July 19, 2024

President Biden laid it out for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel long before letting the public know. In a conversation bristling with tension on Feb. 11, the president warned the prime minister against a major assault on the Gaza city of Rafah — and suggested that continued U.S. support would depend on how Israel proceeded.

It was an extraordinary moment. For the first time, the president who had so strongly backed Israel’s war against Hamas was essentially threatening to change course. The White House, however, kept the threat secret, making no mention of it in the official statement it released about the call. And indeed, the private warning, perhaps too subtle, fell on deaf ears.

Six days later, on Feb. 17, Mr. Biden heard from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. The president’s chief diplomat was calling from his blue-and-white government plane as he was flying home from a security conference in Munich. Despite the president’s warning, Mr. Blinken reported that momentum for an invasion of Rafah was building. It could result in a humanitarian catastrophe, he feared. They had to draw a line.

At that point, the president headed down a road that would lead to the most serious collision between the United States and Israel in a generation. Three months later, the president has decided to follow through on his warning, leaving the two sides in a dramatic standoff. Mr. Biden has paused a shipment of 3,500 bombs and vowed to block the delivery of other offensive arms if Israel mounts a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah over his objections. Mr. Netanyahu responded defiantly, vowing to act even “if we need to stand alone.”

Mr. Biden’s journey to this moment of confrontation has been a long and tortured one, the culmination of a seven-month evolution — from a president who was so appalled by the Hamas-led terrorist attack on Oct. 7 that he pledged “rock solid and unwavering” support for Israel to an angry and exasperated president who has finally had it with an Israeli leadership that he believes is not listening to him.

“He has just gotten to a point where enough is enough,” said former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a onetime Republican senator from Nebraska and a friend of Mr. Biden’s from their days together in Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration. “I think he felt he had to say something. He had to do something. He had to show some sign that he wasn’t going to continue this.”

Interviews with administration officials, members of Congress, Middle East analysts and others, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, indicate that the president’s decision came not as a sudden break but as the inexorable result of months of efforts to influence Israel’s behavior.

Ever since February, Mr. Biden has focused on Rafah and brought it up with Mr. Netanyahu again and again. A major strike in the densely populated city swelling with displaced masses seemed like a disastrous idea after many thousands had already been killed in the first months of the war in Gaza.

“I can’t support it,” he told Mr. Netanyahu, according to an official informed about their calls. “It will be a mess.”

The president argued that Yahya Sinwar, the military leader of Hamas and reputed mastermind of the Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 in Israel, actually wanted an Israeli invasion because it would produce many civilian deaths and further isolate Israel from the rest of the world.

To some degree, the Israelis have responded. Despite more than three months of vowing to invade Rafah, they have yet to actually do so beyond limited strikes, perhaps an indication that the chest beating is more about domestic politics or putting pressure on Hamas during cease-fire talks. Administration officials received some indications after Mr. Biden’s threat to cut off offensive weapons this past week that Israel may refrain from a full-fledged assault in favor of the more strategic approach favored by Americans, including targeted strikes on Hamas leadership and surgical raids.

If so, then the current clash between Washington and Jerusalem may yet be defused. Although Mr. Biden has delayed the delivery of 500-pound bombs and particularly destructive 2,000-pound bombs that could be used in an attack on Rafah, he has not stopped other weapons shipments, including one heading out this weekend with small-diameter 250-pound bombs.

“We’ve never told them they can’t operate in Rafah,” said John F. Kirby, a national security spokesman for the White House. “What we’ve told them is that the way they do it matters and that we won’t support a major ground operation and invasion smashing into Rafah with, you know, multiple divisions of forces in a ham-fisted, indiscriminate way.”

“But eliminating the threat of Hamas?” he continued. “Absolutely. They have every right to do that. And they’ll continue to have our support as they do that.”

From the beginning of the war in Gaza, Mr. Biden worried that Israel in its justifiable fury over the Hamas terrorist attack would, in the president’s view, go too far in response, much as he believes the United States made misjudgments in Afghanistan and Iraq after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Even as he voiced his own visceral outrage over the atrocities of Oct. 7, Mr. Biden soon faced pressure from within his own party to restrain Israel’s ferocious retaliation. Mr. Biden’s theory was always that he would have more influence speaking privately as Israel’s friend than by pushing its leaders publicly. While much of the criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war has focused on Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Biden recognized that the war has widespread support across Israel’s political spectrum, including from the prime minister’s opponents.

But over time, the president began expressing his frustrations publicly. He said as early as Nov. 24 during a Thanksgiving trip to Nantucket that the notion of imposing conditions on U.S. arms pressed by progressives was a “worthwhile thought,” although not one he was prepared to follow through on yet.

As weeks went by and civilian casualties in Gaza mounted, the president’s pique began slipping out at campaign events, where he tends to be more candid. At a fund-raiser on Dec. 12, he said that the Israelis had been engaging in “indiscriminate bombing,” a description typically associated with war crimes.

His anger at Mr. Netanyahu boiled over during a private Dec. 23 call that ended when the president hung up on the prime minister. “I’m done,” Mr. Biden said, slamming down the phone.

The administration was left with the impression that Israel expected to enter “phase C” of its war plan by the end of January, pulling most of its forces out of Gaza other than a single brigade and focusing more on targeted strikes from time to time. That suited Mr. Biden, who was eager to move on to reconstruction and possibly seal a broader deal with Saudi Arabia that would grant diplomatic recognition to Israel and transform the region.

But January came and went with no sign of combat coming to an end. Biden aides debated among themselves whether the Israelis had lied to them or were simply caught up in the unpredictable reality of war. On Feb. 8, Mr. Biden’s impatience flared when he told reporters that Israel’s attack on Gaza had been “over the top.” He signed a national security memorandum the same day meant to ensure that U.S. weapons would not be used in violation of international law.

Even so, Mr. Biden was the figure in his White House most resistant to pressure from the political left to do more to restrain Mr. Netanyahu, such as curbing arms sales. “Biden’s natural instinct is to cut him slack,” said Mr. Hagel — unlike his staff. “They’ve been more aggressive on this point than he has been. He’s been more cautious.”

After five decades in Washington, Mr. Biden is supremely confident in his own judgment on foreign policy and aides have learned not to push him to go somewhere they know he is not willing to go, even if they are more ready to change tacks than he is.

“Many of the people around him were becoming much more frustrated over time,” said Dennis B. Ross, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator who has worked with Mr. Biden and many of his advisers over the years. “Some of them felt it from the standpoint that Biden is taking a political hit and Bibi is reluctant to take any political hit” by backing off. “How is it that Biden is paying a price and this guy won’t?”

Among those more willing to shift policy earlier than the president was Mr. Blinken, who has been back and forth to the region seemingly nonstop since Oct. 7 and bears the brunt of complaints from Arab leaders upset at the war. While Mr. Blinken has long been a strong supporter of Israel, he came to feel that it was time to press Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet more strongly.

According to insiders, the discussion has not devolved into quarreling camps as in past administrations, but the president’s advisers have varying views. Seen as most aligned with Mr. Blinken are Vice President Kamala Harris and Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, while Brett McGurk, the president’s Middle East coordinator, who deals extensively with Israeli counterparts, is considered more attuned to their vantage point. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, is described as somewhere in the middle but leaning more toward Mr. Blinken’s perspective.

Probably no one on the team is closer to the president than Mr. Blinken, who has been in his orbit for more than 20 years, serving as staff director when Mr. Biden was top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and national security adviser when he was vice president. Mr. Blinken understands that pushing Mr. Biden is not the way to change his mind. Instead, the path to this moment has been a series of meetings, lunches, phone calls, all methodically providing information that might shift the president’s thinking.

“Tony is the one guy who can say things differently to him, but he will not say things differently to him in front of others,” said Mr. Ross. “I wouldn’t say he’s pushing. I think he goes in and reports, ‘Here’s what I’ve been hearing.’ That becomes part of the fact base on which Biden thinks about what he’s going to do.”

By March 7, Mr. Biden was thinking about another tough conversation with Mr. Netanyahu. Speaking with lawmakers on the floor of the House after his State of the Union address, the president was caught on a microphone saying he was going to have a “come-to-Jesus meeting” with the prime minister.

Two days later, speaking on MSNBC, he bemoaned “the innocent lives being lost” and suggested he had a “red line” without saying what it was. On March 15, the president praised a speech by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, suggesting that Mr. Netanyahu step down. On March 25, Mr. Biden allowed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire to pass without vetoing it, infuriating Mr. Netanyahu.

A turning point came on April 1 when Israeli forces mistakenly killed seven aid workers for World Central Kitchen. Mr. Biden was described as “outraged” and had a painful call with José Andrés, the celebrity chef and founder of the aid agency. Aides called that tragedy a “game changer” for the president.

In advance of another call with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. McGurk told Israeli officials that the president was angry and went over a series of changes they should agree to make in response. When Mr. Biden got on the line on April 4, he again warned that he would reconsider his support unless Mr. Netanyahu changed course.

“Bibi, you’ve got to do more,” he said, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname.

“Joe, I hear you,” he said.

The prime minister rattled off a range of things he would do to increase the flow of humanitarian aid, essentially what Mr. McGurk had suggested. The Israelis sent a five-page list of changes they would make; irritated Biden advisers realized it was basically the same list the Americans had given the Israelis months earlier without response.

This time, the president’s threat was included in the public statement about the call, which was drafted personally by Mr. Sullivan.

But even though Israel followed through on some of the commitments on humanitarian aid, Mr. Netanyahu was not backing down on Rafah.

In response to American pressure, the Israelis put together an extensive proposal to move a million people out of Rafah to spare them the conflict. But it would require hundreds of thousands of tents and massive quantities of food and water. Whether it was possible to implement was less than certain.

With no agreement, the president was forced to decide whether to allow a pending shipment of bombs that could be used in the attack. This time he said no. His advisers notified the Israelis, but did not tell the public or Congress, which had just passed $15 billion in new military aid for Israel. The idea was to make the point privately to Mr. Netanyahu without a public blowup. But the Israelis leaked the news, at which point Mr. Biden went public on CNN with his vow not to provide any weapons that could be used in a major Rafah operation.

The delay in the bomb shipment was a symbolic move. Other U.S. weapons are still flowing and the Israelis have enough to move ahead on their own. But with American college campuses erupting in political protest and a larger Middle East diplomatic initiative with Saudi Arabia in jeopardy, Mr. Biden decided to act.

“This combination of domestic imperative and strategic opportunity has driven Biden to a place he never expected to go,” said Martin S. Indyk, a two-time ambassador to Israel and former Middle East special envoy. “It’s the reason he’s speaking out forcefully and the reason he has issued the ultimatum.”

David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

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