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Biden, Austin, Blinken, Sullivan call Israeli counterparts

Biden to Netanyahu: I expect significant de-escalation today; PM: Battle goes on

In 4th phone call between the leaders, US president sharpens tone, pushes for ceasefire; Netanyahu says he’s ‘determined to continue this operation until its goal is achieved’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Vice-President Joe Biden speak in front of media prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Vice-President Joe Biden speak in front of media prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Wednesday phone call that he expects “a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire,” as Washington stepped up pressure on Jerusalem to end the fighting in the Gaza Strip after 10 days. Soon after, however, Netanyahu said he was “determined to continue this operation” against Hamas until “peace and security” were restored for Israel’s rocket-battered citizens.

During their fourth call since the start of the Gaza conflict, “the two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel’s progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States,” according to a White House readout. “The President conveyed to the Prime Minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”

Unlike the previous three calls, the readout made no mention of Biden backing Israel’s right to defend itself, which critics said was a nod to Israel to continue striking in Gaza.

While Biden “expressed his support for a ceasefire” during his previous phone call with Netanyahu on Monday, a source familiar with the conversation said the American leader did not demand a timeframe from Israel to end the fighting in that call. However, the president did warn Netanyahu that he would not be able to fend off pressure for much longer from within his Democratic Party and in the international community for an immediate ceasefire.

Following Wednesday’s phone call with Biden, Netanyahu said: “I am determined to continue this operation until its goal is achieved — to bring back peace and security to you, the citizens of Israel.”

He did not explicitly refer to Biden’s call, saying only that he greatly appreciates the US president’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

Palestinian firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a paint factory after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 18, 2021. (Yousef Masoud/AP)

According to Axios, the terse nature of Biden’s message on Wednesday was a result of a lack of sufficient progress in ceasefire talks, continued violence on the ground, and comments made by Netanyahu earlier to a group of foreign diplomats that indicated no pressing desire to end the conflict in the immediate future.

“We’re not standing with a stopwatch. We want to achieve the goals of the operation. Previous operations lasted a long time so it is not possible to set a timeframe,” Netanyahu told the diplomats, not ruling out a further escalation, including “conquering” the Gaza Strip.

“You can either conquer them — and that’s always an open possibility — or you can deter them,” he said.

Axios quoted an unnamed source saying Biden was “firm” on the call and sent the clear message that he’s “done kidding around and Israel needs to finish it.”

While Channel 12 reported that an Egyptian ceasefire initiative had borne fruit and was slated to go into effect on Thursday morning, officials on all sides issued denials. A diplomatic source familiar with Egypt’s efforts told The Times of Israel that negotiations were still ongoing and no such agreement had been reached. But the Haaretz daily on Tuesday night quoted an Israeli official who said that barring any last-minute surprises, a ceasefire would indeed likely be reached by Thursday morning.

Biden has found himself increasingly alienated in the Democratic party, where a majority of the Democratic caucus in the Senate called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza three days ago. Progressive members of the party have been much forceful in their criticism of Israel.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted Monday that “apartheid-in-chief Netanyahu will not listen to anyone asking nicely” and confronted Biden on the tarmac when his plane landed in Michigan on Tuesday. Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell who was also present told reporters after that “it was a very compassionate, honest discussion.”

During his subsequent visit to a Ford plant in Dearborn, Biden warmly addressed Tlaib, who sat in the audience, saying he admired her passion and would pray that her Palestinian grandmother and other family are well in the West Bank. “You’re a fighter and God thank you for being a fighter.”

The US has found itself even more at odds with the international community on the issue. For over a week, 14 of the 15 UN Security Council members have sought to issue a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire. The US has blocked the statement three times.

On Tuesday, France began circulating a draft of a more weighty Security Council resolution that would force the Biden administration to issue its first veto at the top UN body — something it likely wants to avoid as the president has vowed to take a more multilateral approach to diplomacy and improve ties with longtime allies that were damaged by his predecessor Donald Trump.

The United States said Wednesday it would not support the United Nations Security Council draft resolution proposed by France, saying it could undermine efforts to de-escalate the crisis.

“We’ve been clear and consistent that we are focused on intensive diplomatic efforts underway to bring an end to the violence and that we will not support actions that we believe undermine efforts to de-escalate,” a US spokesperson at the UN told AFP.

Biden’s call was one of four held by senior US officials with their Israeli counterparts on Wednesday evening alone.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke to his US counterpart Lloyd Austin about the latest developments in Gaza fighting. Gantz told Austin that “with every passing day the IDF is achieving significant gains” against Hamas, according to his office.

The defense minister thanked Austin for the US’s backing of Israel and added that Jerusalem “will act responsibly both on the security and diplomatic fronts with moderates in the region.”

Palestinians check the damage after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, on May 18, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and received an update on rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon, the latter’s office said.

“I noted that Israel must continue to act against Hamas and the terrorist organizations in Gaza until peace and security are restored to the citizens of Israel,” Ashkenazi tweeted after the call, saying he had thanked Blinken for his “uncompromising support for Israel, including in the Security Council.”

In another Wednesday call, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat. Sullivan tweeted that he also spoke with Egyptian officials and that
“the United States is engaged in intensive diplomacy and our efforts will continue.”

Hamas and other Gaza terror groups have launched nearly 3,700 rockets at Israel since May 10, at times forcing people living near Gaza into bomb shelters around the clock.

Israel, in response, launched an extensive bombing campaign in the Strip. The humanitarian crisis has deepened in the impoverished strip, with the UN saying 72,000 Palestinians have been displaced.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, have been killed in rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured over the past ten days.

On Wednesday, Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry updated the death toll in the Strip to 227, including more than 64 minors. It was not immediately clear if the ministry tally included all of those killed or if there were Hamas operatives not included in the count.

According to the IDF, more than 120 of those killed were members of Hamas and over 25 were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as of Monday night. The IDF says some of the Gaza civilian fatalities were killed by the terror groups’ own rockets, falling short and exploding in Gaza.

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