Apr 5, 2024 - World

"We won't support you": Inside Biden's ultimatum to Bibi

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the collapse of Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 26, 2024

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House on Mar. 26, 2024. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Biden laid out an ultimatum to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their call on Thursday: If Israel doesn't change course in Gaza, "we won't be able to support you," he said, according to three sources with knowledge of the call.

Why it matters: Biden didn't specify what a loss of U.S. support would entail and he didn't mention the possibility of stopping weapons shipments to Israel, the sources said. But it was the president's toughest call with Netanyahu since the Oct. 7 attacks — both in tone and in substance.

  • It resulted in Netanyahu beginning to take steps he had opposed before.

Behind the scenes: Many of the most senior members of the Biden administration were on the 30-minute call Thursday, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

  • According to the sources, Biden spoke to Netanyahu about the Israeli strike earlier this week that killed seven humanitarian workers with World Central Kitchen (WCK) and said it will exacerbate the already dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
  • WCK, which is one of the main players that delivered food to people in the enclave, suspended its operation in Gaza after the strike.
  • The White House and Prime Minister's office declined to comment.

Biden told Netanyahu there is a need for a pause in the fighting in Gaza due to the incident in order to allow humanitarian aid efforts to resume, the sources said.

  • Netanyahu told Biden there would be new procedures on the ground and therefore a pause in the fighting wouldn't be required, according to the sources. He also said a pause needs to come with a deal for the release of hostages being held in Gaza.
  • Blinken said in a statement on Friday that Netanyahu "indicated to President Biden that Israel would be making further changes to its procedures to make sure that those who are providing assistance to people who so desperately need it in Gaza are protected."

Between the lines: Netanyahu and his aides were surprised by Biden's request for a pause in the fighting outside of the context of a hostage deal, a senior Israeli official said.

  • At the Israeli security cabinet meeting a few hours after the call, Netanyahu mentioned that the White House readout of the call didn't link a ceasefire in Gaza with a release of hostages, the official who attended the meeting said.
  • The official said that after Israel asked for the White House to clarify what the readout said, the Biden administration made clear both in public and in private that it still thinks a six-week ceasefire needs to take place in return for release of hostages.
  • "Our position remains that there should be a ceasefire as part of a hostage deal and it should happen immediately. That's why the President urged the Prime Minister to empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay," a U.S. official told me.

What they're saying: When asked on Friday by a reporter if he threatened Netanyahu with conditioning military aid, Biden replied the Israelis are doing now what he asked them to do.

  • White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that one of the messages Biden conveyed to Netanyahu during the call was "let's get this [hostage deal] done so that we can get a ceasefire for a matter of weeks in place".
  • Kirby added that Biden urged Netanyahu "to get to yes" on negotiating a deal to get the hostages out.

What to watch: A senior Israeli official said the Israeli cabinet decision on Thursday to increase the delivery of aid to Gaza, to open a new border crossing in the northern part of the enclave and other steps are expected to create a significant change in the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

  • "We think it will also calm down the situation between the U.S. and Israel," he said.
  • U.S. officials on the other hand stress they will be watching closely if the steps the Israeli cabinet agreed on and the commitments to change IDF procedures in order to protect civilians and aid workers are implemented.
  • "We'll be looking at all of this in the days to come and we're looking to see not just what steps are being taken but the results that follow from them," Blinken said.
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