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Biden takes a tougher stance on Israel's 'indiscriminate bombing' of Gaza

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Biden takes a tougher stance on Israel's 'indiscriminate bombing' of Gaza
AP
COLLEEN LONG and AAMER MADHANI
December 12, 2023

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned that Israel was losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing" of Gaza, speaking out in unusually strong language just hours before the United Nations demanded a humanitarian cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

“Israel's security can rest on the United States, but right now it has more than the United States. It has the European Union, it has Europe, it has most of the world supporting them,” Biden said to donors during a fundraiser Tuesday.

“They’re starting to lose that support by indiscriminate bombing that takes place,” he said.

The president said he thought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understood, but he wasn't so sure about the Israeli war cabinet. Israeli forces were carrying out punishing strikes across Gaza, crushing Palestinians in homes as the military presses ahead with an offensive that officials say could go on for weeks or months.

Biden offered a harder-than-usual assessment of Israel's decisions since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and the moves by his conservative government. Meanwhile, Biden's top national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is heading to Israel this week to consult directly about timetables for ending major combat.

The president also renewed his warnings that Israel should not make the same mistakes of overreaction that the U.S. did following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He recounted a familiar anecdote about inscribing on a photo with Netanyahu decades ago, “Bibi, I don't agree with a damn thing you have to say.” This time, the president added to his retelling of the story: “That remains to be the case.”

The 2024 campaign fundraiser was part of a gathering of Jewish donors, many of whom attended a White House Hanukkah reception on Monday evening; Biden's fundraisers are open to some reporters on the condition that no audio or video be shared.

Hours later, during a press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Biden refrained from offering the same public criticism again, but said that he had made it clear to Israel “the safety of innocent Palestinians is still of great concern.”

“The actions they’re taking must be consistent with attempting to do everything possible to prevent innocent Palestinian civilians from being hurt, murdered, killed, lost," Biden said, adding, that it was important to remember “what we’re doing here.”

“We’re here to support Israel because they’re an independent nation and the way in which Hamas treated Israel is beyond comparison," the president said.

Biden's rhetoric to donors tracks his more candid and private messaging to Netanyahu on their frequent calls, according to two White House officials, where he reasserts U.S. support for Israel before pushing for Israel to do more to help civilians in Gaza.

“Israel has a tough decision to make. Bibi has a tough decision to make. There’s no question about the need to take on Hamas. There’s no question about that. None. Zero,” Biden said. But he added, of Israel’s leader, “I think he has to change his government. His government in Israel is making it very difficult.”

Biden specifically called out Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of a far-right Israeli party and the minister of national security in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, who opposes a two-state solution and has called for Israel to reassert control over all of the West Bank and Gaza. Ben-Gvir sits on Israel’s security cabinet, but is not a member of the country’s three-person war cabinet.

The comments prompted responses from both the Israeli military and also Hamas.

“We know to explain exactly how we operate with precision, based on intelligence, even when we are operating on the ground," said Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari. “We know how to operate against the Hamas strongholds in such a way that best separates the uninvolved civilians from terrorism targets."

Asked about Biden’s comments, a senior Hamas official said in Beirut that “the resistance and the steadfastness of the Palestinian people have made Biden understand that the Israeli military operation is a crazy act.”

“The repercussions (of the war) will be catastrophic on the entity (Israel) and on the results of elections in which Biden might lose his seat in the White House,” Osama Hamdan, member of Hamas’ political bureau said during a news conference.

During the fundraiser, Biden said that when he has warned Netanyahu of a loss of international support over the bombing, the Israeli leader has mentioned that the U.S. had “carpet-bombed Germany" in World War II and dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.

“That's why all these institutions were set up after World War II, to see that it didn't happen again,” he said. “Don't make the same mistakes we made in 9/11. There's no reason we had to be in a war in Afghanistan. There's no reason we had to do so many things that we did.”

The U.N. General Assembly voted Tuesday on a nonbinding resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, days after the U.S. vetoed a similar measure at the U.N. Security Council. The U.K abstained from that 13-1 vote, but France and Japan were among those supporting the call for a cease-fire. Only Security Council resolutions are legally binding under the terms of the international body’s charter, but the vote Tuesday sent a strong message on how the conflict was viewed around the world.

Before Biden's comments at the fundraiser, Netanyahu said in a statement that he appreciated American support and that he'd received “full backing for the ground incursion and blocking the international pressure to stop the war.”

“Yes, there is disagreement about ‘the day after Hamas’ and I hope that we will reach agreement here as well. I would like to clarify my position: I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo. Gaza will be neither Hamastan nor Fatahstan.”

Speaking at a forum hosted by The Wall Street Journal before either leader's comments, Sullivan reiterated the Biden administration’s position that it does not want to see Israel reoccupy Gaza or further shrink its already small territory.

The U.S. has repeatedly called for a return of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority and the resumption of peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Sullivan said he would also speak to Netanyahu about his recent comments that Israel Defense Forces would maintain open-ended security control of Gaza after the war ends.

“I will have the opportunity to talk to Prime Minister Netanyahu about what exactly he has in mind with that comment, because that can be interpreted in a number of different ways,” Sullivan said. “But the U.S. position on this is clear.”

___ Associated Press writers Will Weissert, Zeke Miller in Washington and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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