WASHINGTON — As the first rocket fire was exchanged between Israel and Hamas, President Joe Biden settled on a strategy. And as he had throughout the 2020 campaign, Biden adhered to it despite mounting criticism from Republicans and even his own Democratic Party.
His approach was stylistically muted and substantively more hard-line than some of his allies had expected. It was driven by a singular goal: to end the violence as soon as possible so he could train his focus back onto his domestic agenda.
To accomplish that, Biden chose not to publicly lay bare disagreements with his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although the two have their differences. He said little publicly about the issue and entertained few questions about the topic. During a trip to Michigan this week, Biden even joked about running over a reporter who wanted to ask him a question about Israel. And he backed Netanyahu’s assault on Gaza to an extent that surprised some fellow Democrats and angered others.
“My sense is the White House doesn’t see a lot of benefit in negotiating in public with the Israelis or Palestinians,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
“This town has gotten used to diplomacy being conducted on Twitter,” Murphy added in a reference to former President Donald Trump’s prolific use of social media. “And so it’s kind of shocking when the Biden administration decides to have more private conversations with our allies and adversaries and share less information than the Trump administration did publicly.”
The White House cast the cease-fire announcement Thursday between Israel and Hamas as a victory for what it had dubbed “quiet, intensive diplomacy” led by Biden. This account of how Biden navigated the first major foreign policy crisis of his presidency is based on conversations with 10 administration officials and others with knowledge of the strategy.
‘A lousy hand of cards’
A senior administration official said the U.S. is “optimistic” that the cease-fire will hold while acknowledging that it’s a fragile peace that will require continued engagement by the administration and countries in the region, particularly Egypt, to maintain.
A source familiar with the discussions and a senior administration official said no conditions were attached to the cease-fire. But even before Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, administration officials had been discussing what type of aid the U.S. would provide to help rebuild Gaza and offer humanitarian relief. Biden is also expected to soon announce his nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to the region next week.
Early in the conflict, the White House and the State Department privately conveyed to the Israelis that Biden wanted a swift end to the violence. Administration officials feared a long fight, and some were concerned that the Israelis would follow through with threats of a ground invasion into Gaza.
Biden’s national security team told the Israelis he wouldn’t accept a scenario like the 2014 conflict, which lasted 51 days and left 2,000 Palestinians dead.
Multiple administration officials said the president’s position was a result of “lessons learned” from the Obama administration’s approach to the 2014 violence between Israel and Hamas. In particular, they cited the Biden team’s engagement of countries in the region as “very different” from 2014 and ultimately effective.
Biden never publicly demanded that Israel agree to a cease-fire through 11 days of fighting when more than 200 people were killed, the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians. It was a calculated decision.
Instead, the White House issued a written statement Monday saying Biden supported a cease-fire. And Wednesday, in another written statement, the White House said he conveyed to Netanyahu “that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”
But that was the harshest language toward Israel ever attributed to Biden during the crisis.
Even when some administration officials had concerns about the credibility of intelligence Israel presented to the U.S., which it said detailed Hamas’ underground tunnel system in Gaza and how the militant group embedded in buildings it has targeted, according to two people familiar with the matter, the administration tried to delicately navigate that view in public.
“It’s a lousy hand of cards, but the Biden team has played it as best they can,” a person close to the White House said