In Threatening Israel, Biden Hopes to Avoid a Rupture

By the time President Biden hung up the phone, he had finally delivered the threat he had refused to make for months: Israel had to change course, he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or the United States would.

But as the conversation ended on Thursday, aides to Mr. Biden said, the president had reason to hope that the message had gotten through and that he would not have to carry out his threat after all.

During the call, Mr. Biden outlined several specific commitments he wanted Israel to make to avoid losing his support for the war against Hamas. Rather than pushing back, according to people informed about the call, Mr. Netanyahu promised that he would announce more humanitarian aid for Gaza within hours and signaled that he would respond to Mr. Biden’s other demands in days to come.

Mr. Netanyahu’s government followed through later that night, authorizing the opening of a key port and another land crossing for food and other supplies. The White House expects Israel to soon issue new military procedures to avoid killing civilians and relief workers, and administration officials will be watching carefully this weekend when Israeli negotiators join William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, and Egyptian and Qatari intermediaries in Cairo to try again to broker a temporary cease-fire.

Whether it will be enough to avoid the rupture that Mr. Biden never wanted in the first place remains uncertain. Administration officials insisted that the president’s threat was not an idle one and that he was “very strident,” as one described him, in making his points to Mr. Netanyahu. At the same time, officials said, Mr. Biden did not specifically threaten to limit or cut off U.S. arms supplies during the call, as some Democrats have urged him to do, nor did he set a deadline for Israeli action. The “or else” remained unclear and undefined.

“Biden has put Netanyahu on probation,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The president “doesn’t want to fight and has given him a test he can pass, certainly on humanitarian assistance and perhaps on negotiations with Hamas. U.S. red lines have a way of turning pink. The only question is: Does Netanyahu want to fight?”

At least some in Israel suspect that he does not. Just as Mr. Biden can now tell restive members of his party that he is taking the stronger stance they have pushed him to take, Mr. Netanyahu may be able to use the heat from Washington to make changes that would otherwise be politically problematic for him.

“By signaling a potential shift in U.S. policy toward Israel, President Biden provided Prime Minister Netanyahu with the leverage to overcome the right-wing radicals in his government and secure its approval of a major increase in humanitarian aid for Gaza,” said Michael B. Oren, a former deputy minister under Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli ambassador to the United States.

None of which means that the two sides are certain to avoid a climactic clash. Their respective outlooks, goals and political pressures regarding the war against Hamas are significantly different. Mr. Biden is ready for the war to be wrapped up as soon as possible, while Mr. Netanyahu has an interest in extending it. So many moments that looked like turning points over the last six months have proved illusory.

But the hope at the White House is the president may have bought some room to maneuver. On Friday, officials welcomed the initial Israeli announcements on humanitarian aid as evidence that Mr. Biden has been able to deliver.

“We have seen some welcome announcements from the Israelis,” John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters on a briefing call. “They have acted on the president’s requests coming out of that call. You’re starting to see it for yourself.”

Even so, Mr. Kirby was careful not to declare victory. “These were just announcements,” he said. “We’ve got to see results. We’ve got to see sustainable deliverables here over time. It’s not enough just to announce it, but they have moved on some of the very specific requests that the president made.”

In his only public comments since the call, Mr. Biden did little to elaborate on his thinking. Asked by reporters before he boarded Marine One for a trip to Baltimore if he had threatened to cut off military aid if Israel did not respond to his concerns, the president said simply, “I asked them to do what they’re doing.” But he scoffed at the notion that he might be abandoning Israel. “Is that a serious question?” he said.

Some Republican critics accused him of just that. “The president’s ultimatums should be going to Hamas, not Israel,” Speaker Mike Johnson wrote on social media. “Hamas resisted a ceasefire, brought about needless bloodshed, and refuses to release Israeli and American hostages. Biden should not undercut our ally amidst an existential threat by conditioning our support.”

On the other side of the aisle, at least some Democrats were not convinced that Mr. Biden had gone far enough. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia praised the president for persuading the Israelis to facilitate more humanitarian relief. “But this was an obvious solution that should have happened months ago,” he said in a statement.

“The current approach is not working,” he added. The Biden administration should “prioritize the transfer of defensive weapons in all arms sales to Israel while withholding bombs and other offensive weapons that can kill and wound civilians and humanitarian aid workers.”

Mr. Biden’s threat to Mr. Netanyahu was prompted by the killing of seven relief workers for World Central Kitchen this week, which Mr. Kirby said left the president “shaken.” Israel forwarded the results of its investigation to the United States on Friday and removed or reprimanded five military officers involved in the strike, but neither move satisfied critics who called for an independent inquiry. Mr. Kirby said American officials will “review it carefully” before passing judgment on the Israeli investigation.

“This incident and the call between Biden and Bibi may represent an important shift in the order of priorities, with civilian protection and humanitarian aid rising higher,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “But it remains to be seen what effect this will have. We have to see how this all unfolds in the next few weeks.”

The extent of American influence on Israel’s conduct of the war is complicated. Mr. Biden has repeatedly defended Israel’s right to respond to the Hamas terrorist attack that killed an estimated 1,200 people on Oct. 7. But with the reported death toll in Gaza topping 32,000, Mr. Biden in recent weeks increasingly complained that Israel’s military operation has been “over the top,” as he once termed it.

He has particularly warned Israel against sending troops into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than one million refugees are sheltering from the war, without a credible plan to protect civilians. Mr. Netanyahu has unabashedly defied Mr. Biden in public, declaring that he planned to move against Rafah to pursue Hamas leaders regardless of American pressure. But some two months have passed and he has not done so yet, pending further consultations with Americans.

Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to Palestinian leaders in past peace talks with Israelis, said Mr. Biden’s shift was notable if belated. “The tone of the president’s statement is definitely more terse and stern than what we’ve heard before,” he said. The linkage between U.S. policy and Israeli changes “is very different from what we regularly hear” from Biden administration officials about not telling a sovereign state what to do.

“Well, it seems we are telling them what to do now,” Mr. Elgindy said. “That said, it’s not clear exactly what the ‘or else’ will be. Will they actually withhold military aid? I have my doubts. Might they allow a more forceful cease-fire resolution” at the United Nations Security Council? “Possibly.”

Frank Lowenstein, a former special envoy for Middle East peace under President Barack Obama, said the killing of the World Central Kitchen workers provoked a visceral reaction in Mr. Biden.

“Biden was clearly angry enough to actually get Bibi’s attention,” he said. “But the jury is still out on whether anything has actually changed for us or the Israelis. At this point, it is still mostly rhetoric. Bibi’s political pendulum has temporarily swung from pandering to the extremists in his coalition to placating Biden.”

But the moves announced so far, Mr. Lowenstein added, “are really baby steps that will not meaningfully change the horrific conditions for civilians in Gaza. And it would be typical of Bibi to announce the minimum steps necessary to avoid significant consequences, then slow roll implementation after the heat has died down.”