
“I told him if the United States experienced what Israel is experiencing, our response would be swift, decisive and overwhelming,” Mr. Biden recalled saying during a call between the two leaders on Oct. 10.
But the president’s message, in which he emphatically joined the mourning that was sweeping through Israel, has shifted dramatically over the past three weeks. While he continues to declare unambiguous support for Israel, Mr. Biden and his top military and diplomatic officials have become more critical of Israel’s response to the terrorist attacks and the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
The president and his senior aides still cling to the hope that the new war between Israel and Hamas might eventually give way to a resumption of talks about normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and could even offer some leverage for a return to negotiations over a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine exist side by side. Mr. Netanyahu has long resisted such a move.
But in the short run, American officials have grown more strident in reminding the Israelis that even if Hamas terrorists are deliberately intermingling with civilians, operations must be tailored to avoid nonmilitary casualties. Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the United Nations that “humanitarian pauses must be considered,” a move that Israel has rejected.
“While Israel has the right — indeed, the obligation — to defend itself, the way it does so matters,” Mr. Blinken said, adding that “it means food, water, medicine and other essential humanitarian assistance must be able to flow into Gaza and to the people who need them.”
On Sunday, just a day after Israeli military leaders said Hamas terrorists were using a hospital in Gaza as a command center, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, was more blunt. Mr. Sullivan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields “creates an added burden for the Israeli Defense Forces.”
He added, “This is something that we talk about with the Israelis on a daily basis.” He then noted that hospitals were not legitimate military targets just as Israel was warning that another major hospital in Gaza had to be emptied out before the next round of bombing.
Administration officials said the shift in tone and substance was the result of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where the health ministry says more than 8,000 people have been killed, provoking outrage in the United States and around the world.
The change has occurred against the backdrop of global denunciations of Israel’s actions and an explosion of divisive protests in the United States. The campus police at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., were guarding the university’s Center for Jewish Living on Sunday after online posts threatened violence against Jewish students, according to a statement by Cornell’s president, Martha E. Pollack.
Mr. Biden “is acutely aware of not only how polarized our country is, but how polarized the world is,” said Timothy Naftali, a historian and faculty scholar at the Institute of Global Politics at Columbia University. “That is the line he’s trying, I think, to follow, and it’s difficult in a polarized world, because it’s a very logical approach in a moment that provokes emotionalism.”
Mr. Biden has long been an ardent defender of Israel and in the past several weeks has repeatedly referred to meeting former Prime Minister Golda Meir when he was a first-year senator in 1973. But the president has also been a fierce critic of Mr. Netanyahu’s government, which he has called the most extreme in the country’s 75-year history.
In the first days after the Hamas attacks, Mr. Biden drew praise for his unreserved support for Israel, describing the wave of killings as “an act of sheer evil” and vowing to ensure that Israelis “have what they need to respond” to the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust. Mr. Biden has sent to Congress a request for $14.5 billion in military aid for Israel.
But as Israel began pounding Gaza from the air in preparation for a ground invasion that began in earnest over the weekend, Mr. Biden settled into a pattern of delivering increasingly critical messages to the Israelis — in private first, and then in public.
The United States has kept a rotating list of senior officials in front of Mr. Netanyahu — each being careful not to tell the Israelis what to do, but to ask a series of questions intended to communicate the administration’s concern. How do you handle the tunnels in Gaza? If you are successful, who administers Gaza? Have you thought through how public opinion will turn if civilian casualties mount, or whether the crisis in Gaza might draw in Hezbollah or other militias?
Mr. Blinken has visited Israel three times. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III met with his counterparts there, along with Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, the commander of Central Command, and then Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister. A European official said their visits were not coordinated with the United States but that everyone had the same idea that it would be hard to start a ground invasion while senior officials were in the waiting room.
On Oct. 15, eight days after the attacks, Mr. Blinken had a frank call with Mr. Biden after flying out of Cairo, where America’s top diplomat had met with the president of Egypt. Mr. Blinken’s trip across the Middle East, in which Egypt was the last stop among Israel and six Arab nations, gave the administration the first stark glimpse of the growing opposition in the Arab world.
Few Arab nations issued statements of support for Israel at the time of the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7. But administration officials had initially believed they could get more backing for the Jewish state from those governments and from other countries around the world, given the level of atrocities Hamas committed against Israelis.
Then Mr. Blinken briefed Mr. Biden daily during his travels, conveying to the president the deep anxieties he was hearing. Mr. Biden told Mr. Blinken during the Oct. 15 call to return to Israel to try to persuade the leaders there to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, even though Israeli leaders appeared ready to start their ground invasion, U.S. officials said.
It became evident to U.S. officials that Israeli leaders believed mass civilian casualties were an acceptable price in the military campaign. In private conversations with American counterparts, Israeli officials referred to how the United States and other allied powers resorted to devastating bombings in Germany and Japan during World War II — including the dropping of the two atomic warheads in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — to try to defeat those countries.
Publicly, Mr. Biden’s language began to shift.
On Oct. 14, at an event in Philadelphia, Mr. Biden emphasized that “the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas and Hamas’s appalling attacks, and they’re suffering as a result as well.”
Four days later, during a brief visit to Israel, Mr. Biden pushed Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet to stop bombing the area of the Rafah gate between Gaza and Egypt to allow aid to flow in. Eventually, Mr. Biden announced that 20 aid vehicles, a tiny fraction of what was needed, would be allowed in.
“I was very blunt with the Israelis,” Mr. Biden told reporters aboard Air Force One as they traveled back from Israel. “Israel has been badly victimized. But, you know, the truth is that if they have an opportunity to relieve suffering of people who have nowhere to go, that is what they should do.”
He said that if Israel did not follow that advice, “they’ll be held accountable in ways that may be unfair,” but he added: “If you have an opportunity to alleviate the pain, you should do it, period. And if you don’t, you’re going to lose credibility worldwide.”
After Mr. Biden’s trip, the reservations inside the U.S. government about a ground invasion only grew. Israeli leaders did not appear to have an endgame for the invasion, American officials said. And Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet had no plans for what to do with Gaza once Israeli troops went in and began occupying, at least temporarily, some or all of it.
In late October, Mr. Austin advised Israeli officials to hold off on the ground invasion. He argued that both the Americans and the Israelis needed more time for hostage negotiations, to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza, to do better war planning and to strengthen defenses around U.S. troops in the region, who were coming under increasing attack from Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.
In some ways, the Americans were pushing on an open door. They had detected signs that Mr. Netanyahu was reluctant to proceed with a ground invasion.
U.S. officials have also realized that there is virtually no way for them to win over more diplomatic support for Israel. If anything, countries around the world, especially in the global south, are moving the other way as the Palestinian death toll grows. Even European allies of the United States are divided on Israel’s war. U.S. officials say they realize that what they were able to do with Ukraine — building a coalition of international support — will be impossible to do with Israel.
“The grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people,” António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, said last Tuesday, drawing calls for his resignation by Israel’s ambassador.
Saudi officials have warned top American officials and lawmakers in recent meetings and calls that a ground invasion by Israel could be catastrophic for the region.
Many governments around the world have voiced the need for an immediate cease-fire. A growing number of U.S. lawmakers, including ones who in statements have emphasized their Jewish American backgrounds, say Israel should commit to “humanitarian pauses” to address the crisis in Gaza.
For Mr. Biden, the tightrope walk continues.
On Sunday, Mr. Sullivan signaled that the United States would continue to press Israel, publicly and privately, for restraint.
“Those conversations happen multiple times a day. They happen between the president and the prime minister,” he said.
“Sitting here in public,” Mr. Sullivan added, “I will just say that the United States is going to make its principles and propositions absolutely clear, including the sanctity of innocent human life. And then, we will continue to provide our advice to Israel in private.”