Oct 21, 2023 - World

Inside Biden's Gaza strategy

Photo illustration of President Biden and pieces of torn paper in blue and green

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden is taking a dual-track approach to the Gaza crisis — standing staunchly beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in public while trying to hold him back in private.

The big picture: The U.S. supports Israel but doesn't want to get drawn into another large or protracted military operation in the Middle East. Threading that needle is the Biden administration's biggest challenge right now.

Zoom out: Biden set the tone for the U.S. response in his Oct. 10 speech, when he compared Hamas to ISIS.

  • The speech was aired during prime time in Israel, and it was one of the most-watched TV events in Israel's history.
  • It was well-received among both Israeli political leaders and the Israeli public, giving Biden credibility at the beginning of the crisis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told Axios.
  • "If you like Biden or hate Biden you could not complain about his commitment to Israel," Nides said.

Biden has used that credibility delicately. He and Netanyahu have a fraught history, but during their calls — which happen almost every day — Biden has avoided directly pressuring the prime minister, according to U.S. officials.

  • Instead, he has asked questions — a gentler way to raise the same concerns.

The latest: Some 20 trucks carrying humanitarian aid crossed into Gaza today after Biden successfully lobbied Egypt and Israel to agree to allow in aid during his visit to Israel.

One of Biden's main goals is to prevent the Gaza conflict from turning into a regional war. Sending aircraft carriers to the region is part of that effort, as are the messages the U.S. has sent to Iran and Hezbollah — both publicly and in private.

Biden has also asked Netanyahu several times how he plans to avoid an escalation that would push Hezbollah into the war, U.S. officials said.

  • Biden said he asked Netanyahu and other Israeli officials about alternatives to a ground invasion of Gaza and whether they had a plan for what to do in Gaza after dismantling Hamas.
  • They told him they do not have one yet.

"Biden tried from a position of love and friendship to tell the Israelis, 'Think long term and don't make the same mistakes we made after 9/11," a U.S. official told Axios.

State of play: Biden took this strategy to the next level with his trip to Israel.

  • The visit was an unprecedented show of support on the ground in time of war — and gave Biden an opportunity to engage privately with the Israelis to get them to take steps the U.S. wanted.
  • Israeli and U.S. officials said both Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Israelis that it is in Israel's interest to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. Doing so would help maintain international support for Israel's operation against Hamas, they said.
  • The Israelis agreed. One senior Israeli official told Axios that after Biden's support, both in word and deed, they couldn't say no.

Behind the scenes: Biden himself is the driving force behind much of this strategy, people familiar with the process say.

  • His Oct. 10 speech "was all Joe Biden," according to a source familiar with the speech-writing process, who said Biden shot down aides' attempts to water down the language or balance the messages.
  • And many people on the president's team didn't want him to go to Israel, but he decided to do it, Biden told reporters on Air Force One.

Between the lines: Biden is dusting off the same playbook he used to broker a ceasefire in 11 days during the May 2021 Gaza war, two U.S. officials said.

  • But this time the public-private strategy will take more time to play out. Top Biden advisers know there won't be a ceasefire anytime soon. And they aren't pushing for one. The immediate goal is to influence Israel's moves on the ground.

What's next: Biden won't be able to stop the war, but he is likely going to continue to use his popularity and credibility among Israelis to influence its path.

  • "There is a reason there are posters of Joe Biden all over Israel. Biden managed to capture the moral high ground when it comes to the Israeli people and the Jewish community in the U.S., and he will use it as he sees fit," Nides said.

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