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Iranian retaliatory attack on Israel flips script as Biden had pressed for changes in Gaza

'We would not envision ourselves participating' in Iran strike, US official says

President Joe Biden walks onstage to give remarks virtually to the National Action Network Convention on Friday.
President Joe Biden walks onstage to give remarks virtually to the National Action Network Convention on Friday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — Iran’s retaliatory attack on Israel over its killing of a top general already has flipped the script in the United States, with focus shifting to backing the Jewish state rather than using diplomatic leverage to alter its approach in Gaza. But that shift has not resolved the congressional stand-off in the House over how to get both military and humanitarian aid to the Middle East, and by extension, Ukraine.

Biden administration officials in recent weeks had been publicly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war on Hamas inside Gaza. But those same officials rushed to Israel’s defense over the weekend, helping the Israeli Defense Forces, along with Jordan and United Kingdom, intercept over 300 drones and missiles fired by Iran.

As Israeli and U.S. officials late last week began warning about a threat on Israel from Iran, attention drifted from the administration’s calls for Netanyahu to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and to alter how the IDF selects and engages targets there so that fewer civilians die or are gravely injured.

For instance, the vast majority of reporters’ questions on a Friday morning briefing call by John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, were about the Iran threat. A day earlier, a press briefing at the White House included some pointed exchanges about Netanyahu, Biden and Gaza.

By the morning after Iran’s attack, even some Democratic lawmakers who had criticized Netanyahu and urged Biden to do more to compel tactical changes in Gaza were calling for Congress to act swiftly to send Biden legislation that would send more military aid to Israel.

“My first concern here is the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. I mean, Israel was violently attacked [by Hamas] on Oct. 7. I’ve watched an hour of footage from that day, it was horrific, and Israel has a right to defend itself,” said Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees.

“The way this has been conducted in Gaza, I have serious concerns, I’ve expressed those….,” Kelly said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “We provide them with significant aid, and we’re going to need to provide them with more, by the way. Because of what happened last night, we [are] going to need to replenish their rounds.”

Other lawmakers on Sunday also called for quick action, with Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Marco Rubio telling CNN’s “State of the Union” that if the House passed an Israel aid bill on Monday, the Senate would quickly follow suit — though disagreements run deep on Capitol Hill about attaching military assistance for Ukraine.

House calls

According to the White House pool, Biden convened a call Sunday afternoon with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La.; and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., to push the House to pass the national security supplemental as soon as possible.

On Monday, Jeffries made it clear in a letter to colleagues that his side of the aisle would not help Republicans pass an Israel-only aid package this week, preferring the Senate-passed $95.3 billion bill that also includes funding for Ukraine and Taiwan. “We must take up the bipartisan and comprehensive national security bill passed by the Senate forthwith. This is a Churchill or Chamberlain moment,” Jeffries wrote.

The previous evening, Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Joe Wilson, R-S.C., sent a letter to Johnson also urging him to take up the Senate-passed package.

But the House Freedom Caucus, which has pushed back on aid for Ukraine, on Monday reiterated its support for a separate, House-passed aid package solely for Israel that has stalled in the Senate and that the White House opposes.

On Monday, Kirby said the White House “would oppose” a stand-alone supplemental spending bill that only contains aid dollars for Israel.

Carrots and sticks

Circumstances have again toggled Washington back to sending more carrots — weapons — to Israel after Biden and his senior national security lieutenants were vaguely threatening to use sticks to compel Netanyahu to change course in Gaza.

Had Israel not taken out Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, at a diplomatic facility in Damascus, Syria, earlier this month, it is unlikely Iran would have attacked Israel directly; Tehran had never before attempted to strike the Jewish state directly, nor from its own soil.

National security advisers to Biden contend his self-described “very blunt” April 4 conversation with Netanyahu was not an ultimatum. But Biden has said he forcefully told his Israeli counterpart to change his targeting procedures of Hamas operatives and allow in more humanitarian aid or there would be major changes to U.S. policies.

Biden’s top national security aides have made clear the president remains dissatisfied with steps Netanyahu has committed to since that phone conversation.

Yet, the president and his team still have been unable — or unwilling — to say publicly just what policy or policies Biden might change, should he determine Netanyahu and Israel’s war cabinet have not seriously heeded his Gaza demands.

Biden himself, as recently as Wednesday, said he wants Israel to do more — but he and his senior aides have not indicated how far he would be willing to go to try changing the behavior of one of Washington’s closest allies. Doing so after the Iran attack could be more difficult, especially in an election year, with Biden’s expected general election foe, former President Donald Trump, already contending Biden’s Israel policy shows incompetence.

What’s more, Biden told Netanyahu during a Saturday evening phone call he believed Israel “got the best of it” in repelling the Iranian attack, as his focus moved to trying to convince the prime minister to deescalate the volatile situation by opting against another retaliatory action that could set off a wider Middle East war, a senior administration official said Sunday. “No one wants to run up the escalation ladder,” the official said.

“I have been very blunt and straightforward with the prime minister,” Biden said during a joint press conference on April 10 with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“The fact is that … they’re getting in somewhere in the last three days over 100 trucks,” he added of Israeli officials. “It’s not enough, but it needs to be more. And there’s one more opening that has to take place in the north. So we’ll see what he (Netanyahu) does in terms of meeting the commitments he made to me.”

White House briefings frequently become debates about how much leverage Biden still has over Netanyahu — if any.

“The progress is good. More needs to be done,” Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden’s press secretary, said on April 11 of Israel’s conduct of the war and stingy treatment of aid flowing into Gaza. “Famine is imminent in Gaza. And that’s why we’re trying to do everything that we can to uptick, obviously, the humanitarian aid. We know how dire the situation is in Gaza.”

Pressed on the “everything” part of her answer, Jean-Pierre did not describe anything else Biden might do to change Netanyahu’s course.

“We have had the conversation with the prime minister multiple times, with the Israeli government almost every day on what needs to be done. And we’ve had those conversations with them,” she said. “And so, now we are seeing an uptick. That is important.”

She sidestepped questions then about why her boss has resisted further restrictions on military aid. Biden has yet to seriously threaten to use any diplomatic sticks against Netanyahu, despite calls from Democratic lawmakers before Iran’s retaliation to do just that.

Senior U.S. officials have recently acknowledged what analysts have been detecting for months: Biden’s growing frustration in private with Netanyahu over Gaza.

“Underlying the policy differences is the bad personal relationship between Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu, and Netanyahu’s calculated willingness to confront rather than accommodate his American counterpart. This was a strident reversal of Israeli prime ministers’ long-held tradition to avoid head-on collisions with U.S. presidents,” Itamar Rabinovich of Tel Aviv University and the Brookings Institution wrote in a commentary posted on Brookings’ website.

“The Biden administration seems to believe that a change in government and prime minister in Israel is essential for the conduct of effective U.S. policy and a shift to a new regional order,” he added. “Netanyahu, in turn, is clearly interested in an open confrontation with Biden, regarding it as an asset in his quest to survive Israel’s domestic political crisis.”

While Netanyahu remains in power, his future and what might be dubbed the “or else” in Biden’s demand for Gaza changes are murky.

What is clear is that if Netanyahu decides to risk a regional war, initially he would be on his own.

U.S. officials have informed the Israeli government that American forces would not be available to help with any potential counterattack on Iran, the senior administration official said Sunday, adding: “We would not envision ourselves participating in such a thing.”

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