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Israel report further clouds Biden’s approach to Gaza conflict

President, Blinken did little to clarify their stance over the weekend

Palestinians who fled Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip transport their belongings in the back of a truck as they arrive to take shelter in Khan Yunis on Sunday.
Palestinians who fled Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip transport their belongings in the back of a truck as they arrive to take shelter in Khan Yunis on Sunday. (AFP via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — A much-anticipated State Department report on possible Israeli humanitarian violations in Gaza is quintessential to President Joe Biden’s presidency: It sends mixed messages about the Jewish state’s conduct of the war and further clouds the administration’s murky policy approach. 

The report, which the administration agreed to provide under its National Security Memorandum 20, is the latest attempt to influence Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of his war with Hamas in Gaza without further alienating voters at home as polls indicate Biden is in a dead heat with former President Donald Trump. 

The report reflects a pattern from the president and his top aides of both criticizing, even threatening, Netanyahu while also choosing middle-ground approaches and sending mixed signals.

Biden isn’t going far enough for a key part of his base in battleground states like Michigan and Minnesota, where there are large Arab American populations. As part of the pro-Palestinian “uncommitted” protest vote push, hundreds of thousands of typically Democratic voters have declined to cast ballots for Biden in primaries this year.

“Biden’s announcement to halt American arms for Israel’s Rafah invasion marks a step forward, propelled by our growing anti-war movement,” Layla Elabed, a spokesperson for Uncommitted National Movement, said in a statement late last week. “But, as the Democratic Party has fractured over Israel’s atrocities in Gaza over the past several months, Biden’s actions will always speak louder than his words.”

In the report sent to Congress on Friday, the State Department said it was “reasonable to assess” Israel has used U.S.-manufactured and -supplied weapons in ways that likely violated international humanitarian law.

“Given Israel’s significant reliance on U.S.-made defense articles, it is reasonable to assess that defense articles covered under [the national security memorandum] have been used by Israeli security forces since October 7 in instances inconsistent with its obligations or with established best practices for mitigating civilian harm,” according to the report.

But the report included notable caveats, such as one stating it was “difficult to assess or reach conclusive findings on individual incidents.”

The document’s construction is reflective of an administration that often sends mixed messages about its policy toward Israel and the conflict in Gaza.

For instance, Biden last Wednesday told CNN he would stop sending Israel heavy bombs and artillery shells should the Israeli military launch a major ground offensive inside Rafah, an area in southern Gaza where U.S. officials estimate 1.5 million Palestinian refugees are hunkered down — including 600,000 children.

About 48 hours later, however, a top spokeswoman appeared to contradict him.

White House officials, responding to criticism from Republican lawmakers about Biden pausing one shipment of heavy bombs to Israel over concerns about Rafah, intend to abide by the recent national security supplemental spending measure that included billions for the Jewish state, said Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden’s top spokesperson.

“We are going to make sure every dollar of the appropriations that is coming out of the national security supplemental, indeed, gets to Israel,” she told reporters Thursday evening on Air Force One. “That is our commitment.”

The measure, which received bipartisan support in both chambers, includes $26.4 billion in military aid for Israel.

Lawmakers’ reaction to the report and the administration pausing one arms shipment have been as mixed as the White House’s messaging.

 “I think the reality of us being in an election year now and the election just six months away … you have kind of a political and an operational reality there,” Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a member of the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, said during a Sunday television interview.

“He certainly is withholding aid, and he is obviously doing it for political reasons,” Waltz added. “It’s not going to get Biden what he wants. It’s only angering the supporters of Israel who do believe, as I do, you have to destroy Hamas.”

But Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Coons of Delaware said the president “has taken forceful action.”

“So much so there’s been a lot of blowback for his recent public statement,” Coons said on “This Week” Sunday on ABC. “And I’ll remind you, other American presidents have done the same thing when a close, trusted partner isn’t listening to private admonitions.”

‘Shouldn’t get into all this’

The Biden administration’s communications with key lawmakers on national security and foreign policy also have sent mixed messages and sown confusion.

CQ Roll Call reported last week that some senior members said they were not notified of the frozen arms shipment, adding they learned about the move from press reports. These members also offered contradictory assessments of just what was being withheld from Israel. 

Asked Friday about that confusion, a National Security Council spokesperson issued a statement that provided scant clarity. 

State Department and Pentagon officials notified top congressional leaders and “staff from relevant committees at the beginning of the week” about the administration’s decision to freeze a weapons shipment to Israel, the NSC spokesperson said in a Friday email. 

“We’re in constant contact with the Hill on a variety of issues. I can confirm that we’ve been in touch with many members of Congress to brief them on the latest,” the spokesperson added, declining to comment on “private discussions” with specific members or staffers, and about which specific committees were noticed. 

During a number of Friday and Saturday fundraisers on the West Coast, Biden did little to bring clarity to his approach to the conflict. 

“Before I begin, let me answer a question related to the hostages. I keep getting asked by the press and all the other folks out there. You know, there would be a cease-fire tomorrow if Ira… — Hamas released the hostages, women, the elderly and the wounded,” he said Saturday during a gathering of donors in the Seattle area. 

It appeared he began to blame Iran for the sides being unable to reach an agreement to pause fighting so more hostages could be released and humanitarian aid moved into Gaza. 

“Israel said it’s up to Hamas if they wanted to do it, we could end it tomorrow. And the cease-fire would begin tomorrow,” Biden said. “It all has to do, you know, we’ve not … anyway, I guess I shouldn’t get into all this about Israel, but …”

He trailed off for five seconds, according to a pool reporter in the room, before adding, “Well, I don’t want to get going.”

Nor did Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. 

Referring to a military operation in Rafah, Blinken told ABC News that the president “doesn’t want to see American weapons used in that kind of operation.” But he immediately added: “That’s not to say that he is going to abandon Israel or cut them off from weapons.”

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