Blinken warns Israel not to become indistinguishable from Hamas

Biden warns Netanyahu US policy on Gaza war will shift unless major changes made

President tells PM he wants concrete steps announced and implemented to address humanitarian crisis, protect aid workers, says immediate ceasefire is essential to those ends

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

This combination photo shows US President Joe Biden, left, on March 8, 2024, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (AP Photo)
This combination photo shows US President Joe Biden, left, on March 8, 2024, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (AP Photo)

US President Joe Biden indicated to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Thursday phone call that Washington’s policy regarding the war in Gaza will fundamentally change if Israel doesn’t implement a series of concrete steps to address the humanitarian crisis and protect aid workers, adding that an immediate ceasefire was essential for meeting those aims.

Biden “made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering and the safety of aid workers,” according to a White House readout after the leaders held their first call since an accidental IDF strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy on Monday killed seven aid workers.

“He made clear that US policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps,” the White House warned, adding that both recent Israeli strikes on aid workers along with the overall humanitarian situation in the Strip are “unacceptable.”

Asked during a press briefing what kinds of concrete steps the White House would like to see from Israel, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the opening of additional crossings and an increase in the number of aid trucks getting into Gaza would be a start, adding that he expected Israel would announce new reforms in the coming hours and days.

The US readout didn’t elaborate on how Biden might shift his policy regarding the war, but an increasing number of Democrats are pushing for the White House to begin conditioning US aid to Israel or withhold it altogether.

Another potential avenue would be to call for a ceasefire while no longer tying it to the release of the remaining 134 hostages still held in Gaza. Biden has repeatedly asserted that the two must go together and has won deep appreciation from hostages’ families for his support and efforts in securing the release of over 100 hostages in a late November deal.

But the US abstained on a UN Security Council resolution last month that called for an immediate ceasefire and hostage release, and which didn’t explicitly condition the former on the latter.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United States Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations, votes to abstain as the United Nations Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution in Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, its first demand to halt fighting at UN headquarters, Monday, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The US defended its decision to allow the resolution to pass, saying the two demands were in the same sentence and that it hasn’t changed its position deeming that a ceasefire can only be reached through a hostage deal.

But the White House readout from Thursday’s call appeared to take a similar approach to the one adopted by the Security Council, saying Biden underscored “that an immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilize and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians, and he urged the prime minister to empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home.”

The latter comment pointed to displeasure with Netanyahu’s handling of the hostage talks, suggesting that he has not been affording Israel’s negotiating team the full toolset to reach a deal with Hamas.

“Absent any movement on a ceasefire that will allow hostages to get out and more aid to get in… [Biden] will have to have to reconsider his own policy choices with respect to Gaza,” Kirby added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked later Thursday whether the White House readout amounted to a shift in policy regarding a ceasefire.

“Our conviction remains that we need to see an immediate ceasefire to enable the release of hostages but also to enable a dramatic surge in humanitarian assistance,” he said, not directly answering the question.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a signing ceremony at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels on April 4, 2024. (Johanna Geron/POOL/AFP)

The White House readout also said that “the two leaders also discussed public Iranian threats against Israel and the Israeli people… Biden made clear that the United States strongly supports Israel in the face of those threats,” as the president continues to try and balance his long-held support for Israel with his shrinking patience for the Netanyahu government.

The leaders also discussed “a very public and very viable real threat by Iran to Israel’s security and I will leave it at that,” Kirby said days after an alleged Israeli strike on an Iranian mission in Syria that killed a top IRGC official.

Kirby said the call lasted roughly 30 minutes and was “very direct” and “very businesslike,” adding that it was scheduled as a direct result of the WCK strike.

US Vice President Kamala Harris, Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were also patched into the Biden-Netanyahu call, Kirby revealed.

Harris later described the conversation as “candid and frank.”

“We will make sure Israel is never left without an ability to defend itself,” she told a reporter from Spectrum News. “At the same time, if there are not changes to their approach, it’s very likely we’re going to change our approach.”

An Israeli readout was not immediately issued by Netanyahu’s office.

Shortly before Kirby took the podium, Blinken gave a press conference in Brussels in which he warned that Israel risks becoming indistinguishable from Hamas if it continues to fail to protect civilians amid the Gaza war.

“Democracies place the highest value on human life… That’s our strength. It’s what distinguishes us from terrorists like Hamas. If we lose that reverence for human life, we risk becoming indistinguishable from those we confront,” he said.

“Right now, there is no higher priority in Gaza than protecting civilians, surging humanitarian assistance, and ensuring the security of those who provide it. Israel must meet this moment,” Blinken added.

He noted “important steps” Israel has taken to allow aid into Gaza, but clarified that “the results on the ground have been woefully insufficient and unacceptable,” with 100 percent of Gazans facing acute insecurity.

“This week’s horrific attack on the World Central Kitchen was not the first such incident. It must be the last,” the top US diplomat warned.

Earlier Thursday, a senior Democratic lawmaker, who is a close Biden and a longtime Israel backer, said he would support conditioning aid to Jerusalem for the first time if the IDF moves forward with a massive invasion of Rafah without ensuring that the nearly 1.5 million civilians sheltering there are protected.

“I think we’re at the point where President Biden has said and I have said… [that] if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were to order the IDF into Rafah at scale — [if] they were to drop 1,000-pound bombs and send in a battalion to go after Hamas and make no provision for civilians or for humanitarian aid that I would vote to condition aid to Israel,” Sen. Chris Coons told CNN.

Israel has insisted that it will only move forward with the Rafah operation once it has cleared civilians from the southern Gaza city. But the US has expressed increased skepticism that the IDF will be able to pull off such a major evacuation, pointing to the already dire humanitarian situation in the enclave.

Coons points out that Congress just appropriated another $3.3 billion in support for Israel and wants to maintain a close relationship with the Jewish state.

“But the tactics by which the current prime minister is making these decisions don’t reflect the best values of Israel or of the United States,” he adds, clarifying that he would be able to support more targeted operations against Hamas.

“I think we can move forward if we see real seriousness about addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as well as the security crisis that Israel continues to face,” Coons says, highlighting northern Gaza as a particularly hard-struck area, which is largely under the IDF’s control.

The White House described Biden, who has a close personal relationship with WCK founder Jose Andres, as heartbroken by Monday’s attack. Israel called the incident a “grave mistake” and vowed an in-depth investigation into how it occurred. But Netanyahu also said that “these things happen in war” — a line that wasn’t well received internationally.

Displaced Palestinian children gather to receive food at a government school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 19, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

“Biden is pissed. The temperature regarding Bibi is very high,” a US official told the Axios news site before the call, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Another official told the site that Biden’s call to Andres after the strike was a “difficult moment” for the president.

US and Israeli officials told Axios they are concerned progress on securing increases in humanitarian aid to the Strip will be reversed due to the incident.

The latest incident appeared on track to force a shift in the war — similar to the one sparked by a mass casualty incident involving another aid convoy, which desperate Palestinians swarmed in northern Gaza on February 29. The dozens killed in the ensuing stampede and gunfire, including by the Israeli army, led to furious international reactions and an announcement by Biden that he was done waiting for Israel to facilitate the delivery of more aid and was instead establishing a new maritime corridor to flood the Strip with food.

The Monday incident, in which three British nationals, an Australian, a Pole, an American-Canadian dual citizen and a Palestinian aid worker were killed in a convoy that had been closely coordinated with the army triggered even fiercer reactions from world leaders, with Biden saying it wasn’t an isolated incident, and that Israel had long failed to protect aid workers and Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

United Nations staff members inspect the remains of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024. (AFP)

Kirby told reporters Wednesday that the Biden administration continues to support Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas. But Kirby said Israel must do more to prevent the killing and wounding of innocent civilians and aid workers as it carries out its operations in Gaza.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said Thursday that more than 33,037 Palestinians have been killed and 75,668 have been injured since the start of the war, an unverified figure that does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, including the more than 13,000 Hamas operatives Israel says it has killed in fighting.

Israel launched a war on Hamas in Gaza after the terror group’s deadly October 7 assault on southern Israel, in which close to 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage to the Strip, more than half of whom remain there. Amid the war, 256 IDF soldiers have been killed during the ground operation in Gaza.

Reuters and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: