US President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Israel cannot return to the prewar status quo after fighting against Hamas and should work toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians when it ends.
He also said Israel has the right and obligation to respond to the October 7 Hamas onslaught, in which the terror group slaughtered 1,400 people, most of them civilians, in southern Israel, but must do its utmost to protect civilians. And he said he did not demand that Israel delay a ground invasion of Gaza, but should get Hamas-held hostages out safely “if that’s possible.”
“There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6,” Biden said at a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. “That means ensuring that Hamas can no longer terrorize Israel and use Palestinians civilians as human shields. It also means that when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next, and in our view it has to be a two-state solution.”
“It means a concentrated effort from all the parties — Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, global leaders — to put us on a path toward peace,” he added.
With that aim in mind, US officials have begun inquiring into possible scenarios and have asked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides whether the PA would be willing to once again rule the coastal enclave, a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
Such a scenario would be highly difficult to implement given the historically weak state of the PA, which was ejected from Gaza following bloody fighting in 2007 between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party. The Ramallah-based PA has been plagued by corruption, is unpopular among Palestinians for cooperating with Israel and has seen international support shrink with rejected peace offers and continued stipends to Palestinian security offenders jailed in Israel.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has told Biden administration officials since the outbreak of Israel’s war with Hamas that the PA will only consider returning to rule Gaza if it is part of a broader peace initiative with Israel, the Palestinian official said.
Critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have accused him of strengthening Hamas over the past 15 years in order to divide the Palestinian factions and weaken the more moderate PA, which recognizes Israel and supports a two-state solution.
Israel has gradually moved away from the two-state solution and is currently led by a government that views all of the West Bank as belonging to Israel and many of whose members support annexing large parts of the territory.
While the Biden administration has been less married to the policy than some previous ones, preferring an incremental approach to the conflict due to the belief that the conditions are nowhere near ripe for high-stakes peace talks, it has continued to pay lip service to the two-state solution.
Abbas has told Biden officials that he will not return to Gaza “on top of an Israeli tank,” the Palestinian official said, confirming a report in the Ynet news site.
Instead, the official said the PA president has insisted that Israel publicly state its intention to allow for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza — something that is likely a nonstarter for the current government.
The Palestinian official claimed that the Biden administration recognizes that returning the PA to Gaza could not occur overnight but believes there are no good options at the moment. Discussions on the matter are still in their early stages, the official clarified.
In his remarks Wednesday, Biden made a point of criticizing Israel for not clamping down on settler violence, while continuing to back Jerusalem’s crushing military operations in Gaza against Hamas, which staged a bloody incursion into Israel on October 7, slaughtering some 1,400 people and taking roughly 220 more hostages into the Strip.
Rights groups have reported over 100 incidents of settler violence since the war broke out, with no arrests announced by police in any of the cases.
In one reported incident on October 12, a group of Israeli soldiers and settlers carried out a ruthless assault on three Palestinians in the central West Bank last week, during which the victims were beaten, stripped to their underwear, bound and photographed. Two of them were urinated on, one had cigarettes put out on his body and another was sexually assaulted by an assailant who tried to sodomize him, according to their testimony.
“I continue to be alarmed by extremist settlers attacking Palestinians in the West Bank,” Biden said, adding that the violence is “adding fuel to the fire.”
“They’re attacking Palestinians in places they’re entitled to be … it has to stop now,” he said.
Biden has urged Netanyahu during phone calls in recent days to ensure that Israeli authorities are preventing growing incidents of settler violence, fearing that spiraling tensions in the West Bank could significantly exacerbate the current Gaza war, the Axios news site reported Wednesday.
The pair held another call after midnight Thursday in Israel.
Roughly 100 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the October 7 Hamas onslaught, most of them in clashes with soldiers but also civilians, including five shot dead by Israeli settlers in cases in which no charges have yet been filed.
The West Bank Protection Consortium, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations and donor countries, including the European Union, says hundreds of Palestinians have been forcibly displaced in the West Bank due to settler violence since October 7, in addition to over 1,100 displaced since 2022.
Biden also reiterated that Israel has the right and obligation to respond to the October 7 Hamas onslaught but must do everything it can to protect civilians and must follow the “laws of war.”
As international pressure mounts for a ceasefire, Biden said that he “did not demand” that Israel delay a ground invasion of Gaza.
“Israel has a right, and I would add responsibility, to respond to the slaughter of its people,” Biden told reporters in the Rose Garden at the White House.
“Israel has to do everything in its power, as difficult as it is, to protect innocent civilians. It’s difficult,” he said.
Biden cast doubt on civilian casualty figures put forward by the Palestinians.
“I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed. I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s a price of waging war,” he said.
“But I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”
Thousands are reported to have been killed, but the figures issued by the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry cannot be independently verified. They are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen killed in Israel and in Gaza as well as the victims of a blast at a Gaza City hospital on October 17 caused by an Islamic Jihad missile misfire that Hamas has blamed on Israel.
The US and several European countries have privately been pressuring Israel to hold off on its ground invasion to allow for more time to secure the release of the hostages, many holding foreign citizenship, a senior diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Saturday.
Asked to comment on those reports, Biden clarified that, “What I have indicated to him is that if that’s possible to get these folks out safely, that’s what he should do. It’s their decision… But I did not demand it. I put it out to him, if it’s real, it should be done.”
As for the potential for a broader regional escalation, Biden warned Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against attacking US soldiers.
“We have had troops in the region since 9/11 to go after ISIS… in the region, having nothing to do with Israel at all. My warning to the ayatollah was that if they continue to move against those troops, we will respond and he should be prepared. It has nothing to do with Israel,” Biden said.
In a statement after the latest Biden-Netanyahu call, the White House said the two discussed “ongoing efforts to locate and secure the release of hostages to include American citizens we believe are held by Hamas.”
“They also reviewed ongoing discussions to ensure safe passage for foreign nationals wishing to depart Gaza as soon as possible,” the readout said. “The president discussed ongoing US support for the continuous flow of humanitarian support to the civilian population in Gaza and welcomed efforts to increase this support over the coming period.”
The statement said Biden also stressed his support for Israel’s “right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism and to do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law,” while calling on Israel to focus on ensuring “a pathway for a permanent peace” following the war.
Also Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said a “massive” Israeli ground incursion into Gaza would be “an error,” warning it would harm civilians without ensuring Israel’s long-term security.
The French leader said after meeting Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi that “it would also be a mistake for Israel because it would be unlikely to offer long-term protection and because it is incompatible with protecting the civilian population or respecting international humanitarian law and the rules of war.”
Dueling resolutions by US, Russia vetoed at Security Council
Additionally, the UN Security Council voted Wednesday on a pair of resolutions introduced by the US and Russia on the Gaza war.
Russia and China have used their vetoes to block the resolution drafted by the US, which condemns Hamas, expresses support for Israel’s right to self-defense and calls for the immediate release of all hostages. It also calls for the council to consider “humanitarian pauses” in the Gaza fighting to protect civilians but stops short of pushing a ceasefire.
China’s representative said Beijing opposes the resolution because it does not call for an immediate ceasefire.
The United Arab Emirates also voted against the US resolution, along with Russia and China.
England, Switzerland, Malta, Japan, Ghana, Gabon, France, Ecuador and Albania voted with the United States. Mozambique and Brazil abstained.
Shortly thereafter, the Russian-drafted resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza failed to win the nine-vote minimum. Only Russia, China, the UAE and Gabon voted in favor of the draft, while nine members abstained; and the US and the UK voted against it.
During a session before the vote, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan ripped into China and Russia for refusing to back the US draft, in a rare public showdown by an Israeli official with Russian and Chinese representatives.
The envoys for Moscow and Beijing both pushed back, arguing that they had condemned the Hamas onslaught and knocked Israel for ignoring the Palestinian plight for decades.