Biden: IDF engaged in inappropriate activity, not war crimes

Biden: People have ‘every reason’ to think Netanyahu extending war to stay in power

But president later says he personally doesn’t think PM is playing politics and also tells Time Netanyahu ‘prepared to do about anything’ for deal, says main dispute is on two states

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, front, attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, in Jerusalem, Israel, on May 6, 2024. (Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, front, attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, in Jerusalem, Israel, on May 6, 2024. (Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP, File)

United States President Joe Biden said people have “every reason” to believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dragging out the war in Gaza to remain in power, but also asserted that the Israeli premier is prepared to do almost anything to secure the release of the hostages.

Asked in an interview with Time magazine published Tuesday whether he accepts the allegation made by some that Netanyahu is prolonging the war for his own political self-preservation, Biden responded, “I’m not going to comment on that.”

But he subsequently added, “There is every reason for people to draw that conclusion.”

The remark made headlines and sparked follow up questions during White House and State Department briefings later today. Administration spokespeople declined to elaborate further on whether Biden himself shared the views of Netanyahu’s critics.

A reporter shouted the question again at Biden after he wrapped up a speech at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, asking again whether Netanyahu has been playing politics with the Gaza war.

“I don’t think so, Biden responded, apparently trying to calm tensions that may have been sparked by his remark to Time. “He’s trying to work out the serious problem that he has.”

Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Bezalel Smotrich (L) at the ‘victory conference’ at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu has long faced this allegation from critics, but it has intensified in recent days as far-right coalition partners have threatened to collapse his government if the premier sticks with the hostage deal proposal he authorized last week, which would potentially bring about an end to the war in Gaza.

Netanyahu for months held off on holding strategic meetings regarding the post-war governance of Gaza, avoiding having to push back against National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who have called for permanently occupying Gaza and reestablishing settlements there. However, the Israeli security establishment has argued that failure to advance a viable alternative to Hamas has allowed the terror group to quickly fill vacuums created by the Israel Defense Forces on the battlefields, further extending the war.

Netanyahu has argued that talk of day-after planning is overblown before Israel defeats Hamas, as no one will be willing to replace the terror group as long as it is still in power.

This approach has caused significant frustration in Washington, which has pushed Israel to plan for post-war Gaza since the early days of the war.

Biden also mentioned the “unhelpful” judicial overhaul that Netanyahu sought to advance before October 7. He noted that it got “blowback” from the Israeli security establishment, which warned the premier that it was causing societal divisions that Israel’s enemies would seek to exploit.

While Biden still appeared to question Netanyahu’s motivations in the Time interview, he also insisted that the prime minister is “prepared to do about anything to get the hostages back.”

That assertion wasn’t included in the writeup of the interview, but it was in the full transcript that Time published separately.

The transcript showed that Biden also said that Netanyahu is under “enormous pressure” to secure a hostage deal: “The Israelis desperately want a ceasefire in order to get the hostages home.”

He said the US believes some of the American hostages are still alive, “but we don’t have final proof on exactly who’s alive and who’s not alive.”

Einav Zangauker holds a sign of her son Matan (24), one of the hostages taken captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip during the October 7 massacre, during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on June 3, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The president also reiterated his belief that Hamas is the party responsible for the lack of a deal to date, saying the terror group, “could end this tomorrow.”

Biden revealed that “the last offer Israel made was very generous in terms of who they’d be willing to release, what they’d give in return, etc.”

The interview was conducted on May 28 — a day after Israel submitted its latest hostage deal proposal to American, Qatari and Egyptian mediators.

Three days after giving the interview, Biden delivered a high-stakes speech revealing details of that proposal and calling on Hamas to accept it.

US President Joe Biden announces a proposed ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza at the White House’s State Dining Room in Washington, DC, May 31, 2024. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

The president indicated that the speech was already in the works when he was talking to Time.

Claiming Israel had apparently crossed Biden’s red line regarding a major military offensive in Rafah with its May 26 strike that led to the deaths of dozens of civilians, Time asked the president what consequences he would impose on Israel.

“I’m not going to speak to that now because you’re going to report this before I make — I’m in the process of talking with the Israelis right now,” Biden said cryptically.

Pressed again as to whether Netanyahu had crossed his red line, the president responded, “I’m not going to respond to that because I’m about to make a… anyway.”

Protesters hold a large banner reading ‘Thank you, Biden,’ during a march in support of a hostage deal in Jerusalem on June 1, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His real issue with Bibi

Time pointed to former US president Donald Trump’s assertion that Netanyahu should be criticized for failing to thwart the October 7 attack and asked Biden whether the prime minister bears responsibility.

Biden appeared to defend Netanyahu to a degree: “I don’t know how any one person has that responsibility. He was the leader of the country, so therefore, it happened. But he wasn’t the only one that didn’t pick it up.”

“My major disagreement with Netanyahu is what happens after, what happens after Gaza’s over? What does it go back to? Do Israeli forces go back in? I’ve been talking to the Egyptians… the Saudis… the Jordanians… the Emiratis. The answer is, if that’s the case, it can’t work,” he said, indicating that Arab states will not be willing to assist in the post-war stabilization of Gaza if Israel remains in the Strip.

“There is a clear path for a transition where the Arab states would provide security and reconstruction in Gaza in return for a longer-term commitment to a transition to a two-state solution,” Biden says, referring to a framework that Netanyahu has rejected.

“There needs to be a two-state solution, a transition to a two-state solution. That’s my biggest disagreement with Bibi Netanyahu,” Biden says.

Biden said that Arab assistance in the post-war stabilization of Gaza could extend to Saudi Arabia.

Asked if the Saudis share the same values as the US, Biden says there’s a difference between “values-based” and “practical-based” alliances, and that Washington’s partnership with Riyadh falls into the latter category. “It’s overwhelmingly in our interest.”

Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, not pictured, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

Inappropriate activity, but not war crimes

Asked whether Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza, Biden said it’s “uncertain,” but that Israel has been investigating such charges itself, highlighting an argument used by his administration against the involvement of the International Criminal Court, which is supposed to be a tribunal of last resort for states that don’t probe themselves.

“The ICC is something that we don’t recognize,” Biden said.

Pressed on claims by critics of the Jewish state that Israel is intentionally starving Gazans, Biden responded, “No, I don’t think that.”

“I think they’ve engaged in activity that is inappropriate,” the president said. “One thing is certain, the people in Gaza, the Palestinians have suffered greatly, for lack of food, water, medicine, etc. And a lot of innocent people have been killed.

“But a lot of it has to do not just with Israelis, but what Hamas is doing in Israel as we speak,” Biden clarified.

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan (center) announces that he has requested arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Hanuyeh, May 20, 2024. (Courtesy International Criminal Court)

While his aides regularly extend this argument to Hamas’s use of human shields in Gaza, Biden instead highlighted the terror group’s “intimidation” of the Israeli population.

He recalled how he had visited Israel after the October 7 terror onslaught. “What they did exceeded anything I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot. Tying mothers and daughters together with rope and pouring kerosene on it and burning them to death. That kind of thing — attempting to intimidate. And it is dastardly,” Biden said.

He recalled how he urged Israeli leaders during his visit not to make the same mistakes that the US had made in Afghanistan and Iraq that led to “endless wars.”

“They’re making that mistake,” Biden lamented.

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