President Joe Biden declined to categorically write off the idea of putting conditions on U.S. aid to Israel in a Friday news conference about the Israel-Hamas cease-fire and release of hostages held by the Palestinian militant group.
A reporter asked the president his response to calls from some Democrats, who “would like to see a reduction” in Israel’s bombing of Gaza, asking that the U.S. place conditions on its aid to Israel.
“I think that’s a worthwhile thought, but I don’t think if I started off with that we would have gotten where we are today,” Biden responded. “We have to take this a piece at a time.”
To be sure, Biden did not endorse stricter conditions on U.S. aid to Israel. Far from it, he is urging Congress to pass a bill, currently tied up in partisan budget disagreements, that would provide Israel with $14 billion in emergency military aid.
But Biden’s refusal to deride the notion of making aid conditional sounded like a notable break with his past rhetoric. As a presidential candidate in 2019, Biden told The Wall Street Journal that leveraging U.S. aid to Israel to curb settlement growth would be “absolutely outrageous.”
Biden might be striking a more moderate tone so as not to appear dismissive of parts of the Democratic base that empathize with the Palestinians. Amid the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians and the displacement of two-thirds of Gaza’s population, thousands of left-leaning protesters have been engaging in civil disobedience to pressure Democrats to support a cease-fire. And Arab American leaders in electorally critical Michigan are leading an effort to discourage voters from casting a ballot for Biden next year.
The exact significance of Biden’s remarks is not clear, however. He has been known to occasionally make off-the-cuff comments that he or the White House walk back.
“My initial thought is did he fully understand the question?” said Khaled Elgindy, director of Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute. “If so, then it is a sea change in the president’s attitude.”
“I’ve encouraged the prime minister to focus on trying to reduce the number of casualties while he is attempting to eliminate Hamas, which is a legitimate objective he has.”
– President Joe Biden
Matt Duss, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and now executive vice president at the Center for International Policy, encouraged Biden to go further and consider leveraging U.S. aid in the future.
“We’ll never know if we could have gotten here earlier, because Biden preemptively and publicly took those tools of leverage off the table,” Duss said. “It’s time to rethink this.”
Israel maintains that its massive aerial bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza are warranted and necessary responses to Hamas’ massacre of 1,200 civilians in a vicious Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel and the capture of some 240 hostages. Israel’s stated goal is to completely eliminate Hamas, which runs Gaza, from the dense coastal enclave.
In his Friday remarks, Biden stood by Israel’s objective in the war.
“I’ve encouraged the prime minister to focus on trying to reduce the number of casualties while he is attempting to eliminate Hamas, which is a legitimate objective he has,” he said. “That’s a difficult task. And I don’t know how long it will take.”
“My expectation and hope is that as we move forward, the rest of the Arab world in the region is also putting pressure on all sides to slow this down, to bring this to an end as quickly as we can,” he added.
Many less hawkish experts, like Elgindy, a former adviser to the internationally recognized Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, believe that entirely eliminating Hamas is not feasible or worth pursuing.
“I’m struck by two things that haven’t changed: that he still believes the elimination of Hamas is an achievable goal and that he’s still only encouraging the Israelis to minimize civilian casualties, both of which seem detached from the realities on the ground,” Elgindy said.
Elgindy did credit Biden for sounding “more sober and less cavalier” than at the beginning of the war.
“The fact that he referenced the Arab world’s and others’ desire to see this wrapped up as quickly as possible may be a sign that he is starting to understand that this has already gone on too long and cost too many lives — maybe,” he added.