US president: 'I think what he’s doing is a mistake'

Biden urges Israel ‘to just call for’ 6-8 week ceasefire, slams PM’s handling of Gaza war

White House denies US president’s remarks in interview taped last week marked shift in policy, insists he was referring to truce and hostage release deal currently being negotiated

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

US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

US President Joe Biden has urged “the Israelis to just call for” a six-to-eight-week ceasefire, remarks the White House adamantly insisted did not mark a major shift in policy even though he did not mention Hamas or a hostage deal in his appeal to Israel.

“What I’m calling for is for the Israelis to just call for a ceasefire, allow for the next six, eight weeks, total access to all food and medicine going into the country,” Biden told Univision, a US Spanish-language TV network, in an interview aired Tuesday.

“I’ve spoken with everyone from the Saudis to the Jordanians to the Egyptians. They’re prepared to move in,” Biden said. “They’re prepared to move this food in. And I think there’s no excuse to not provide for the medical and the food needs of those people. It should be done now.”

Asked whether Netanyahu is more concerned about his own political survival than Israel’s national interest, Biden responded, “I think what he’s doing is a mistake… I don’t agree with his approach.”

“I think it’s outrageous that those… three vehicles were hit by drones and taken out on a highway,” he added in reference to the IDF strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy last week that killed seven aid workers.

The Univision interview was taped last Wednesday — two days after the WCK strike and a day before Biden held a call with Netanyahu during which he reportedly threatened to cease support of Israel during the war unless Jerusalem made major changes to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Hours after that call, the security cabinet approved a series of measures aimed at significantly boosting aid to Gaza and the past several days have seen the largest number of aid trucks enter the Strip since the war’s outbreak. The US has welcomed the steps, and the administration has not gone on to make the same call for a unilateral Israeli ceasefire that Biden made last week.

After the interview was aired, a senior White House official insisted Biden’s comments were in reference to the truce that is currently being negotiated by his administration, which would see some 40 hostages released over a six-to-eight week period, and were not a call for Israel to unilaterally declare a ceasefire.

“There is no change in our position. The president was reiterating our longstanding position: we are calling for an immediate ceasefire that would last for at least six weeks as part of a hostage deal,” the official said.

“His quote [to Univision] makes that clear. This is in line with what he said at the State of the Union, and that we’ve repeatedly said,” the senior White House official added.

Indeed, hours before the interview was broadcast, Biden’s top aides went on record saying that it was Hamas, not Israel, that is holding up a deal that would see an extended pause in fighting, the hostages released and aid surge into Gaza.

“There could be a ceasefire in place today that would extend for several weeks to be built upon longer if Hamas would be prepared to release some of those people, so let’s train the attention where it belongs… I believe Israel is ready and Hamas should step up to the table and be prepared to do so as well,” said US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

Hamas “has an opportunity now to agree to the proposal on a ceasefire and hostages. The ball is in Hamas’s court. The world is watching to see what it does,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Also on Tuesday, US Vice President Kamala Harris met with the families of some of the American hostages at the White House and expressed the administration’s continued commitment to securing their release.

Family members of Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza speak to the press after meeting with US Vice President Kamala Harris, outside the White House in Washington, on April 4, 2024. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)

Last month, the US allowed the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire and hostage release that did not explicitly condition the former on the latter. Biden officials went to great lengths afterward to insist that this did not represent a departure from their policy that saw a hostage deal as the only route to a ceasefire.

But the WCK strike apparently forced a rethink, as Biden has come under enormous pressure from within his Democratic party to do more to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The president began the war fervently in Israel’s corner, becoming the first US president to make a wartime visit to the Jewish state, sending aircraft carriers to the region to deter Israel’s adversaries from joining Hamas after October 7 and sending regular shipments of security assistance to bolster the IDF’s defenses.

But from the get-go, the US urged Israel to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and prepare for a postwar management of the Strip that includes a viable alternative to Hamas’s rule. Netanyahu has all but refused to do so, rejecting initiatives that would see a reformed Palestinian Authority take over control in Gaza. This could mean Israel would be bogged down in the enclave indefinitely, officials have warned.

Israel claims it has never placed any limits on the amount of aid it is allowing into Gaza.

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