Biden’s approach to Israel has a newfound urgency

US president may be reaching the end of what many Democrats see as a questionable patience towards Israel’s relentless onslaught on Gaza

Joe Biden made his first official visit to Baltimore on Friday to view the mammoth operation to remove the destroyed bridge remnants from the port and to commend the city’s resilience in the wake of what was a horrifying event. The president enters April in a stronger position apart from one crucial aspect.

The intense focus on his age and his verbal slips has all but dissipated since his State of the Union address. On Friday morning news that 300,000 jobs had been added in March alone buoyed the administration. But these plus points have been obscured by the details of his Thursday phone call with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in which he warned that strikes on humanitarian workers would be deemed “unacceptable”, suggesting that he may be reaching the end of what many Democrats see as a questionable patience towards Israel’s relentless onslaught on Gaza in its quest to destroy Hamas.

In summarising the call, secretary of state Antony Blinken, who was privy to the conversation, said Biden had told Netanyahu that they must “announce a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers”.

Within hours Israel issued a consent to open more aid routes into Gaza and to do more to reduce civilian casualties. But the details of how they would do this were vague and fuzzy rather than specific and concrete.


The 30-minute phone call marked the first time that Biden had leveraged the threat – however mild – of pausing US support to Israel since the conflict began despite the distressing numbers of Gazan women and children among the estimated 30,000 people killed and the imminent threat of famine.

The deaths this week of seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen charity, when three of its vehicles were destroyed by Israeli air strikes, highlighted the treacherous conditions in which aid workers in Gaza are persevering. Biden said in a statement on Tuesday that those deaths had left him “outraged and heartbroken”.

He must now decide how long he waits to see evidence of Israel’s facilitation of unobstructed paths into Gaza to allow a little relief to the inhuman living conditions created by five months of artillery pummelling. The weight Netanyahu placed on the US president’s words will be reflected in the rapidity and scale of those changes. There was no clear suggestion from the summary of the phone call of what exactly is at stake for Israel if it fails to address US concerns.

“I’m not going to preview any potential policy decisions coming forward. What we want to see are some real changes on the Israeli side,” John Kirby, the White House national security communications adviser, said when asked how the US might respond should Israel fail to deliver on that commitment.

“And if we don’t see changes on their side, there will have to be changes on our side. In terms of concrete steps what we are looking to see here in the coming hours and days is a dramatic increase in the humanitarian assistance getting in.”

On Monday President Biden will travel for a rally in Wisconsin where 50,000 people voted “unrestricted” in this week’s primary in protest at his administration’s handling of Gaza.

Although he has eaten into the lead Donald Trump has enjoyed in recent polls, increasing Democratic unhappiness and unease with the United States’ unflagging support for Netanyahu’s Israel is solidifying into a significant obstacle as he seeks to win a second term in office.

On Wednesday Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Jeff Merkley (Oregon), Chris van Hollen (Maryland), Dick Durbin (Illinois) and Peter Welch signed a letter emphasising that “both parties in the conflict must follow international humanitarian law” and outlining strategies through which the US can directly deliver aid to Gaza.

In the letter they ask Biden whether the administration has mechanisms in place to: “mobilise and support airlifts to provide hospitals in Gaza with supplies including basic medicines such as blood, antibiotics, and insulin; deploy the navy’s hospital ships to the eastern Mediterranean; co-ordinate the transportation of Palestinians with severe injuries and illnesses to hospitals in the region; support the establishment of field hospitals in north Gaza and in Egypt across from the Rafah crossing”.

Their tone of urgency may reflect the newfound urgency which president Biden now apparently feels, with loudening objections to Israel’s behaviour in the conflict showing up in primary voting booths. And even if Thursday’s phone call does lead to a change in behaviour, it will, in time, be asked why President Biden didn’t deliver what was at best a stern rebuke in February or January when the humanitarian catastrophe now taking hold in Gaza was already flagged.