How the Biden Administration Tried to Slow Israel’s Invasion of Gaza

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
An Israeli soldier carries a tank shell near the border of Gaza on Oct. 1.

Within days of pledging “rock solid and unwavering” support for Israel in the wake of Hamas’s vicious Oct. 7 attack that left at least 1,400 Israelis dead, President Biden began gently reminding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “democracies like Israel and the United States are stronger and more secure when we act according to the rule of law.”

By the time Biden arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday – amid Israeli airstrikes that had already killed more than 3,000 Palestinians inside Gaza, an ongoing siege that left millions of civilians without food and water and preparations for a full-scale Israeli ground assault of the enclave – the need to buy time for Israel “to think this through,” in the words of one U.S. official, had become a core objective of the trip.

Neither Biden, nor Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin or others in direct contact with their Israeli counterparts, told them what to do or what not to do, according to public statements and interviews with a range of senior administration and foreign officials who discussed the tumultuous and sensitive days of the past two weeks on the condition of anonymity.

But worry was growing in Washington, and its outreach culminated with Biden’s seven and a half hours on the ground in Israel. In meetings with Netanyahu and his cabinet, the president expressed his concerns and posed questions.

What if there is more Hamas resistance to a ground attack than you anticipate, and your forces get bogged down? What about humanitarian aid? How will you protect civilians? What about the hundreds of Israelis and foreigners being held hostage? What if the West Bank becomes a war zone? If Hezbollah attacks from the north? If Iran gets directly involved?

And then came the longer-term concerns, something the Israelis, in their immediate rage, seemed less interested in contemplating: If you succeed in destroying Hamas, what will you do with Gaza? And what will happen to your hopes – and ours – for broader Middle East peace?

Biden reminded the Israelis of the “mistakes” the United States had made as it struck out in fury after the al-Qaeda attacks in September 2001, he told reporters on Air Force One as he traveled back to Washington on Wednesday night.

“I cautioned the government of Israel not to be blinded by rage,” he said.

Two weeks after the surprise Hamas attack, even as the Biden administration continues to extend full-throated support for Israel, it is trying to prevent the nightmare scenario 0f a wider regional war. World attention has already begun shifting from sympathy for murdered Israelis to concern for the plight of Palestinian civilians and criticism of U.S. support for Israel. Anger at the airstrikes and the long history Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation of both the West Bank and Gaza is boiling over in Arab capitals, with massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations and attacks on U.S. and European embassies.

U.S. forces in the region, including two naval carrier groups sent to the eastern Mediterranean as a deterrent to outside involvement, are at risk of being drawn into the conflict. Missile and drone attacks against American troops in Iraq and Syria, which had largely ceased last spring as the administration renewed tentative engagement with Iran, have started up again. On Friday a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea intercepted cruise missiles launched toward Israel by Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the administration’s hopes for an expansion of the Abraham Accords – the Trump-era diplomatic rapprochement between some Arab countries and Israel – now seem indefinitely postponed, if not doomed.

The diplomacy of ‘being there’

Even before Blinken left on Oct. 11 for a trip originally scheduled with stops in Israel and Jordan, his itinerary had been expanded to include Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. In Israel, he repeated unbreakable U.S. backing for its right to self-defense. In Arab capitals, he was told of the need to rein in Israel’s response and help the Gaza Palestinians, whose plight increasingly dominated global media.

Austin had decided shortly after the Hamas attack that he wanted to go to Israel to demonstrate U.S. support – including major arms shipments – as well as to show potential outside belligerents that the United States was invested in the region. With a trip to a NATO meeting in Brussels already scheduled, he added a stop in Tel Aviv.

“It’s a really important opportunity when you’re there to really talk through how the Israelis are approaching what is in many ways a historic challenge,” a senior U.S. defense official said in an interview.

The defense secretary’s Oct. 13 arrival in Tel Aviv coincided with rising White House anxiety that events could spin out of control. When Austin made his low key entry to the Defense Ministry via an underground parking garage, he embraced his waiting Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Austin, who knew well the challenges of urban warfare from his days as a four-star general overseeing the campaign to root out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had some knowledge to share. In their private talks, he urged Gallant to “think through what they are trying to achieve” and how to do it, the defense official said.

At a news conference before his departure, Austin firmly took Israel’s side, saying that after the attacks, “this is no time for neutrality or for false equivalence or for excuses for the inexcusable.” But he called for calm in the days ahead. “This is a time for resolve and not revenge, for purpose and not panic, and for security and not surrender.”

Other Western governments, amid expressions of support, were privately delivering the same message. “Our advice to them isn’t ‘don’t do it,’ because we completely respect their right to go after Hamas and that means going after them wherever they are,” said one NATO defense minister. “So it’s not don’t do it, but it is think about what happens and have a strategy, not just a tactical maneuver.”

As Blinken crisscrossed the region last week, he stopped three times in Israel, which included multiple engagements with its war cabinet. Each time, he stressed U.S. support and understanding of what Israelis had gone through, but emphasized that “we want them to think soberly about what happens next,” a U.S. official said.

“Waging the war in a humane way doesn’t just give Israel a moral high ground, it also makes sense strategically,” said another U.S. official.

Biden’s historic trip

Last Monday, the White House decided that it would take Biden to bring the message home. As his trip to Israel was being planned – the first for a U.S. president in Israel’s wartime – it was decided that Biden should also travel to Jordan, where he would meet with King Abdullah II. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, would also travel to Amman, Jordan, for the meeting, where Biden planned to emphasize his concern for the Palestinians and efforts to get humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza.

Before Biden’s trip was announced, Blinken participated Monday evening in what became a marathon session with Israel’s war cabinet, seeking to wrangle assurances on humanitarian steps that could be taken to ease the suffering of Palestinians to balance the political victory that Netanyahu would gain from a Biden visit. Bibi, as the prime minister was widely known, was facing heavy criticism in Israel for failing to anticipate the Hamas assault and waiting days to meet with the family members of hostages.

As Monday night bled into early Tuesday, Israeli and U.S. officials sat in separate rooms and passed papers between the two sides as they negotiated over the establishment of a safe zone for civilians in Gaza and getting aid inside. The issue consumed the better part of seven hours, according to U.S. officials familiar with the discussions.

When he emerged from the meeting, Blinken said they had agreed to “develop a plan” that would include “the possibility of creating areas to help keep civilians out of harm’s way.” Pressed by reporters, he provided no timeline for when such a plan would be ready, or any details about how safe zones might work in Gaza – a densely populated territory where civilians and militants are nestled tightly together.

On Tuesday, the itinerary for Biden’s trip was suddenly thrown into jeopardy by reports that hundreds of civilians had been killed in an “explosion” at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza.

By evening, Washington time, U.S. officials said that “by mutual agreement” Biden’s stop in Jordan was off. Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, was returning to the West Bank, where he had declared three days of mourning. Sisi, whose agreement was needed to help secure aid to Gaza through the only crossing from Egypt, wasn’t going to come. In Jordan, a close U.S. ally that had its own problems with a massive Palestinian population, the street demonstrations were growing, amid charges that the hospital had been hit by an Israeli airstrike.

Welcoming the American president to Amman, it was decided, was not a good look for the Jordanian government at this time.

Both Abdullah and Sisi were also worried about increasing calls from some quarters, including some U.S. lawmakers, that the solution to the Gaza problem lay in resettling Gazans permanently in Jordan and Egypt.

Amid this swirl of anger and diplomacy late Tuesday, Biden left for Israel. He hoped to solidify and be able to come home with the details of Blinken’s agreement that, at a minimum, would allow hundreds of aid-laden trucks waiting in Egypt to be allowed entry into Gaza, with mutual assurances they would carry no goods for Hamas and would not need to fear Israeli airstrikes.

In a statement issued as he traveled, the president said he was “outraged” by the hospital explosion. The United States, he said, “stands unequivocally for the protection of civilian life during conflict.”

As he began his talks Wednesday with Netanyahu and his government, the United Nations Security Council met in an emergency session on the crisis. In a vote on a resolution that both condemned the Hamas attacks and called for a pause in airstrikes to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, only the United States voted against it. Casting the latest of many U.S. vetoes on measures concerning Israel, through multiple administrations of both parties, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield explained that the resolution failed to confirm Israel’s right to defend itself.

With the exception of Britain, which abstained, all of the United States’ allies on the council voted in favor.

By the time Biden was ready to head home late Wednesday, the United States, while saying its own inquiry was ongoing, had confirmed Israel’s protestations that it had not bombed the hospital. The explosion, both said, had come from an errant rocket fired by Gaza militants toward Israel.

After he called Sisi from his plane, Biden told reporters on board that he had confirmed with Egypt and Israel that the first 20 trucks of humanitarian aid could safely enter Gaza, most likely on Friday.

The clock is ticking, for Israel and Gaza

In the days after his return, it was unclear how much had been accomplished. On Thursday night, Biden addressed the nation on the situation, performing the now-familiar balancing act between unwavering support for Israel and commitment to help the Palestinians. He said he was asking Congress for an extra $106 billion in supplemental funding, much of it for weapons for both Israel and Ukraine.

A majority of lawmakers have called for unequivocal support for Israel, with many – particularly conservatives – advocating a gloves-off approach of maximum aggression and likening any calls for restraint to a betrayal of one of America’s most important allies. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday that “unequivocal support from the United States is critical,” and calls “for our Israeli allies to stand down” are a “shameful spectacle.”

Several Republican senators, including Rick Scott (Fla.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) introduced bills to block humanitarian assistance from reaching Gaza or Palestinian refugees.

Others, primarily Democrats, echoed administration concerns. “The hope is that the conflict can be stopped from spreading by deterring Hezbollah and Iran, but also to make sure that Israel has some sense of what the end game is,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Friday in a phone interview.

Blumenthal spoke from Saudi Arabia, where he and several other senators from both parties had just landed for a multination Middle East tour aimed at showing solidarity with Israel and stopping “the widening escalation” of the conflict.

“I think what the president cautioned Israel was they have the clock on their side,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Thursday. “So as they think about this incursion into Gaza, how to do it. It’s one thing to fire rockets or bring tanks or bring troops. It’s another thing to actually how you root out this Hamas leadership with the most minimum casualty loss of innocent Palestinians who are living in Gaza.”

Warner said he hoped and prayed that Israel gets “that right.”

As the world waits on what seems like an inevitable invasion of Gaza, progress on humanitarian aid and civilian egress remains scant. Two American hostages were released by Hamas on Friday, with no assurances there would be others. On Saturday morning, 20 trucks were allowed to cross from Egypt into Gaza, while the United Nations said it would take much, much more to make a difference for Palestinians now without food, water, fuel or electricity for nearly two weeks. Another convoy of 14 trucks entered Gaza late Sunday, the U.N. and Israeli military said.

None of the at least 400 American citizens inside Gaza, along with other foreigners and millions of Palestinians, have been allowed to leave the enclave.

As scores of world leaders and diplomats gathered Saturday for an Egyptian-called global summit on the crisis, Arab countries condemned the killing of civilians in Gaza and called for a peace process, while the United Nations reiterated appeals for a cease-fire. Just hours after the Cairo meeting adjourned, Austin announced the deployment of additional U.S. air defenses to the region and said he had placed more American troops on alert to “prepare to deploy” to the region.

A wider conflict is still a concern. On Sunday morning, Israel said that more than 100,000 of its citizens had evacuated the Hezbollah-lined northern border with Lebanon. At the Gaza crossing to Egypt, an apparently accidental fire from an Israeli tank hit Egyptian forces near the miles-long line of aid-packed trucks waiting for clearance to cross into the enclave.

While Biden may have succeeded in slowing the start of an Israeli assault on Gaza, the likelihood of a grueling ground war remains high. Austin, in a rare appearance on a Sunday talk show, recalled that it had taken nine months for Iraqi and U.S. forces under his command to clear the entrenched Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul.

In Gaza, “I think you’ll see a fight that’s . . . just a really grinding activity going forward,” with millions of civilians stuck in the battle space among the mines and tunnels, he told ABC’s “This Week.” In his talks with Gallant, his Israeli counterpart, Austin reiterated, “I’ve encouraged them to conduct their operations in accordance with the law of war.”