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Biden rebukes Israel over aid workers, but his Gaza policy is unchanged

As outrage built Tuesday over an Israeli strike that killed seven workers from the José Andrés-run World Central Kitchen, President Biden issued a rare direct rebuke of Israel for creating the conditions that have made the distribution of aid inside Gaza so difficult and deadly.

“This is not a stand-alone incident. This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed,” Biden said. “This is a major reason why distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza has been so difficult — because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.”

Yet there is no indication that the Monday deaths of the workers — who included one American — will result in any significant changes to the Biden administration’s unwavering support of Israel. The president’s sharp condemnation stands as the latest example in what experts, outside advisers and even some Biden officials say is an increasingly contradictory approach to Israel’s six-month assault in Gaza.

While Biden has shown a willingness over the past two months to use significantly tougher rhetoric with Israel, he has been so far unwilling to pair his criticism and calls for restraint with concrete pressure. Biden and his top aides have little appetite for imposing punitive action on Israel, such as conditioning or suspending weapons sales, despite immense frustration at how Israel is conducting the war, according to White House advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics.

Hours after Biden’s statement that he was “outraged and heartbroken” about the World Central Kitchen workers, White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday morning that the administration’s ironclad support for Israel would not change.

“We make no bones about the fact that we have certain issues about some of the way things are being done,” Kirby said. “We also make no bones about the fact that Israel is going to continue to have American support for the fight that they are in to eliminate the threat from Hamas.”

Andrés said Wednesday in an interview with Reuters that Israel targeted his workers “systematically, car by car.” He called on the United States and other countries whose citizens were killed to conduct their own investigations of what happened.

Kirby said earlier Wednesday, however, that the United States trusts Israel to conduct “a thorough, comprehensive and transparent investigation,” adding that the administration is not imposing a deadline for its completion. He also said he was unsure whether the weapons used in the strike were supplied by the U.S. government.

Andrés also called on the United States to do more to end the war and questioned how the Biden administration could provide humanitarian assistance in Gaza while continuing to supply Israel with weapons.

“It’s very complicated to understand. … America is going to be sending its Navy and its military to do humanitarian work, but at the same time weapons provided by America … are killing civilians,” Andrés said in the Reuters interview.

The United States has long called for Israel to increase the flow of aid into Gaza, which is facing a humanitarian catastrophe with much of the population on the brink of starvation. About 200 humanitarian aid workers — mostly Palestinians — have been killed during the war, which a top U.N. official said is nearly three times the death toll recorded in any single conflict in a year.

Biden and Vice President Harris have said there are “no excuses” for Israel not facilitating the delivery of more aid into Gaza. But the United States also said last month that Israel was not obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid, a precondition for countries receiving U.S. weapons and military assistance that the Biden administration implemented this year.

To some analysts, such seeming contradictions have resulted in a policy that is increasingly confusing, as Biden ramps up his rhetoric but does little to pressure Israel to change its approach.

“It’s the actions that matter, not the rhetoric. If words are not accompanied by the types of actions that will really get Israel’s attention, history has shown it’s essentially meaningless,” said Frank Lowenstein, a former State Department official who helped lead Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2014 under President Barack Obama.

“At the same time we’re saying we’re angry about the dire humanitarian assistance issues punctuated by these extreme incidents, we’re also saying our official position is that Israel has acted in accordance with U.S. and international law,” Lowenstein added. “If we’re saying Israel hasn’t actually done anything wrong and there are no consequences, why would they change their behavior?”

A growing number of Democrats and Biden allies say the administration should demand an immediate cease-fire and suspend or at least condition military aid.

“The killing of seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen is another devastating and deeply preventable tragedy which is, as President Biden put it, ‘outrageous,’” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “President Biden has said Israel needs to do a better job protecting civilian life. He now needs to make it clear that we will not greenlight new offensive weapons to Israel, and call for a permanent cease-fire and release of all the hostages.”

The muddled policy has had political implications for Biden as his support of Israel has alienated key swaths of his Democratic base, including Arab Americans, progressives, young voters and people of color. Yet Biden’s rhetorical shift does not appear to have moved those voters. In the latest protest of Biden’s policy, nearly 50,000 voters in Wisconsin — twice Biden’s 2020 margin of victory in the state — voted “uninstructed delegation” in Tuesday’s Democratic primary to signal to Biden that he must change course or risk losing their votes in November.

At the same time, the president’s increased public criticism of Israel has prompted many Republicans to position themselves as more-reliable allies of Israel and accuse Biden of caving to the left-wing sections of his party.

Even when Biden has split with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his aides have been quick to soften the impact.

Last week, the United States abstained from a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza that would last at least until the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan next week. The resolution also urged “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, as well as assuring humanitarian access.”

The United States had vetoed three previous U.N. cease-fire resolutions, and initially the abstention seemed to signal a notable policy shift on Biden’s part. But within hours of the vote, Kirby emphasized that the resolution was nonbinding and stressed that the U.S. abstention did not represent a change in policy.

Israel launched its military assault in Gaza after Hamas-led militants rampaged across the border on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, many of them civilians, and taking 253 hostages. Israel’s assault on Gaza has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, a majority of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. It has also created a humanitarian disaster as the health system has collapsed and dozens of children have died of malnutrition and starvation, according to the United Nations.

Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International and a former official of the U.S. Agency for International Development under Obama, said the Biden administration’s unwillingness to impose consequences on Israel sends a message to Netanyahu and the Israeli government that they do not need to listen to the president’s public statements.

“What they’re telling Israel is, this is just rhetoric. These concerns are purely rhetorical. They’re purely a communications device until they show differently,” Konyndyk said. “That’s how Netanyahu is treating this. He’s treating this as something he can ignore safely, because he’s got six months of data points to show he and the Israeli military can get away with ignoring what the president is telling them with no recourse.”

The repercussions of Biden’s embrace of Israel were also evident Tuesday evening, when the president, vice president and senior White House aides met with a group of Muslim leaders — the second time Biden has met with such a group since the war began in October.

The attendees had rejected the White House’s initial invitation for an iftar — the meal in which Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan — and instead asked for a policy meeting. Nahreen Ahmed, medical director at the aid organization MedGlobal, and her colleague, Thaer Ahmad, an emergency physician who completed a medical mission in Gaza this year, shared firsthand accounts from the besieged enclave, Ahmed said in an interview.

Thaer Ahmad, who is Palestinian American, at one point walked out of the meeting to protest the Biden administration’s policy on the war, Nahreen Ahmed said. But she stayed, to describe alleged violations of international humanitarian law by the Israeli military in Gaza, and also raised concerns about the Israeli strikes that killed the World Central Kitchen workers.

“It was touted as a meeting with the president to be able to share what’s happening in Gaza from those who have been there,” Ahmed said. But “truly, what the meeting was, was to bring the Muslim community together to basically be talked at and told to manage our expectations about what’s happening with the response from the administration.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the meeting with Muslim community leaders was meant to be private, and largely declined to comment on anything that happened during it.

Asked specifically about Biden’s reaction to Ahmad’s decision to leave the meeting, she said, “He understands that this is a painful moment for many Americans across the country. And so he respects their, you know, their freedom to peacefully protest. I don’t have anything outside of that.”

She also would not answer whether the president had read a letter from an 8-year-old girl from Rafah who lost both of her parents. It was given to him at the meeting.

For most of the war, Biden has adopted a “bear hug” approach to Netanyahu, giving Israel unwavering public support in the hope that it would enable the United States to influence Israel in private. Biden officials argue they have influenced Israel at key moments, including by persuading the country to reduce the number of troops in Gaza, allow in a limited amount of aid and refrain from attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the strategy’s limitations are increasingly evident as Netanyahu has continued to publicly defy the United States on major issues. Over the past several weeks, the United States has publicly disapproved of a planned large-scale invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1.3 million Palestinians are sheltering after fleeing there under Israeli orders. U.S. officials recently held a virtual meeting with Israeli officials on their Rafah plans and said they are still seeking to influence Israel’s approach, but Netanyahu has said he still intends to move ahead with a major invasion.

Netanyahu has also rejected Biden’s calls to accept the notion of a Palestinian state, and he has made little apparent effort to let in more aid to the stricken Gazan population, human rights groups say.

Even as Biden and his top aides express outrage at the killing of the World Central Kitchen workers, they do not plan to mount their own investigation into the attack on the clearly marked convoy, which was struck three times. Israel has said the strikes were “unintentional” and has apologized for the incident.

One White House adviser experienced in such investigations said that relying on Israel’s probe significantly reduces the chance of accountability.

“Israel investigating itself is not going to result in any meaningful consequences for the IDF soldiers involved,” the adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

Claire Parker contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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