210512 gaza
Smoke billows from Israeli air strikes in Gaza City. More than 230 people were killed in Gaza, including 65 children. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The statement blasted out last Saturday by Sen. Robert Menendez, Democract, New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in response to the ongoing violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip was unusually harsh - and immediately set off a “commotion” inside the White House, according to one person familiar with the reaction.

Israel was out of line and needed to explain its actions, including the destruction of a Gaza high-rise containing international media offices, said Menendez, usually a staunch supporter of Israel and thus a bellwether voice of changing US politics on the conflict between Israel and Hamas militants.

“This violence must end,” Menendez concluded. “Any death of civilians and innocent Jews and Arabs alike is a setback to stability and peace in the Middle East.”


Menendez did not coordinate his criticism of the US ally with the administration, nor did he give the White House a heads-up - prompting the scramble by President Joe Biden’s aides to understand the influential senator’s shift in tone and what it meant about mainstream Democratic attitudes toward the conflict.

No member of Congress swayed Biden’s thinking or the White House strategy, a senior administration official said, but the changing political mood did give administration officials an opening to further press Israel to wind down the conflict.

The shifting political sands were a key component in Biden’s own evolving response to the Gaza conflict, which is the first major foreign policy crisis of his administration and which is viewed inside the administration as an unwelcome diversion from other priorities at home and abroad. The episode also marks a clear inflection point in US-Israel relations, reflecting growing scepticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among Democrats alarmed by the Israeli leader’s recent actions - as well as his solicitous relationship with former president Donald Trump.

Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire late Thursday ending 11 days of fighting, but only after more than 80 calls and contacts among US officials and Israeli and Arab officials, including six conversations between Biden and Netanyahu, according to officials familiar with the talks.

“It’s a very very different political environment that both the Biden administration and Israel are going to have to take into account,” said Frank Lowenstein, who was a special envoy for the Obama administration’s peace effort. “The question is, ‘Who can exert political influence on the administration?’ And I think there’s no question there were a lot of loud progressive voices that Biden was listening to this time around.”

The cease-fire took effect early Friday, hours after Israel’s security cabinet voted to approve an Egyptian initiative to stop the fighting. Israel said the truce was unconditional, but that it followed a successful artillery campaign to damage Hamas’s military infrastructure and kill many of its commanders. Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, said it had also agreed with the Egyptian proposal, which came into force at 2am local time.

Egyptian mediators

The White House claimed a measure of victory for helping to bring the fighting to an end faster than in previous episodes, with Biden crediting Egyptian mediators and reiterating U.S. support for Israel’s self-defence against militants. At the same time, Biden seemed mindful of the rising Democratic concern that reflexive support for Israel may come at the expense of sympathy for Palestinians.

“There is no shift in my commitment, commitment, to the security of Israel, period,” Biden said Friday when asked about the changing politics among Democrats. “No shift at all.”

Biden said the next challenge will be to rebuild homes and infrastructure in Gaza without benefiting Hamas, and then turned back to US politics.

“And I think that, you know, my party still supports Israel. Let’s get something straight here. Until the region says unequivocally they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace.”

Health officials in Gaza said the air bombardment killed 232 Palestinians, including at least 65 children. Hamas rockets left 12 dead in Israel, two of them children, and sent residents of much of the country repeatedly fleeing for shelter.

A clear pivot point in the US posture toward the fighting came a week ago, on May 15, when an Israeli airstrike demolished a Gaza Strip high rise that housed an Associated Press office and other media hubs, and which Israel claimed was also occupied by Hamas military intelligence.

Biden administration staffers learned of the strike the same way most of the rest of the world did - through video images and news accounts, according to one person familiar with the engagement of the crisis.

That person and others familiar with the administration’s handling of the crisis requested anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat, Michigan, the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress, was among the Democrats casting public doubt on Israel’s explanation. But to have Menendez express similar outrage crystallised the dilemma for the White House, caught between a foreign policy imperative to back Israel and rising dissatisfaction at home.

Copy of NETANYAHU-ASSESS-4-1621684569458
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat, Michigan, the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress, with Biden on Friday.

In his statement after the strike, Menendez reiterated Israel’s right to self-defence, a standard bipartisan position shared by Biden that is increasingly questioned by younger and more liberal Democrats. But Menendez added, “I am deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets.”

Menendez and Biden have not talked since the senator issued his statement, according to a person familiar with the relationship.

While challenging, the two-paragraph missive from Menendez also provided Biden and his team with an opening to take a harsher line with Netanyahu. The pressure was twofold: Show some proof that the strike was justified and bring the conflict to a swift end, people familiar with US and Israeli diplomacy said.

“That helped us, frankly,” one US official said.

The administration’s posture shifted from that point, from initial unqualified backing for Israeli actions to support tempered with references to Palestinian rights and pressure on Netanyahu to wind down the conflict.

Biden struck a friendly tone on May 12 in the first phone call he held with Netanyahu since fighting had begun two days before, according to people familiar with the discussion.

Biden’s aides later provided a readout that offered a muscular defense of Israel, in which Biden condemned the Hamas rocket attacks and conveyed “his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians.”

The following day, Biden still appeared to back the Israeli operation without reservation, saying he had seen no “significant overreaction.” By that point, three days into the armed conflict, 85 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, including a pair of boys playing outside their home in the southern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Ten Israelis had died.

But after Israel’s attack on the high rise on May 15, the administration’s tone changed along with Menendez’s.

Restrained support of Israel

Biden - whose often jaundiced view of Netanyahu is born of a sometimes bumpy 40-year political relationship - offered more restrained support of Israel in their second phone call on the day of the strike. A readout from the White House said Biden “raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection.”

The next day, speaking at a news conference in Copenhagen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken added that the United States asked Israel for “additional details regarding the justification” of their strike on the high-rise, but that he had “not seen any information provided.”

In the days since, Israeli officials have maintained that intelligence showing that the building housed Hamas militants was shared with the United States, while US officials privately and unsuccessfully urged Israel to make more information public. One person familiar with the events described exasperation and disbelief among Biden aides, who believed that whatever the justification, the strike was unhelpful at best.

“It certainly feels like a turning point because the Israelis were pretty slow to communicate the intelligence they had that justified this as a target,” said Dennis A. Ross, a former American envoy to the Middle East under both Democratic and Republican presidents. “Had this been conveyed in a way that was timely and if the intelligence was compelling, it would have been one thing, and it really wasn’t.”

But, Ross added, by beginning the discussions from the conviction that Israel has an absolute right to self-defence, the Biden administration also proved its “bona fides” to Israel.

“You’re hit from 4,000 rockets from next door, it’s unthinkable you don’t have a right to respond, it’s unthinkable that there’s not a price to pay,” he said, summarising the opening US position.

That, he said, helped buy Biden some additional leverage when the United States decided this week to more forcefully push its ally toward a cease-fire as the crisis worsened.

Frequent critic of Israel

Netanyahu, facing his own political turmoil back home, found an increasingly skeptical audience among US Democratic lawmakers beyond Menendez. A shift in public sentiment is underway in the Democratic Party, with lawmakers such as Tlaib, a frequent critic of Israel, likening the attacks on the Palestinians to the racial justice movement in the United States.

“It is our duty to end the apartheid system that for decades has subjected Palestinians to inhumane treatment and racism,” Tlaib said in a speech on the House floor several days after the fighting broke out.

On Tuesday, she also spoke privately with Biden for several minutes when he visited a Ford electrical vehicle plan in Dearborn, Michigan, which is nearly 50 per cent Arab American. Shortly after, while speaking at the plant, Biden thanked Tlaib for being “a fighter” and said he was praying for her “grandmom and family” in the Middle East.

On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent, Vermont, who is Jewish, introduced a resolution disapproving of the US sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel, echoing a similar bill in the House. One Democratic Hill staffer said many of the Democrats who support Israel have grown increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu and his government.

Copy of BIDEN-NETANYAHU-4-1621684559911
People take out a rally in support of Palestine in Dearborn, Michigan, which is nearly 50 per cent Arab American. Image Credit: NYT

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were both in near-daily contact with Israeli military chiefs, and had what US officials described as a good sense of the targets Israel wanted to hit and its progress in running down that list.

As the list grew shorter, so did US patience. US officials argued that as time passed, Israel’s military should balance the legitimate military imperative to destroy rocket sites and other targets against the cost in lives and international standing from taking the conflict too far.

The change was clear in public statements this week.

On Monday, Biden spoke with Netanyahu for a third time since the crisis began and “expressed his support for a cease-fire,” according to the White House readout of the call. While that may sound mild, it represented the start of a countdown clock on vocal US support.

Use of the word “cease-fire” was significant, since Israel generally rejects the term on the grounds that it implies a government-to-government agreement and thus confers undue legitimacy on Hamas. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican, Kentucky, for instance, said a cease-fire was problematic because “there is no moral equivalency” between Hamas and Israel.

'Expecting significant de-escalation'

And on Wednesday, in his fourth phone call with Netanyahu, Biden offered his most stark warning yet. A terse readout of the call - just three sentences - made no mention of Israel’s right to defend itself, and said that Biden “conveyed to the Prime Minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire.”

The clipped language of the statement was not lost on Democrats, Israeli officials or longtime Middle East observers. It reflected a conversation between Biden and Netanyahu that one person familiar with it described as frank and direct, but not contentious.

Biden told Netanyahu what other US officials had been telling Israeli officials since the Menendez statement landed: The political ground in Washington was growing perilous for Netanyahu should he press the conflict much further. In unusually blunt terms, Biden told Netanyahu that he “expected” to see the conflict wind down that day.

For his part, Netanyahu knew that message was coming, said another person. And his government had already given the Biden administration an indication that the Hamas target list was growing shorter, though not exhausted.

Biden’s team was not worried when Israeli military strikes continued apace on Wednesday, said one person familiar with the White House thinking. The White House thought Israel was crossing a few more targets off its list and would then engage ongoing efforts toward a cease-fire. That is largely what happened, the person familiar with White House thinking said.

The deadline conveyed by Biden, while unofficial and unenforceable, was also nearly unprecedented.

Complicated diplomacy

Netanyahu did not comply immediately, continuing to press the air campaign through the day on Thursday even as cease-fire negotiations took shape. The complicated diplomacy involved Egypt, serving as a go-between with the Hamas militants.

Biden held two more phone calls with Netanyahu on Thursday, including one after the cease-fire had been announced.

Many experts said the dangers to Israel politically ran the risk of outweighing the potential benefits if the country had not agreed to the cease-fire.

“You run the risk of having a catastrophic event where you kill a large number of people that will create such a torrent that it will be difficult to hold the line and from your own standpoint, it would be difficult to for you to present yourself as righteous in the view of the rest of the world,” Ross said.