White House downplays Biden’s remarks on Israel’s ‘indiscriminate bombing’

White House downplays Biden’s remarks on Israel’s ‘indiscriminate bombing’
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby

The White House appears to be walking back President Joe Biden’s harshest public rebuke so far of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and what he described as Israel’s "indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza.

Israel’s 10-week-old military campaign has killed more than 18,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

“The president was reflecting a concern that we have had for some time, and will continue to have as this military operation proceeds, about the need for reducing civilian harm and being as precise and careful and deliberate as possible,” John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told VOA during Wednesday’s briefing.

Kirby was repeatedly pressed by reporters to explain Biden’s comments during a campaign event Tuesday, where he said Israel is losing international support because of the “indiscriminate bombing that takes place.”

International humanitarian law prohibits indiscriminate attacks that do not distinguish between military objectives and civilian persons or property.

Despite affirming that “the president speaks for American foreign policy,” Kirby would not confirm when asked whether Biden’s statement amounts to a formal assessment by the administration of how Israel conducts its military operations.

His evasiveness added to the mixed messages coming from the administration, with State Department spokesperson’s Matthew Miller saying Tuesday that “indiscriminate” is “not an assessment that we’ve made.”

FILE - President Joe Biden talks to reporters aboard Air Force One during a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Oct. 18, 2023, as he travels back from Israel to Washington.

FILE - President Joe Biden talks to reporters aboard Air Force One during a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Oct. 18, 2023, as he travels back from Israel to Washington.

Biden, who flew to Israel in October at the start of the war, has been a steadfast backer of Israel’s drive to destroy Hamas following the U.S.-designated terror group’s October 7 attack that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel. The attack and the war that followed mark the bloodiest chapter in the decadeslong conflict.

The administration has provided military assistance and diplomatic support, including a veto against a cease-fire at the U.N. Security Council last week.

Biden’s rebuke is a clear sign of growing U.S. concern at the high fatality rate in Gaza, said Gordon Gray, Kuwait professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

"The definition of a gaffe in Washington is when someone speaks the truth,” he told VOA.

US pressure

The administration is set to ratchet up the pressure on Israel, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan scheduled to meet Thursday with Netanyahu and his war Cabinet.

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Sullivan said he plans to convey to Israeli officials the administration’s concerns about the time Israel will take to complete the next phase of its military operations. Israel has said the campaign could take months.

Sullivan noted there are ways in which Israel can target Hamas other than the high-intensity military operations seen over the past several weeks.

“It doesn't have to be that you go from that to literally nothing in terms of putting pressure on going after Hamas targets, Hamas leadership, or continuing to have tools in your toolbox to try to secure the release of hostages,” he said. “It just means that you've moved to a different phase from the kind of high-intensity operations that we see today.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Dec. 10, 2023.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Dec. 10, 2023.

Following the U.N. General Assembly’s overwhelming vote in favor of a cease-fire resolution Tuesday, Netanyahu said nothing will stop Israel, even “in the face of international pressures.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said military operations in Gaza will continue “with or without international support.”

The Biden administration has been under growing pressure, including from Biden’s own Democratic Party, to do more to limit civilian casualties and ensure that American weapons sent to Israel comply with U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. The policy mandates that arms sales take into account values including protection of human rights and adherence to international humanitarian law.

On Saturday, the administration bypassed a congressional review requirement for foreign military sales and approved the sale to Israel of nearly 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition. The State Department said it had notified Congress of the sale late Friday after Secretary of State Antony Blinken determined “an emergency exists that requires the immediate sale” of the munitions.

Delivery of weapons without lawmakers’ approval is rare but not unprecedented. Kirby said it was “done within the normal standard consultative process.”

Israeli hard-liners

Speaking to Democratic Party donors in an off-camera campaign event Tuesday, Biden singled out hard-liners in Netanyahu’s coalition and said the current Israeli government — the most right-wing in the country’s history — must change.

“[Itamar] Ben-Gvir is not what you would call someone who — this is the most conservative government in Israel’s history — the most conservative,” Biden said, according to a White House transcript of the event.

He said Ben-Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister, and other hard-liners want only “retribution” and will not work toward a two-state solution for an independent Palestinian state.

Kirby downplayed Biden’s calling out of Ben-Gvir, telling VOA during the briefing that the administration has long been conveying to the Israelis “concerns over some of the reforms that this new government was pursuing,” even as it respects Israel’s right to determine its own leaders.

“[Biden] did it out of respect and a true affection for the Israeli democracy and the Israeli people,” he said.

Source: VOA 

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