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Biden Not Signaling for Gaza Cease-Fire, White House Says


FILE - President Joe Biden walks to the podium to deliver remarks on the war between Israel and Hamas after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv.
FILE - President Joe Biden walks to the podium to deliver remarks on the war between Israel and Hamas after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv.

The Biden administration is sending mixed signals as it continues to reject mounting calls for a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, at the same time that President Joe Biden appears to being trying to appease some Americans' calls for a cease-fire in Gaza.

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, reiterated the administration’s long-standing position that a cease-fire at this point would only benefit Hamas.

Israel insists its military campaign will stop only after the U.S.-designated terror group is eliminated.

"We do continue to support humanitarian pauses but not a general cease-fire right now," Kirby told VOA during Tuesday's White House news briefing. "The president wasn't signaling any change at all."

In response Monday to hecklers urging him to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, Biden said he has been "quietly working with the Israeli government" using all means at his disposal "to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza."

Biden Not Signaling for a Gaza Cease-Fire, White House Says
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"I understand the passion," Biden said, addressing the group who interrupted his speech during a campaign event in South Carolina chanting "Cease-fire. Now!"

The incident is one of the most public demonstrations yet on how the conflict is dividing voters ahead of the 2024 presidential election in November.

Biden's statement is "an insult" to the American people who are "demanding U.S. leadership" to stop the war, said Wendy Pearlman, a professor of Middle East studies at Northwestern University.

"It's almost embarrassing to talk about quiet, behind-the-scenes whispers when the Biden administration's actions on Israel speak so loudly," she told VOA, underscoring American financial, military and diplomatic support for Israel.

Pearlman is one of the more than 1,350 American political scientists who signed an open letter calling on Biden and other U.S. political leaders to press for an immediate cease-fire.

The administration has staunchly supported Israel's military operation in Gaza following Hamas' Oct. 7 attack that killed about 1,200 people in Israel. Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization the U.S., U.K, EU and others.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, Israel's campaign has killed more than 23,000 people in the Palestinian enclave — the bloodiest episode in the decadeslong conflict.

Israeli soldiers take up positions near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, Sunday, Jan.7, 2024.
Israeli soldiers take up positions near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, Sunday, Jan.7, 2024.

Biden in a bind

With the scale of death and destruction rapidly increasing in Gaza, Biden, who is launching his reelection campaign, is in a bind, said Melani Cammett, professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

"There still is a significant portion of the American public that is very strongly in support of the Israel-United States alliance and views any effort not to support Israel 100% as threatening to this alliance," she told VOA.

A poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute, an organization that describes itself as "an independent, non-partisan organization" dedicated to deepening understanding of Jewish American participation in U.S. democracy, shows three out of four Jewish American voters support Biden's handling of the war.

At the same time, Biden's policies on Israel are becoming a potential electoral liability among increasingly large swaths of voters beyond Arab and Muslim Americans, to include young and progressive Democrats, and even some in the American Jewish community.

On Monday, Americans for Peace Now, a left-wing, pro-Israel organization, became the first American Zionist group to call Israel to "adopt and implement an immediate exit strategy from the war," a sign that American Jews' support for Israel may be fracturing.

"The Biden administration must push Israel to bring about an immediate cessation of hostilities and pivot from war to peacemaking," James Klutznick, the group's chairman, said in a statement.

Anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish American groups have criticized Israel's conduct since the early stages of the conflict, but until APN's statement, the rest of the Jewish organizational spectrum had expressed support for Israel's war effort and Biden's support for the campaign.

"The Jewish community is grateful for President Biden's efforts to stand by Israel in its response to Hamas's horrific attack on Oct. 7 and to stand with Jewish Americans as we face the rise of antisemitism," said Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, in a statement to VOA. JDCA aims to be "the political home and voice of Jewish voters."

"Jewish voters also support President Biden's efforts to encourage the release of hostages, reduce the loss of life in Gaza, and ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance to innocent Palestinians," she added.

A December Gallup poll shows that 38% of Americans say Israel receives about the right amount of support, while 36% think it gets too much, and 24% say too little. Forty percent of Democrats and independents say the U.S. provides too much support for Israel, compared with 26% of Republicans.

Another round of shuttle diplomacy

Biden's remarks came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to the Middle East for another round of shuttle diplomacy amid signs that the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is spreading to various hot spots across the region.

In one of his harshest rebukes to Israel, Blinken underscored that "Israel must be a partner to Palestinian leaders" in supporting "a lasting solution that ends the long-running cycle of violence."

Israel, he said, "must stop taking steps that undercut Palestinians' ability to govern themselves effectively."

Beyond Washington's role, economic factors will be key in determining when Israel ends its campaign, said Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"There's a need to demobilize the huge reserves that have been mobilized since Oct. 7," Knights told VOA. "There will actually, probably, be a moment in, let's say January or February, when the Israeli military says, 'We've done enough, and neither we nor the Americans can take any more political pressure. It's time for a cease-fire.'"

If Israel ends its high-intensity fighting in the first quarter, the war will cost around $13.8 billion in 2024, according to Israel's Finance Ministry. The number includes the cost of mobilizing 350,000 reserve soldiers.

The Biden administration's request for $14 billion to help Israel has been stalled in Congress.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the organization that conducted the poll of Jewish American voters.

VOA's White House correspondent Anita Powell and senior diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report.