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Biden’s warning to Israel shakes up diplomacy — and politics

President Biden arrives at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony on Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

WINDSOR, Conn. — President Biden's unusually blunt demand Wednesday that Israel de-escalate its military attack on Gaza is creating a rare rift between the two countries and dismaying some of Israel's supporters in the United States, while heartening Democrats who have increasingly pushed for a tougher U.S. stance toward Israel.

Biden for days had hesitated to publicly confront Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his demand for “a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire” shook up the worlds of politics and diplomacy. It was the clearest evidence yet of a rapidly changing political dynamic, at least among Democrats, that is far less accepting of actions Israel says it is taking in self-defense.

The White House has told Netanyahu in recent days that the ground is shifting in the United States, even among some lawmakers who have long been supportive of Israel, two people familiar with aspects of the message said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. That shift was the backdrop for Wednesday’s call, the fourth between the two leaders since hostilities began.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no mention of any halt to 10 days of fighting in public remarks to foreign ambassadors to Israel on May 19. (Video: Reuters)

Netanyahu, however, vowed Wednesday to continue with the 10-day military offensive “until its aim is met,” meaning until more Hamas targets are destroyed. That public defiance underlined his disconnect with Biden, which is all the more notable because Netanyahu, whose own domestic political position is precarious, closely embraced President Donald Trump.

After a visit to military headquarters, Netanyahu said that he “greatly appreciates the support of the American president” but that Israel would push ahead “to return the calm and security to you, citizens of Israel,” the Associated Press reported.

Tel Aviv no longer a “bubble” during attacks

Biden has no direct authority to impose a cease-fire on Israel, but the stern White House message was unmistakable: If Netanyahu carries the conflict much further, he risks losing significant backing in Washington.

The United States and Israel have differed before, often on the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But a posture of unshakable solidarity has been far more common in the history of the two countries, and the United States holds powerful leverage as the Jewish state’s most important ally and chief diplomatic defender on the world stage.

The three-sentence account of the Biden-Netanyahu call released by the White House on Wednesday omitted the usual language about Israel’s right to defend itself. After noting a “detailed discussion” between the leaders, the statement said, “The President conveyed to the Prime Minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire.”

That sharp tone caught the attention of figures like Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who has helped spearhead the push for a stricter policy toward Israel. “Waiting and hoping,” he said in a text message to The Washington Post on Wednesday when asked for his reaction.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), another critic of the Biden strategy in recent days, welcomed the statement more explicitly. “It is encouraging that President Biden is beginning to demand an end to the violence,” said Khanna, who had previously called on Biden to give Netanyahu a deadline for ending the military assault on the Gaza Strip.

Republicans, however, saw an opportunity to draw a sharp line between themselves and Biden on support for Israel, which remains a popular cause among Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians and military hawks, even while liberal Jews have grown more critical of Israel.

“Biden is calling for Israel to de-escalate while the terrorist group Hamas is still firing rockets at Israeli citizens,” former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley tweeted. “It would be unacceptable if one of our allies called for de-escalation if Washington DC were targeted by rockets.”

Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump and is seen as a potential presidential candidate, added, “We must stand with Israel against terrorism.”

Meanwhile, a group of Republican senators held a news conference accusing Biden of bowing to pressure from his party’s left wing and working against a longtime U.S. ally.

“Today he said he expects a significant de-escalation from Israel,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). “What he needs to say is that he expects Iran and Hamas to stop terrorizing the people of Israel.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) added that it is “shocking to me to see how much the administration has changed over time in regard to support for Israel.”

Biden’s repeated calls to Netanyahu are a reflection of how much the Middle East crisis has seized his attention in recent days, despite his earlier determination to avoid getting entangled in the region’s long-running hostilities.

On Wednesday, the conflict overshadowed his message at the commencement ceremony of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where he emphasized the need to stand up to China and protect freedom of navigation on the seas.

Decades of rules on international navigation have been challenged, Biden told the 240 cadets, “both by the rapid advance of technology and the disruptive actions of nations like China and Russia.”

Biden added, “Long-standing basic maritime principles like freedom of navigation are a bedrock of global economic and global security. When nations try to game the system or tip rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance.”

But the president’s shift in tone and message on the Middle East drew far more attention.

Until Wednesday, the Biden administration had publicly backed Netanyahu while applying quiet pressure behind the scenes to end the conflict quickly and reduce civilian casualties. Administration officials initially believed that public criticism was likely to backfire, and that Israel was unlikely to yield until its military had destroyed more Hamas targets.

But the tactics shifted as the fighting stretched well into a second week, while pressure mounted from Democrats who argued that the White House was giving a green light to Netanyahu at the expense of civilians, and that the issue involved basic civil rights.

At the same time, Biden and his aides were disappointed that Israel did not release more public information about its targeting Saturday of a high-rise building in Gaza City that housed the Associated Press and other media outlets.

Israeli officials said the building also contained Hamas militants, adding that they had shared intelligence information corroborating that assertion with the United States. But the lack of public evidence left the Biden administration appearing to sanction the strike, which critics have suggested was an attempt to limit news coverage of the hostilities.

Biden’s new demands of Israel come after he has found himself increasingly at odds with fellow Democrats over his previous unwavering public support for Israel.

That vocal Democratic criticism is part of a broader shift in the party’s thinking about the U.S.-Israel relationship. The changes have been evident not only among a newer generation of liberal lawmakers but also, to a lesser extent, among centrist and veteran members of Congress.

Among the most forceful voices is Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a frequent critic of Israel who spoke with Biden on Tuesday. A ­Palestinian American, Tlaib is among the Democrats who have expressed skepticism that the building housing the Associated Press was a legitimate military target.

In private, Biden officials have also drawn attention to a weekend statement from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is often in his party’s more hawkish camp when it comes to foreign affairs.

“I am deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets,” Menendez said.

Biden’s call for de-escalation came a day after he faced protests over his administration’s handling of the Israel-Gaza conflict during a visit to a Ford auto plant in Dearborn, Mich., the heart of the state’s Arab American community.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also spoken out, saying that “after more than a week of hostilities, it has become even more apparent that a cease-fire is necessary.”

Israeli political analyst Daniel Levy said Netanyahu is betting that Biden will not use all the leverage he has over Israel, which he called “so far a reasonable bet.”

“Biden is in part responding to the shifting domestic political dynamics inside America” and in part to concerns that the crisis risks damaging his mantle as a defender of human rights after the Trump years, said Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project.

“This is also two allies sizing each other up under a new administration,” he added, and in the shadow of ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran that Biden embraces and Israel opposes.

A former senior U.S. official familiar with efforts to end past Israel-Hamas conflicts said Biden’s statement offers Netanyahu more “wiggle room” than it might first appear.

“The strikes have been so intense that Israel can scale back just a little and say it is de-escalating,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitivities of the ongoing diplomacy.

“Bibi has a couple more days, I would think,” he added, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “But if this lasts more than a couple more days? I don’t know the extent to which the Israelis have internalized how different the political environment is here in the U.S.”

In the past, Israeli officials might have mobilized a large bipartisan outpouring of support that would complicate the response from the White House, the official said, but doing so appears far harder now.

The Palestinian death toll in Gaza stood at 219, including at least 63 children, local health officials said Wednesday. In the West Bank, at least 19 Palestinians have been killed since Friday, officials there said. The death toll in Israel stood at 12, including two children, after police said two Thai workers were killed Tuesday by rockets fired from Gaza.

Also Wednesday, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations challenged the Biden administration to show results from its diplomatic efforts after the United States continued to block U.N. Security Council action on the grounds that it would interfere with attempts to negotiate a cease-fire.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Daniel Levy as the founder of the Middle East Project. He is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. This version has been corrected.

Sullivan reported from Washington. John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.