Ignoring civilian deaths 'contrary to what Israel stands for'

Sharpening criticism, Biden says Netanyahu ‘hurting Israel more than he’s helping’

US president offers terse ‘yes’ when asked if he would be willing to address Knesset in Israel, says IDF entry into Rafah a ‘red line,’ but won’t abandon ally or cut off all weapons

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

US President Joe Biden is interviewed by MSNBC on March 9, 2024. (Screen capture/MSNBC)
US President Joe Biden is interviewed by MSNBC on March 9, 2024. (Screen capture/MSNBC)

US President Joe Biden sought on Saturday to make the case that Jerusalem must dramatically alter its prosecution of the war against Hamas in Gaza, indicating that he is prepared to return to Israel and speak before the Knesset in order to do this.

Biden, in a hard-hitting MSNBC interview, highlighted deep US concerns over civilian deaths in Gaza, asserted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was doing more harm than good to Israel and its interests, and called the planned IDF operation in southern Gaza’s Rafah a “red line.”

As divides between the US and Israel have grown regarding the war, some left-leaning pundits have been urging Biden to bypass Netanyahu’s hardline government and speak directly to the Israeli public — at the Knesset or elsewhere — leveraging his popularity bump after his State of the Union Address to try and sell the US vision for ending the war in Gaza.

This vision starts with an extended truce secured by a hostage deal followed by Arab stakeholders helping rehabilitate the Strip, a reformed Palestinian Authority returning to govern the enclave, Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel, the creation of a pathway toward a Palestinian state and the bolstering of broader regional alignment against Iran.

The MSNBC interviewer didn’t get into these specifics, sufficing with asking Biden whether he would be prepared to return to Israel and address the Knesset.

“Yes,” Biden responded, without elaborating further.

Pressed on whether this would have to be at the invitation of Netanyahu or President Isaac Herzog, Biden responds, “I’d rather not discuss it more.”

Asked whether his initial response meant that the idea of a Knesset speech has been discussed with his aides, the US president said, “It doesn’t mean anything.”

This was the first time the president revealed any intention to take this far-reaching step, in an interview that also saw him continue to employ more aggressive rhetoric against Israel. Such language has intensified following a mass-casualty incident on February 29 in which dozens of Palestinians were killed trying to collect humanitarian aid in Gaza City, where law and order has collapsed amid desperate conditions.

Explaining ‘come to Jesus’ remark regarding Netanyahu

Biden was caught on a hot mic telling a Democratic lawmaker after his Thursday State of the Union address that he recently told Netanyahu that the two of them were going to have a “come to Jesus” meeting.

“It’s an expression used in the southern part of my state meaning ‘a serious meeting,'” Biden told MSNBC. “I’ve known Bibi (Netanyahu) for 50 years, and he knew what I meant by it.”

The president reiterated that Israel has “a right to continue to pursue Hamas,” but that Netanyahu must pay more attention to the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

Ignoring the lives lost is “contrary to what Israel stands for, and I think it’s a big mistake,” Biden argued.

The president said that, in his opinion, Netanyahu “is hurting Israel more than helping Israel, by making the rest of the world, as contrary to what Israel stands for…” He appeared to be repeating the argument he’s made in the past that under Netanyahu, Israel is losing the public opinion battle around the world, before he jumped to make a different point — something that occurred several times in the interview.

US President Joe Biden (right) is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Turning to his postwar plans, Biden said that he was working, first, to secure a six-week ceasefire, hopefully by Ramadan, which starts early Monday.

“We should build off of that ceasefire,” he continued, noting that he was in touch with Arab leaders, including of Saudi Arabia, who are “prepared to fully recognize Israel [and] begin to rebuild the region.”

“That’s the focus — what comes after Gaza. It’s a tough decision, but there’s a lot that can be done,” Biden said.

Netanyahu has all but rejected the US vision, repeatedly expressing pride in the fact that he has long blocked efforts to establish a Palestinian state.

The prime minister’s refusal, as well, to cooperate with plans envisioning the return of the Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza, has Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates warning that they will not support the Israeli desire to have them participate in the reconstruction of Gaza.

Top Biden aides warned visiting war cabinet minister Benny Gantz earlier this week that Jerusalem could well end up indefinitely occupying Gaza with no help from the international community if it does not begin advancing a viable alternative to Hamas’s rule.

In this screenshot taken from a video released by the IDF on February 29, 2024, Palestinians surround aid trucks in northern Gaza. (Israel Defense Forces)

Red lines?

US officials privately acknowledge that their plans for Gaza hinge on securing a six-week ceasefire in the coming days.

In recent days, US officials stated that Hamas was the party blocking a deal, while Israel had agreed to the framework.

But Biden told MSNBC on Saturday that “Hamas would like a total ceasefire across the board because then… they have a better chance to survive and maybe rebuild.”

Hostage talks appeared to hit a wall late this week, but Biden noted that CIA chief Bill Burns was in the region and that there was still a chance a deal could be reached by Ramadan.

Netanyahu and Gantz has both stressed that, sooner or later, Israel will move forward with plans to carry out a major ground offensive in Rafah where Hamas’s remaining battalions are located.

The US has asserted that it won’t support such an operation until Israel presents a plan for the mass evacuation of civilians from this last area of Gaza, where more than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people are sheltering. The US says Israel has still not offered such a plan, though Jerusalem insists it won’t move forward without ensuring that civilians are safe.

No such operation is expected to take place imminently, given that Israel has massively reduced its force presence in Gaza after tens of thousands of reservists spent over 100 days straight fighting in the Strip, succeeding in depleting Hamas significantly, even as the terror group limps on.

Asked whether an Israeli operation in Rafah would be a “red line,” Biden responded, “It is a red line,” without adding the usual qualification regarding the mass-evacuation plan that the US is demanding.

But then he appeared to backtrack, saying, “I’m never going to leave Israel. The defense of Israel is still critical. There’s no red line [in which] I’m going to cut off all weapons so that they don’t have the Iron Dome [missile defense system] to protect them.”

US President Joe Biden (C) walks towards an Iron Dome defense system (R) during a tour at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv Israel on July 13, 2022. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Then he seemed to begin reversing his stance again, saying, “But there’s red lines that if he crosses and they continue…” before he shifted and asserted, “[they] cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead as a consequence of going after [Hamas].

“There are other ways to… deal with with the trauma caused by Hamas,” he said.

He again recalled how during his October visit to Israel he preached caution to the war cabinet, telling its members not to repeat the mistakes made by the US after 9/11.

“I sat with the war cabinet. And I said, Look, don’t make the mistake America made… We went after [Al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden until we got him, but we shouldn’t… have gone into… Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t necessary. It just caused more problems than it erased, than it cured,” Biden told MSNBC.

He noted that war cabinet members pushed back on this argument and noted that the US carpet-bombed Germany during World War II.

But this sparked the formation of international law regarding how to prosecute the war, Biden said, adding that Israel should abide by this framework.

The president insisted that he was doing everything he could to deliver more aid to Gaza, highlighting how he pressured Israel to open one of its crossings into the northern Strip, where assistance is particularly minimal as Jerusalem has sought to prevent a resurgence of Hamas activity in that part of the enclave.

The US has conducted five airdrops totaling over 150,000 meals for Gazans over the past week. Several Palestinians were killed earlier this week when one of the parachutes carrying such aid didn’t open properly and landed on civilians at high speed, though the US military says these casualties resulted from another country’s airdrops.

Still, Biden said, “We’re going to avoid that in the future,” and added that the US would continue working with its Arab allies to surge aid into Gaza because “it’s a desperate situation. Food, medicine — everything [is] badly needed, and it’s needed now.”

In his State of the Union speech on Thursday, Biden announced the launching of an emergency US military mission to build a temporary pier off the Gaza City coast that will allow for the delivery of aid from the Mediterranean Sea.

The US Army dispatched a ship Saturday carrying the first equipment needed to establish the pier. The Pentagon says the project will take roughly 60 days to complete and require roughly 1,000 US soldiers, though, none of them will have to dock inside Gaza. Biden said Friday that Israel would be responsible for securing the pier, which will eventually be capable of delivering hundreds of truckloads’ worth of aid to Gaza each day.

Deciphering ‘uncommitted’ voters

The MSNBC interviewer went on to press Biden to respond to pro-Palestinian voters in states like Michigan, where over 100,000 voters voted “uncommitted” in last month’s Democratic presidential primary, largely in protest of the president’s support for Israel in Gaza. (The figure amounted to 13.2 percent of voters, which was three percentage points less than the figure in the 2012 Democratic primary).

A volunteer asks people to vote uncommitted, instead of for US President Joe Biden, outside of McDonald Elementary School in Dearborn during the Michigan presidential primary election on February 27, 2024. (JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP)

Biden rejected the notion that many voters believe Israel is carrying out a genocide in Gaza and chided the media for presenting his critics this way. “You guys make judgments you’re not capable of making. That’s not what all those [‘uncommitted’ voters] said.”

In an apparent effort to avoid alienating them further, Biden appeared to sympathize with this disgruntled segment of the electorate.

“What they said was that they’re very upset, and I don’t blame him for being upset. Their family is there. There are people who are dying. They want something done about it. They’re saying, ‘Joe, do something.'”

“That’s why I’m doing everything I can to try to stop it,” he added.

The Biden interview aired hours after one by US Vice President Kamala Harris on CBS in which she tried to draw a distinction between Israelis and their government, saying the two should not be conflated.

Israelis deserve security and the United States will continue to “stand for the security of Israel and its people,” Harris told CBS when asked whether Jerusalem was at risk of losing support from Washington over its management of the war in Gaza, triggered by Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught in Israel in which some 1,200 were slaughtered and 253 were kidnapped into Gaza.

“It’s important for us to distinguish or at least not conflate the Israeli government with the Israeli people. The Israeli people are entitled to security – as are the Palestinians. In equal measure,”  Harris said.

Most Popular
read more: