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Biden admin carefully ramps up criticism of Israel over the Gaza war but stops short of cutting off military aid

The White House has asked the Pentagon for more options to get additional humanitarian aid to Gaza's hungry civilians by air, land and sea.
A battery of Israel's Iron Dome defense missile system
A battery of Israel's Iron Dome defense missile system deployed to intercept rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, Israel, on Aug. 7, 2022.Ariel Schalit / AP file

President Joe Biden is trying to ramp up political pressure on Israel’s government to allow in more humanitarian aid and rein in its offensive in the Gaza Strip but has stopped short of cutting off weapons deliveries to America’s main ally in the Middle East, current and former officials say.

Reluctant to enter into a full-blown confrontation with Israel, the Biden administration instead has airdropped humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians and held talks in Washington with a political rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz. It has also stepped up public criticism of Israel’s tactics in Gaza — though, as NBC News has reported, apparently not as much as Vice President Kamala Harris would like.

Dismayed at the plight of Palestinian civilians and with no letup in the Israeli campaign, the White House National Security Council asked the Pentagon in recent weeks for possible options to get more aid into Gaza by air, land and sea, two administration officials told NBC News.

Based on the Pentagon’s advice, the president opted for airdrops of aid, and U.S. aircraft over the weekend began dropping pallets of food and other supplies on parachutes just off Gaza’s coast. On Tuesday, three U.S. Air Force planes dropped 60 bundles with 36,000 meals, accompanied by four Royal Jordanian Air Force planes that dropped additional supplies, a U.S. official said, and more deliveries are expected.

The administration’s “soft power” approach emphasizing humanitarian relief is shaped by both the domestic political pressure Biden is under at home to help stop the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, as well as a pragmatic belief that focusing on aid is the president’s best option while delicate negotiations continue to secure a six-week cease-fire deal, current and former officials said.

The U.S. military has carried out airdrops in other conflicts over the decades, helping Kurds facing attacks from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Bosnian Muslims besieged by Serb forces in eastern Bosnia, and civilians under assault by Islamic State group militants in Iraq and Syria. But the airdrops over Gaza were unusual, with the U.S. launching the operation to assist civilians affected by a military offensive carried out by an ally armed by Washington.

Harris delivered blunt criticism of Israel on Sunday, marking the latest in a series of critical comments from the White House over the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza. NBC News reported that the original draft of her speech contained much harsher language before it was softened by the White House National Security Council. Yet her public condemnation was still notable, and it foreshadowed what will likely be more criticism from the president in his State of the Union address later this week.

“People in Gaza are starving. The conditions are inhumane, and our common humanity compels us to act,” Harris said at an event marking the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Alabama. “The Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses.”

A maritime corridor?

Apart from more airdrops, the administration is looking at other options to move more food and aid into Gaza, including possibly building a floating dock or makeshift causeway off the coast of the enclave to enable ships to deliver humanitarian supplies, a U.S. official said. Such an undertaking likely would require other countries or international agencies to secure the area and ferry aid to shore, as the administration has ruled out any presence of American troops in Gaza.

Referring to a possible “maritime assistance corridor,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters that “we are in discussion with a number of partners about this initiative and while it is still in the development phase, we are optimistic about its potential to supplement our air and land efforts.”

Expanding humanitarian access to Gaza will be at the top of the agenda when Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Gantz on Tuesday, with the secretary planning to appeal for the opening of the key Erez crossing, Miller said.

The distribution of aid within Gaza, especially in the enclave’s north, continues to pose a challenge after civilians were killed as they rushed an aid convoy. The U.S. has told Israel that the security situation must be addressed and Palestinian civilians cannot be allowed to starve.

“We will be happy to work with Israel and with the United Nations to find the best alternative to ensure that those trucks can safely deliver their food, their water, their medicine,” Miller said, “but an unacceptable answer is leaving those trucks just sitting in warehouses and not getting the aid distributed to the people who desperately need it.”

Opening the door to Netanyahu’s rival

Some administration officials say the Israeli government is starting to listen to the administration’s view that the way the war is unfolding is damaging for Israel over the long term.

Israeli officials say they remain grateful for the support of U.S. officials as they continue to try to destroy Hamas. Privately some of them have said they are worried by the criticism from the Biden administration.

“The Americans are not being very nice to us,” a senior Israeli government official said.

Image: Gaza Death Toll Surpasses 30,000 Amid Talk Of Potential New Ceasefire Deal
People inspect damage and recover items from their homes on Monday following Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza Strip.Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images

Netanyahu in his public statements has been adamant that he is not taking orders from outside of Israel on how to continue the war.

Many Democrats in Congress and foreign governments say the administration needs to bring more pressure to bear on Israel. They argue that only a threat to cut off military aid or to withdraw diplomatic support for Israel at the United Nations will persuade Netanyahu to scale back the offensive in Gaza and open up access for humanitarian convoys.

“What remains is we’ve got a profound contradiction that we have to face directly: We have a situation where the U.S. is airdropping aid on day one, and Israel is dropping bombs on day two,” Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told NBC News. “And the American taxpayer is paying for the aid and the bombs.”

Welch added that “essentially what you’ve got is the prime minister (of Israel) asking us for money and rejecting our advice.”

“And the big question is, from my perspective, whether the president needs to get more aggressive with Netanyahu,” he said.

Another senator from Biden’s party, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, said there was a growing risk that Israel’s and America’s national interests were diverging, unless Netanyahu shifted course.

Murphy said, “There has to be a rapid serious change in direction of Israel’s policy, or our national security interest and Benjamin Netanyahu’s interests are going to clearly be in fundamentally different places.”

Although it has refrained from issuing ultimatums to Israel, the Biden administration on Monday welcomed to Washington a member of Netanyahu’s war Cabinet, Gantz, a centrist seen as the prime minister’s main political opponent. Opinion polls show Gantz’s National Unity party gaining ground against the prime minister’s Likud party.

A Netanyahu ally, Dudi Amsalem, a minister from the Likud party, slammed Gantz for traveling to Washington.

Writing on the social media platform X, he said Americans likely view Gantz as the person “to lead the process of a Palestinian state and the cessation of fighting in Gaza.” He added: “You entered the emergency government to create a consensus during wartime ... not to stop the [Israel Defense Forces] from winning the war.”

But the administration sees maintaining a channel with Gantz as a way of possibly shaping Israel’s decision-making and keeping options open for the future, former officials said.

“We have been dealing with all members of the war Cabinet, including Mr. Gantz,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said. “We see this as a natural outgrowth of those discussions. We’re not going to turn away that sort of opportunity.”

The State Department said Monday that the U.S. continues to supply weapons to Israel because the Hamas leaders behind the Oct. 7 terror attacks, the worst in Israel’s history, are still at large.

“They would relaunch the attacks of Oct. 7, today, tomorrow if they had the capability to do so,” Miller, the State Department spokesperson, told reporters. “So we support Israel’s legitimate military campaign consistent with international humanitarian law.”

Aiming for a cease-fire deal

Despite the mounting friction with Netanyahu, Biden remains an ardent supporter of Israel, shaped by his long career in the Senate and his emotional connection to the Jewish state and its history, former officials and analysts say.

Biden has faced fierce criticism from younger progressives in the party and from Arab Americans for his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, with more than 100,000 voters in Michigan’s Democratic primary choosing “uncommitted” instead of Biden.

But Biden’s team also is wary of providing any ammunition to Republicans or pro-Israel hawks that the president has in any way abandoned Israel.

Most importantly, the administration believes that withholding military aid could prove counterproductive as the main objective now is to clinch a six-week cease-fire deal designed to stop the fighting and secure the release of dozens of hostages still held by Hamas, according to Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

“The main reason in my view is Biden understands he needs to make a difference, not a point,” Miller said. “And the difference is this: Without an Israel-Hamas cease-fire — which would allow surging humanitarian aid into Gaza; a suspension of Israeli military activities; the release of the women, the elderly and the sick hostages — you might as well hang the ‘closed for the season’ sign on American policy. This is the only way to even begin to start to de-escalate.”