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Inside Biden's 'quiet,' 'relentless' diplomatic scramble on Gaza

The president's approach to the conflict was driven by a singular goal: End the violence as soon as possible so he could train his focus back onto his domestic agenda.
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WASHINGTON — As the first rocket fire was exchanged between Israel and Hamas, President Joe Biden settled on a strategy. And as he had throughout the 2020 campaign, Biden adhered to it despite mounting criticism from Republicans and even his own Democratic Party.

His approach was stylistically muted and substantively more hard-line than some of his allies had expected. It was driven by a singular goal: to end the violence as soon as possible so he could train his focus back onto his domestic agenda.

To accomplish that, Biden chose not to publicly lay bare disagreements with his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although the two have their differences. He said little publicly about the issue and entertained few questions about the topic. During a trip to Michigan this week, Biden even joked about running over a reporter who wanted to ask him a question about Israel. And he backed Netanyahu's assault on Gaza to an extent that surprised some fellow Democrats and angered others.

"My sense is the White House doesn't see a lot of benefit in negotiating in public with the Israelis or Palestinians," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

"This town has gotten used to diplomacy being conducted on Twitter," Murphy added in a reference to former President Donald Trump's prolific use of social media. "And so it's kind of shocking when the Biden administration decides to have more private conversations with our allies and adversaries and share less information than the Trump administration did publicly."

The White House cast the cease-fire announcement Thursday between Israel and Hamas as a victory for what it had dubbed "quiet, intensive diplomacy" led by Biden. This account of how Biden navigated the first major foreign policy crisis of his presidency is based on conversations with 10 administration officials and others with knowledge of the strategy.

'A lousy hand of cards'

A senior administration official said the U.S. is "optimistic" that the cease-fire will hold while acknowledging that it's a fragile peace that will require continued engagement by the administration and countries in the region, particularly Egypt, to maintain.

A source familiar with the discussions and a senior administration official said no conditions were attached to the cease-fire. But even before Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, administration officials had been discussing what type of aid the U.S. would provide to help rebuild Gaza and offer humanitarian relief. Biden is also expected to soon announce his nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to the region next week.

Early in the conflict, the White House and the State Department privately conveyed to the Israelis that Biden wanted a swift end to the violence. Administration officials feared a long fight, and some were concerned that the Israelis would follow through with threats of a ground invasion into Gaza.

Biden's national security team told the Israelis he wouldn't accept a scenario like the 2014 conflict, which lasted 51 days and left 2,000 Palestinians dead.

Multiple administration officials said the president's position was a result of "lessons learned" from the Obama administration's approach to the 2014 violence between Israel and Hamas. In particular, they cited the Biden team's engagement of countries in the region as "very different" from 2014 and ultimately effective.

Biden never publicly demanded that Israel agree to a cease-fire through 11 days of fighting when more than 200 people were killed, the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians. It was a calculated decision.

Instead, the White House issued a written statement Monday saying Biden supported a cease-fire. And Wednesday, in another written statement, the White House said he conveyed to Netanyahu "that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire."

But that was the harshest language toward Israel ever attributed to Biden during the crisis.

Even when some administration officials had concerns about the credibility of intelligence Israel presented to the U.S., which it said detailed Hamas' underground tunnel system in Gaza and how the militant group embedded in buildings it has targeted, according to two people familiar with the matter, the administration tried to delicately navigate that view in public.

"It's a lousy hand of cards, but the Biden team has played it as best they can," a person close to the White House said.

'Where is this going?'

Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key player on national security issues for eight years as vice president, has extensive knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian dynamics and knows the leaders involved well.

Throughout the conflict, he has found himself navigating territory that was both very familiar and somewhat uncharted. The decisions were his to make, and he was in the leading role, not a supporting one. The outcome would reflect solely on him.

Some White House officials, who initially thought the violence would subside after a few days, held off on a presidential phone call to Netanyahu because it was a card they thought they'd get to play only once. In the end, Biden said Thursday that he had spoken with Netanyahu six times over less than two weeks and twice with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Initially, Biden asked: "Where is this going? What is your objective?"

After their calls Monday and Wednesday, the White House was privately conveying that the conversations had become more tense. The shift coincided with an increase in the number of civilian casualties among Palestinians and widespread outrage over Israel's striking a building that housed journalists, although no deaths were reported. Administration officials saw the strike as a "strategic blunder" by Israel even if it was tactically advantageous.

Leaks to the media that Biden was striking a harsher tone privately than what his public posture suggested were part of the strategy. So, too, was outreach to Israeli, Palestinian and Arab officials across the region from Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top administration officials.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also tried to convince his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, multiple times in phone calls that Israel had met its military objectives.

And by Wednesday, Biden told Netanyahu that he also believed Israel had met its objectives and that it was time to wind down the offensive. Netanyahu spoke defiantly in public, but the administration was hopeful that he would agree to a cease-fire.

The Israeli government was always prepared to lose the global public relations battle and take heat from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But Israeli officials were surprised to lose the battle among more centrist congressional Democrats, particularly Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. When Murphy and Kaine called for a cease-fire, Israeli officials knew the pressure was going to mount.

That gave Biden leverage to increase the pressure on Netanyahu.

Yet while administration officials were confident that Biden could deal effectively with Netanyahu, they needed someone to restrain Hamas. Four days before the cease-fire was announced, Egypt showed that it could play that role. The Egyptians told the U.S. that Hamas' long-range rockets would stop going into Tel Aviv — and they did.

Overall, Biden's personal diplomacy had an intentionally narrow focus. It wasn't until Thursday that he held his first phone call since the violence began with a leader in the region other than Netanyahu or Abbas. Biden spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

Biden's message to al-Sissi was essentially that he was encouraging the Israelis to end the conflict — and that he needed to make sure the other side would do the same.

Despite the growing criticism from Congress, the White House took a light approach to Capitol Hill. Republicans argued that Biden wasn't backing Israel enough, and Democrats said he needed to be tougher on Netanyahu.

The only known direct conversation between the president and a Democrat critical of his approach happened Tuesday, when Biden touched down in Detroit and was greeted by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. Biden later singled out Tlaib, who had publicly called Netanyahu the "apartheid-in-chief" and accused him of committing war crimes, to say he admired her passion and concern.

'Quiet and relentless diplomacy'

"They're a closed group," a Democrat close to the White House said of the Biden team. "They have not volunteered a lot, but every time I reach out, I get the answer I need."

A senior administration official defended the approach.

"It was very sensitive diplomacy," the official said. "We were a little cautious about explaining everything we were doing."

Republicans tried to link Biden's handling of the conflict to his diplomatic outreach to Iran, which they oppose. As Hamas continued to launch rockets into Israel, 44 GOP lawmakers sent a letter to the White House calling for an immediate halt to any sanctions relief for Iran.

Yet while Hamas has produced hundreds of rockets with guidance from Iranian weapons specialists, Israeli officials played down Tehran's direct hand in the recent violence.

"They are not the ones calling the shots and organizing the actual fighting," Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, international spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, told reporters over the weekend. "They are not the ones controlling Hamas."

White House officials also played down the way Iran — Biden's main focus in the Middle East since he took office — has loomed over the crisis, insisting that Iran wasn't a factor in their discussions and seeking to separate it from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Blinken said the administration's indirect diplomatic discussions with Iran would continue.

In his remarks Thursday night, Biden vowed to maintain his understated approach.

"I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy," Biden said. "My administration will continue our quiet and relentless diplomacy toward that end."