Angst, unease and outrage are spreading through corners of the Biden administration as Israeli forces show no signs of letting up their relentless attacks inside Gaza and the civilian death toll in the besieged enclave – already in the thousands – continues to climb.
One month into the Israel-Hamas war, some senior officials privately say there are aspects of Israel’s military operations they simply cannot stomach defending; calls for the US to back a ceasefire are growing among government employees; and others are distraught by the incessant images of Palestinian civilians being killed by Israeli airstrikes, multiple sources told CNN.
“It has created great moral anxiety,” said one senior administration official. “But no one can say it because we all work at the pleasure of the president and he’s all in.”
This week, a divide emerged between the US and Israel over the future of Gaza after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested in an interview Israel would have responsibility for security in Gaza for an “indefinite period.” On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to any “reoccupation” of the Gaza Strip but did allow that “there may be a need for some transition period at the end of the conflict.”
Still, the pushback did not appear to portend a larger break between the two allies. Even as the administration grapples with growing anger within its ranks, eruptions of public outrage and protests and mounting condemnation among its global allies, it shows little sign of publicly distancing itself from Netanyahu or expressing any kind of denunciation of Israel’s offensive in Gaza.
Some of the fiercest backlash has come from inside the State Department, including an official who publicly resigned from the agency last month over the Biden’s administration’s approach to the conflict. Elsewhere in the administration, officials are quietly fuming as the civilian death toll mounts.
An open letter signed by hundreds of US Agency for International Development staffers is urging the administration to call for a ceasefire, something the administration has so far rejected.
“For USAID efforts to be effective and for lives to be saved, we need an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities,” the letter states. “We believe that further catastrophic loss of human life can only be avoided if the United States Government calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the release of Israeli hostages, and the restoration of water, food, fuel, and electricity to the people of Gaza by the State of Israel.”
Reminders of emotions running high have not been hard to come by. The president was confronted by a protester calling for a ceasefire at a private fundraiser last week; pro-Palestinian protests have been a daily occurrence near the White House compound; and this week, one of the entrances near the West Wing was covered in bright-red handprints – meant to mimic blood – and words like “genocide Joe.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that “the president understands that there’s strong emotions and feelings here, all around, all across the board – and here inside the administration and the federal government, that’s certainly the case as well.”
“We have been engaging with – with partners and organizations and experts and analysts and people with different perspectives, to listen to their concerns, make sure that we understand them as we develop policy,” Kirby said.
Frustration with Israeli government growing
In the immediate aftermath of the deadly October 7 Hamas attack, there was a public and private acknowledgement that Israel would respond fiercely to what officials called an unprecedented assault. One source told CNN there was a sense among US officials that the Israeli leaders weren’t able to think straight about their offensive because of the shock and trauma of the attack.
Although US officials have said the Israeli government has been refining its offensive, frustration inside the Biden administration has only been growing as Israel has in different ways rebuffed US’ calls for the Israel Defense Forces to take painstaking efforts to limit civilian deaths, enact humanitarian pauses, stem growing violence in the West Bank and make long-term plans for Gaza. That reality is deepening Washington’s bind as it works to support its ally while also containing growing international backlash.
In conversations with their Israeli counterparts at different levels, Biden administration officials have been stepping up calls for Israel to scale back its relentless aerial bombardment of Gaza, which has claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians, people familiar with the conversations said.
“They’re being told that they need to change course here,” one source said. “To pull back, to stop the bombing and engage in a more surgical, precise counterterrorism operation.”
The rhetoric from top officials has also changed publicly in the weeks since the October 7 attack, with more explicit calls to mitigate the civilian toll and acknowledge the impact that the gruesome images from Gaza will have on the Israeli government’s long-term strategy in Gaza.
“We need to do more to protect Palestinian civilians. We’ve been clear that as Israel conducts its campaign to defeat Hamas, how it does so matters,” Blinken said in Tel Aviv Friday following meetings with Israeli officials. “There will be no partners for peace if they’re consumed by humanitarian catastrophe and alienated by any perceived indifference to their plight.”
Still, the public messaging has continued to emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself and rebuff any calls for a ceasefire. There are public and private acknowledgements from the administration that there cannot be a stop to the fighting right now as the next phase of the offensive plays out.
However, thus far, private American calls for Israel to shift course on that offensive to stem the heavy humanitarian toll have been rejected. Even though Israel “significantly refined what originally was their plan,” according to a senior administration official, the expanded assault on Gaza is nonetheless viewed by many American officials as too severe.
On Monday, Kirby told reporters during a virtual briefing that officials “have seen some indications that there are there are efforts being applied in certain scenarios to try to minimize (civilian casualties), but I don’t want to overstate that.”
A senior Israeli official acknowledged on Tuesday that the administration raises the concerns in private conversations but argued that mitigating civilian deaths is “very complicated in a densely populated area where Hamas is embedded within the population.”
“We are well aware of the potential for collateral damage and there are a lot of efforts to distinguish between civilians and terrorists,” the official said. “It’s our obligation to minimize collateral damage”
Political blowback on Biden
The ramifications are being felt at home and abroad. Biden is coming under growing pressure from members of his Democratic Party to speak out more forcefully on Israel’s tactics, although there is still strong bipartisan support in Congress for Israel’s self-defense.
Meanwhile, US allies in the Arab world are making clear their deep anger at the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Blinken left the Middle East on Monday with few tangible results to show for his flurry of meetings with leaders across the region.
“All of this is a work in progress,” he said to CNN at a news conference in Turkey.
And while American officials said Friday they anticipated Israel’s air campaign to decrease this week, heavy bombardment continues in the Palestinian enclave.
Biden has grown frustrated at the scale of civilian death, officials say, and the administration has watched with growing discomfort as Israel bombed a densely populated refugee camp and an ambulance near a hospital, both of which it claimed were targeting Hamas.
“Our conversations with the Israelis are … very direct,” a senior administration official said last week, citing the speech Biden himself delivered in Tel Aviv warning Israelis against making the same mistakes the US did following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Biden has steadfastly supported Israel’s right — and, in his words, responsibility — to respond to the Hamas attacks, which left more than 1,000 people dead and hundreds taken hostage.
Still, American officials have been quick to point out that Israel is making its own decisions on who and what to target.
“It is not our military. It is not a US military campaign. And so, I don’t want to be here armchair quarterbacking,” the official added. “But I will say, when there are incidents, very certainly, we have conversations with the Israelis.”
American relationship with the Israelis under the microscope
In a telephone call Monday, Biden raised the need for “tactical pauses” directly with Netanyahu. But Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have steadfastly rejected the idea of a lengthy pause in the fighting unless hostages are released.
In an interview with ABC News on Monday, Netanyahu voiced openness to “tactical little pauses, an hour here, an hour there.” Yet American officials say a break in fighting to allow for the release of hundreds of hostages will require more than mere hours.
Administration officials argue they have had success in some areas as they work to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. After Biden personally raised the importance of significantly increasing the number of aid trucks allowed into the strip during a phone call with Netanyahu, Israel said as many as 100 trucks a day would be allowed to cross the border from Egypt.
American pressure also led to internet and phone connectivity being restored at the start of Israel’s expanded assault, though it has been cut periodically since then.
Still, steady pressure by the Biden administration on Israel to refine its war plans and define its objectives in Gaza has not yielded the level of clarity many US officials say is necessary.
Biden has said explicitly he believes Israeli “reoccupation” of Gaza would be a “big mistake.” But in his interview Monday, Netanyahu told ABC News that Gaza should be governed by “those who don’t want to continue the way of Hamas” before adding: “I think Israel will, for an indefinite period, will have the overall security responsibility because we’ve seen what happens when we don’t have it.”
He didn’t elaborate, and US administration officials have said they are frustrated by the lack of a clear plan from Israel about its future plans for dealing with Gaza if it succeeds in taking out Hamas. Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday that Israel is “not talking about any sort of ongoing occupation of the Gaza Strip.”
Asked about Netanyahu’s comments on ABC News Monday that Israel will have the “overall security responsibility” in Gaza for an “indefinite period” after the war ends, Regev said: “We have to distinguish between a security presence and political control.”
Speaking in Tokyo on Wednesday, Blinken explicitly laid out the US’ terms for “durable peace and security” in Gaza after the war, stressing that its territory must not be reduced or occupied.
“The United States believes key elements should include no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza. Not now; not after the war,” he said at a news conference in Tokyo following the G7 Foreign Ministerial.
“No use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism or other violent attacks. No, re-occupation of Gaza after the conflict ends. No attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza. No reduction in the territory of Gaza,” he continued.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.
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