Biden expresses 'support' for Gaza ceasefire in call with Netanyahu

May 18, 2021
US President Joe Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are seen in this file combination picture. — Courtesy photo
US President Joe Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are seen in this file combination picture. — Courtesy photo

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden voiced support for a ceasefire on Monday as intensifying violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza entered a second week.

During a telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden "expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end," a White House statement read.

It was the first time the White House officially made mention of a ceasefire in its ongoing efforts to contain the situation. Yet the language stopped short of a full-on demand for a cessation of violence, something some Democrats have been pressuring Biden to make.

Instead, it suggested Biden was seeking a diplomatic way to end the conflict by encouraging a halt to hostilities without calling explicitly for Israel to stand down.

It was the third time Biden has spoken with Netanyahu in a six-day stretch. Notable shifts in the administration's language following each call have revealed heightened levels of concern over the growing conflict.

The White House said on Monday that Biden reiterated Israel's right to defend itself but "encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians."

They also "discussed progress in Israel's military operations against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza."

The growing number of civilian deaths in the intensifying battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is causing worry inside the White House as officials work the phones with partners in the region.

Over the course of the week-long conflict, Biden had resisted calls from fellow Democrats and foreign allies to publicly increase pressure on Israel amid the worsening violence. Biden's hesitance to criticize Israel's actions and initial reluctance to support a ceasefire raised questions about his strategy in the Middle East among Democrats whose approach to the issue has shifted in recent years.

Speaking Monday, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it would not be "constructive" for the White House to reveal every aspect of Biden's conversations. Instead, she said the US was working through "quiet and intensive" diplomacy to bring the violence to an end.

"Our focus, our goal, every single action we take, every statement we make, is with the objective of reducing the violence and bring an end to the conflict on the ground," she said.

"There are times in diplomacy where we'll need to keep those conversations quieter, we won't read out every component of it," she went on. "But that is the objective, that is the prism through which every action and every comment is being made."

So far, Biden has remained adamant that Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas. The last time he addressed the situation in public, Biden said he did not believe Israel was overreacting by pummeling Gaza with airstrikes.

Psaki would not say whether his assessment had changed since then.

Now, as Israel signals the violence will continue into a second week, Democrats in Washington are calling for Biden to say more. More than 25 Democratic senators, led by Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, released a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire agreement in Israel and the Palestinian territories to "prevent further loss of life and further escalation of violence."

The statement signaled the growing concern in Congress over the escalation of violence in the Middle East. Other Democrats have also called for more robust action by the administration to bring about a truce.

"I think the administration needs to push harder on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to stop the violence, bring about a ceasefire, end these hostilities, and get back to a process of trying to resolve this long-standing conflict," Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." — CNN

May 18, 2021
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