White House Grapples with Internal Divisions on Israel-Gaza

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The White House is seen from the top of the Washington Monument April 3, 2003.

Earlier this month, a group of about 20 distressed White House staffers requested a meeting with President Biden’s top advisers, as Israel’s war in Gaza entered its sixth week.

The diverse group of staffers had three main issues they wanted to discuss with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, senior adviser Anita Dunn and deputy national security adviser Jon Finer: They wanted to know the administration’s strategy for curbing the number of civilian deaths, the message it plans to send on the conflict and its postwar vision for the region.

Zients, Dunn and Finer listened respectfully, but some participants felt they fell back on familiar talking points, said a White House official familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private exchange. The administration had to be careful not to criticize Israel in public so it could influence its leaders in private, the advisers said. U.S. officials were pushing Israel to minimize civilian casualties. And the president and his top aides were advocating for a two-state solution once the conflict was over.

The previously unreported meeting of officials underscores how Biden’s handling of what is arguably the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency is dividing a White House that has prided itself on running a disciplined and united operation. The Israel-Gaza war has roiled the administration more than any other issue in Biden’s first three years in office, according to numerous aides and allies inside and outside the White House, as staffers agonize over their positions on highly emotional issues.

Adding to the sensitivity, the unwavering embrace of Israel that many staffers find upsetting stems in large part from Biden’s personal lifelong attachment to the Jewish state, aides said. Biden often cites his 1973 meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir as a seminal event that crystallized his view of Israel as critical for Jewish survival.

At the time, Israel was 25 years old, a left-leaning nation and a military underdog, struggling to find its way in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Now Israel is a military powerhouse led by a far-right coalition, and the Biden administration has become identified with a military campaign that has killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, created a humanitarian disaster and damaged America’s moral authority in much of the world.

Yet there are limits to how much the United States has been able to influence Israel’s actions as it largely refrains from criticizing them publicly. “I think the administration has realized from quite early on that it was in a bind,” said Ivo Daalder, chief executive of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who served as NATO ambassador under President Barack Obama.

“And it was in a bind not only because of Biden’s own predilection, which is real and strong and important,” Daalder said, but because of the political costs of breaking with Israel, especially after the bloody Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,200 people and resulted in over 200 hostages taken.

This account of how the administration has handled the Israel-Gaza war is based on interviews with 27 White House officials, senior administration officials and outside advisers, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly to reveal internal conversations.

White House officials contend that Biden’s “bear hug” approach to Israel has given him credibility with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, allowing the president to exert the kind of pressure that led to the current hostage deal and fighting pause. U.S. officials are now using the pause to urge Israel to make its expected military operation in the south of Gaza, where nearly 2 million Palestinians are concentrated, more targeted and less deadly, according to two senior administration officials.

Biden’s foreign policy team has long been mindful of the influence of Washington’s pro-Israel lobbying organizations. But the changing demographics of key swing states, such as Michigan, home to a growing Arab American community, is prompting some Democratic analysts to question the conventional political wisdom.

Progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have urged Biden to make America’s $3.8 billion in annual aid to Israel conditional on an end to the widespread bombing of Gaza and a freeze on West Bank settlements. Biden said Friday that was a “worthwhile thought,” but that if he had done it too quickly it would have hurt his leverage with Israel, adding, “I don’t think if I started off with that we ever would have gotten to where we are today.”

The division inside the White House is to some degree between Biden’s senior longtime aides and an array of younger staffers of diverse backgrounds. But even top advisers said they recognize the conflict has hurt America’s global standing. “We’re taking on a lot of water on Israel’s behalf,” one senior official said. Still, Biden’s aides noted that his public statements have become increasingly direct on the responsibility Israel has to minimize civilian casualties and to allow aid into Gaza, even as he declines to call for a cease-fire as many liberals want.

The White House also insists it has influenced Israel’s military tactics, pointing out that more than 100 aid trucks a day on average are getting into Gaza and that Israel is now allowing in some fuel. One senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss secret diplomacy, said that after the United States dispatched three senior military officers in late October to advise the Israelis on strategy, they sent only about a third as many troops into Gaza as they had initially planned.

“Following the deadliest attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust, President Biden remains focused on helping Israel defend itself against the imminent threat posed by Hamas,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement, citing Biden’s efforts to secure the release of hostages and the transit of aid into Gaza. “The president, his senior staff and his entire team are committed to supporting and listening to the communities who are experiencing pain because of the events since October 7, both inside the administration and throughout the country.”

Some experts said Biden would have more room to maneuver if he had moderated his support for Israel at the outset last months. “If at the beginning of the conflict we had a more nuanced approach to this, the administration could have distanced itself in a way that would be safer for it diplomatically and politically,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The no-daylight strategy is causing a lot of problems for them.”

‘I will do better’

Biden at times has seemed to wrestle with his own emotions regarding the war. On Oct. 25, he voiced skepticism about the Gaza death toll provided by the Ministry of Health, which is controlled by Hamas. “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed,” he said.

The following day, Biden met with five prominent Muslim Americans, who protested what they saw as his insensitivity to the civilians who were dying. All spoke of people they knew who had been affected by the suffering in Gaza, including a woman who had lost 100 members of her family.

Biden appeared to be affected by their account. “I’m sorry. I’m disappointed in myself,” he told the group, according to two people familiar with the meeting. “I will do better.” The meeting, scheduled for 30 minutes, ended up lasting more than an hour, according to one White House official, and ended with Biden hugging one of the participants.

Many in the White House have been aware since the outset of the political peril that the conflict poses for Biden. Since Hamas launched its attack on Oct. 7, administration officials have held regular discussions with staffers, political appointees and outside groups to reassure them and to gauge their reaction.

On Oct. 7, many in the White House responded viscerally to the brutal nature of the atrocities. Zients emailed staffers expressing empathy with Jewish staffers and those with personal ties to Israel. Many Jewish staffers appreciated the note, but some Arab and Muslim officials felt it was tone-deaf to their concerns, given that Israeli officials were vowing to carry out a scorched-earth campaign in Gaza.

Muslim appointees in the administration began raising “alarm bells” about the email from Zients and what they believed was one-sided rhetoric by the administration, a senior administration official familiar with the efforts said. Shortly after Oct. 7, Zients directed staff to conduct a “robust” internal and external outreach strategy to Jewish, Muslim, Arab and Palestinian American communities. And Dunn, Biden’s top political strategist, has led a daily meeting with about 30 White House staffers responsible for outreach to various communities, according to two senior administration officials.

Both Zients and Dunn have conducted regular meetings and listening sessions with staffers, including those who disagree with the president’s response. After a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was fatally stabbed last month, Zients wrote in an Oct. 17 email: “I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge how difficult it has been for our Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim American colleagues – in addition to our Jewish colleagues.”

As Biden prepared a major Oct. 10 address, one that many Jewish groups would praise as one of the most pro-Israel speeches by a sitting American president, Vice President Harris suggested that he add a line denouncing Islamophobia, according to two White House officials familiar with the planning.

Harris cited the way Islamophobia had dogged the Muslim and Arab communities for years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Biden took the suggestion. But he rejected others, for instance dismissing the recommendation of some staffers that he cut a line about Hamas beheading babies because those reports were unverified.

Biden has received praise from numerous Jewish groups for his empathy since the Oct. 7 attacks, saying he has shown a sensitivity to antisemitism and the Jewish people’s long history of facing persecution. “It has brought to the surface painful memories and scars left by a millennia of antisemitism and the genocide of the Jewish people,” Biden said during a whirlwind trip to Tel Aviv on Oct. 18.

Two Jewish administration officials said there was widespread support internally for Biden’s response and his efforts to address antisemitism. “Antisemitic language and tactics by the far left are making Jewish staffers nervous to speak out and say they are happy with how the response is going,” one of the officials said.

But White House officials have also heard from myriad progressive groups and religious leaders, including some Jewish activists and Black church leaders, who have voiced their concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and urged the administration to call for a cease-fire.

One meeting between White House aides and about a dozen Palestinian Americans turned contentious when participants warned that Biden would lose Arab and Muslim voters over his handling of the war. An aide explained that Biden was not thinking about the issue in political terms and instead was trying to prevent World War III, according to one person familiar with the meeting.

One of the Palestinian Americans in the meeting said the participants left with more resolve to organize their communities not to vote for Biden in the 2024 election. The person said Arabs and Muslims would also not vote for former president Donald Trump, who has called for banning travel to the United States from Muslim-majority countries, but could sit out the race.

Inside the administration, a growing number of American diplomats, defense officials and aid workers have called for a cease-fire, including more than 1,000 staffers at the U.S. Agency for International Development. At the State Department, there have been multiple dissent cables from diplomats urging the administration to use more leverage to stop the violence.

One Arab staffer said they felt “empowered” by the level of outreach the White House has conducted. Yet a range of Muslim Americans across the administration have formed group chats to air their disappointment. Many have faced pressure from family and friends to resign in protest, and while most have decided to stay, some said they have lost faith they could influence the administration’s position. “I don’t have any optimism at this point that anything is changing in terms of the policy,” one Muslim staffer said.

Biden and Netanyahu

Some in Biden’s circle worry that he does not distinguish between an idealistic image of the state of Israel and the reality of the Netanyahu government, which includes several representatives from the far right. “The president’s personal historical commitment to Israel was not modulated by the reality that this Israel happens to have a government that is the worst government it’s ever had,” an ally of the administration said. “Biden has underestimated the degree to which you have to separate how Israel reacts to this and how a Netanyahu government reacts to this.”

U.S. officials view Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich as particularly troubling influences who make it harder for Netanyahu to rein in extremist elements in Israeli society. “He’s always looking over his shoulder at the political ramifications of everything,” one U.S. official said of Netanyahu. “So at the time when you need someone to make the right decisions on letting fuel go in so people have water, or reining in West Bank settler violence, he keeps looking over his shoulder at the far-right voices in his cabinet who could balk and collapse his government.”

The first five days after the Hamas attacks were especially troubling, one senior administration official recalled, as Israeli officials were consumed by rage and grief, convinced Hezbollah and Iran were behind the atrocities. U.S. officials helped deter Israel from launching an attack on the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which could have opened another front in the war.

Biden decided to travel to Tel Aviv on Oct. 18 in part to calm the Israelis and to buy time before they launched their ground invasion of Gaza. At a meeting with Netanyahu’s war cabinet, the president was blunt about their strategy. “I completely disagree with that policy,” Biden said of Israel at first refusing to allow aid into Gaza, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy. The president said the United States could not support a comprehensive siege of Gaza in which Israel cut off access to food, fuel, water and electricity.

For much of his presidency, Biden did not prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian issue in his foreign policy, spending far more time on issues such as China and the Russia-Ukraine war. He spent years watching American presidents try and fail to bring comprehensive peace to the region, and concluded that such efforts would fail unless the Israelis and Palestinians had leaders who were deeply committed to the process. That meant that when the attacks erupted, the United States did not have a significant engagement in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has borne the brunt of Arab outrage at the enormous civilian death toll in Gaza as he has traveled to the Middle East twice in the past month, and he has used stronger rhetoric than the president in demanding more restraint. “Far too many Palestinians have been killed. Far too many have suffered these past weeks,” Blinken said on Nov. 10. “There is more that can and should be done to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians.”

The central dispute between Biden and Netanyahu is not over a cease-fire, which neither supports, but over the view in Washington that Israel has an unacceptable standard for proportionality. In its effort to eliminate Hamas, Israel is using powerful bombs, leveling neighborhoods and taking down high-rise buildings, tactics that inevitably kill large numbers of civilians and, many argue, further radicalize the Palestinian population.

U.S. officials said Biden has taken a more confrontational approach to Israel in public and in private in recent weeks, even if it is not always obvious to the public. “Biden has banged Bibi really hard on settler violence and civilian casualties in private,” one official said. Biden has told reporters that the “humanitarian pauses” by Israel in its bombing campaign should have happened sooner and gone on longer. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Biden said the United States is prepared to issue visa bans against Israeli settler “extremists” who have attacked Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.

Many senior officials fear Israel will not show restraint as it moves its operation to the south of Gaza and worry the longer the conflict goes on, the more harmful it will be for Biden politically and diplomatically. While Israeli officials have said the conflict could last a year or longer, U.S. officials remain hopeful that the conflict will not stretch into the heart of the 2024 campaign, because of the speed of the Israeli incursion and an assessment that it does not have the resources to sustain an operation for that long.

Still, Biden officials are in an increasingly vexing predicament. “The problem they have, which is the problem they’ve had from day one, is the Israelis” don’t have “a strategy for doing what they want to do that does not harm, kill and expel a lot of Palestinians from Gaza,” one outside adviser said. “They have to go down south and do the same thing. I don’t know how you do that with 2-plus million people in the south.”