Biden is ‘outraged’. But is he ready to use America’s leverage over Israel?

When President Biden said he was “furious and heartbroken” over the killing of seven World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza, his violent language raised a natural question: Would this strike, even if it was a tragic mistake, lead him to set the conditions for arms sent to Israel?

The White House has so far been tight-lipped about whether Mr. Biden’s anger is leading to a break with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom every interaction has been strained. The two are scheduled to speak on Thursday, a senior Biden administration official said. But in public, at least, Mr. Biden has limited his responses to increasingly bitter statements.

Launching a campaign to bomb the town of Rafah in the south of the country would cross a “red line”, Mr Biden insisted, without elaborating on the consequences. The attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy is proof that Israel “has not done enough to protect aid workers,” he said Tuesday, without specifying how its behavior should change.

“I hope this will be the moment where the president changes course,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and one of Mr. Biden’s most enthusiastic supporters, who has pressed for months to put conditions on the weapons the United States supplies. “Netanyahu has ignored the president’s demands, yet we are sending 2,000-pound bombs with no restrictions on their use.”

“We shouldn’t send bombs first and hope for some assurances later,” he concluded.

The terms on how American weapons are used tend to be standard fares, some imposed by Congress and others by the president or secretary of state. Ukraine, for example, is not allowed to fire American-made weapons at Russia, and while it has generally complied, there is still debate within the administration over whether to give Kiev more powerful missiles if the aid package ever passes Congress.

But Israel has always been an exception. Even as Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, gave an impassioned speech calling for new elections in Israel — a clear attempt to oust Mr. Netanyahu – he refused to call for gun restrictions. When pressed the next day, Mr. Schumer said he didn’t even want to discuss the subject.

There are other steps that Mr. Biden might require. For example, the United States could insist that aid convoys be escorted by the Israel Defense Forces, or that nearby Israeli military units remain in constant communication with aid providers, an issue two US senators raised with Mr Netanyahu in February.

The prime minister, one participant said, told an aide who was present at the meeting that he thought the problems surrounding the safe passage of food and medicine had already been resolved. But he assured senators Chris Coons of Delaware and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, both Democrats, that he would raise the issue with his military commanders.

Monday’s strike suggests those issues were never fully resolved.

Pressed by reporters on Wednesday about Mr. Biden’s thinking on the subject, John F. Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, pointed reporters to the president’s statement condemning the strike on aid workers.

“I think you could sense the frustration in that statement yesterday,” Mr Kirby said.

Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, echoed that frustration Wednesday in a conversation with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a marked shift in tone from previous conversations with his Israeli counterpart that the Pentagon summarized. Major General Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Mr. Austin “expressed his outrage at the Israeli strike” and “stressed the need for immediate concrete steps to protect aid workers and Palestinian civilians in Gaza following repeated failures to coordinate with foreign aid groups.”

Mr. Austin also told Mr. Gallant that the attack heightened U.S. concerns about a potential military campaign in Rafah.

On the day of the strike, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken held a previously scheduled discussion with Israeli officials via secure video.

Mr Kirby said the Americans had urged the Israelis to have a comprehensive plan to evacuate the 1.5 million refugees in the Rafah region. He also said talks would continue on “how Rafah looks now and what their intentions are for operations against those Hamas battalions that are still there.”

Although Mr. Kirby did not say so, officials familiar with the talks said the United States remains concerned that the Israelis do not have a credible plan for a comprehensive evacuation — a process they believe could take months. But officials noted that Mr. Netanyahu has not yet launched strikes on Rafah, perhaps because Israeli forces are nowhere near ready, or perhaps because of American pressure.

There have been other moments in the six months since Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks when the United States hit a wall in dealing with Mr. Netanyahu and when declarations of common goals could not hide the fact that the two countries are deeply at odds over how to wage war.

But it is possible that the attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy, one of the most successful attempts to avoid starvation in Gaza, was the tipping point for Mr. Biden.

He personally knows the famous Spanish American chef behind the operation, José Andrés, whose Washington restaurants are regular haunts of the city’s power brokers. Mr. Biden invited the chef on Tuesday, shortly before Mr. Andrés published a guest essay in The New York Times in which he declared that “Israel is better than the way this war is being fought.”

“It’s better than blocking food and medicine for civilians,” he continued. “That’s better than killing aid workers who coordinated their movements with the Israel Defense Forces.”

But Mr. Biden consistently stops short of openly breaking up with Mr. Netanyahu, which he believes, a conflict that he believes will only make it more difficult for the prime minister, according to his associates. The result is that Mr. Biden is in a box, criticized by the progressive wing of his party — and increasingly by moderates — for acting too cautiously and not wanting to be perceived as limiting Israel’s ability to defend itself.

In fact, it left some of Mr. Biden’s critics sour that the president’s most visceral expression of anger at Israel’s military campaign came over the killing of seven foreign aid workers, not the deaths of many thousands of Palestinian civilians that preceded them.

“For me, the language of anger, it’s notable because it’s the furthest he’s gone in his language, but it’s also notable that he’s only gone this far when it comes to Western aid workers,” said Yousef Munayyer, head of the Palestine-Israel Program at the Washington DC Arab Center “Of course it’s outrageous,” he added of the latest incident, “but these types of strikes, we’ve seen them many times and the White House doesn’t seem outraged by them.”

Mr Munayyer said the disparity was particularly striking given Mr Biden’s reputation for personal compassion. “He presented himself as this master empath; that is his great quality,” said Mr. Munayyer. “And yet, when it comes to Palestinian lives, he just seems incapable of showing empathy for the Palestinians.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Biden has sought to separate his campaign to pressure Israel from his power, if he chooses to use it, to limit the country’s arms stockpile. Indeed, some veteran diplomats doubt that this will be the moment that changes Mr. Biden’s approach, despite his strong words.

“One would think that the ‘outrage’ would translate into a strong political response, but so far that does not appear to be the case,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel. “Regardless of Israel’s apology, this attack will significantly increase the pressure on aid providers and thereby worsen the humanitarian crisis.”

Katie Rogers and Eric Schmitt contributed to the reporting.

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