Does the Biden Administration Want a Long-Lasting Ceasefire in Gaza?


On Monday, President Joe Biden told reporters that he was optimistic about reaching a ceasefire deal in Gaza. “My national-security adviser tells me that we’re close,” he said. “We’re not done yet. My hope is, by next Monday, we’ll have a ceasefire.” The deal—still unfinished—would encompass a pause in fighting in exchange for the release of some of the Israelis kidnapped by Hamas during their October 7th attack. Since that time, more than twenty-nine thousand Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s military campaign, and the White House has faced increasing domestic and international criticism because of its military and diplomatic support for Israel.

In the coming weeks, the Israeli military plans to invade the southern city of Rafah, where more than a million people are sheltering. The Biden Administration has cautioned the Israelis to allow civilians to evacuate. On Sunday, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that a ceasefire would not affect the plans of invasion. “If we have a deal, it’ll be delayed somewhat. But it’ll happen,” he said. “If we don’t have a deal, we’ll do it anyway.”

To talk about the Biden Administration’s policy, I spoke by phone on Tuesday with John Kirby, the strategic-communications coördinator for the National Security Council, and the Administration’s most visible spokesperson throughout the war. When Kirby and I spoke just over six weeks ago, he defended the Administration’s policy toward Israel while saying that the United States was trying to use its influence to reduce civilian casualties and insure more aid reaches Gazans. During our latest conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether the Biden Administration’s approach to Israel had changed, whether the White House wanted a permanent ceasefire, and why the amount of humanitarian aid reaching Palestinian civilians remains insufficient.

How would you describe what the Administration’s policy is with Gaza and Israel at this point?

Right now, the focus is very much on getting a pause in place, an extended pause for six weeks or so, so that we can get all the remaining hostages back with their families, so that we can get a significant reduction in the violence and, therefore, the concomitant reduction in civilian casualties. And to allow us breathing space to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza. Our focus is very much on trying to get this new pause in place for all those three purposes, and that’s what everybody’s working very hard on.

Now, from a strategic perspective, we want to see that Israel is able to defend itself and that Hamas is no longer in charge of Gaza. We want to see a post-conflict Gaza that the Palestinian people have a vote and a voice in. We believe the best way to do that is through a revitalized Palestinian Authority, and we’ve already talked to President Abbas about that. We don’t want to see Gaza occupied, we don’t want to see any of Gaza’s territory reduced, and we don’t want to see any forced displacement of the Palestinian people.

The President made clear on Monday that he’s hoping to get a ceasefire in place. You were at the podium last month, and you said, “We don’t believe a ceasefire is going to be the benefit of anybody but Hamas.” What’s changed?

Nothing’s changed. We still don’t support a general ceasefire that would leave Hamas in charge. What we do support is a temporary ceasefire, to get these hostages out and get the aid in.

Hasn’t the White House said that they want to extend the temporary ceasefire?

It is possible, and we’re hopeful that if this temporary ceasefire is abided to by both sides, that we might be able to extend it and see if it can’t lead to a general cessation of hostilities, but our focus is on this temporary ceasefire right now.

I guess my confusion is: if the hope is to extend a temporary cessation of hostilities into more of a longer-range ceasefire, but a ceasefire only benefits Hamas, I’m a little unclear on what the policy is.

If a temporary ceasefire can hold for six weeks or so, we think it’s possible that it might be extended, with a view toward seeing if there’s a way to end this conflict. That’s not the same as saying we’ve changed our mind on a general ceasefire. We want to see the conflict end. We think that a temporary ceasefire can be useful for all the three purposes I gave you, and maybe, potentially, extended even further so that we can get to an end of the conflict.

I understand that. That’s why I’ve been slightly unclear on the idea that a ceasefire just benefits Hamas, because it seems like you’re hoping that the ceasefire could lead to the end of the conflict.

What we’ve said, Isaac, is calling for a general ceasefire right now, with no preconditions, benefits Hamas and leaves them in charge, and they don’t have to pay any price for what they did on October 7th. They wouldn’t have to release any hostages. They wouldn’t have to let any aid in. They’d still be left in charge of Gaza. That’s what we’re saying we don’t support.

Is Hamas keeping aid from getting in?

They have made it hard. You can talk to aid organizations. They’ve made it hard for some of this aid to get where it’s going. Look, we’re also working with Israel to try to get that aid in, too. There’s been challenges there as well.

You’ve had people in your own party, like Senator Chris Van Hollen, a longtime Biden ally, saying that essentially Israel was intentionally blocking aid. Is it your sense that that’s going on?

We have been able to get humanitarian assistance in Gaza since the beginning of the conflict. There have been times when it’s been easier than others. Some of that’s based on the operational environment. We’re working hard with the Israelis to keep that aid flowing and to hopefully increase that level of aid. I think I’d leave it there.

Do you think enough aid is getting in currently?

No.

O.K., you don’t?

No. It needs to be more and more consistent.

When we spoke six weeks ago, you said, “By no means do we think enough aid is getting in. We are not satisfied that enough aid is getting in.”

We still believe that.

This gets to my basic question: We have been asking Israel to reduce civilian casualties, and to let more aid in. There’s a major humanitarian crisis going on in Gaza. It’s not just that we’re still sending Israel weapons but we’re speaking up for them at international courts about the occupation of the West Bank. Do you think the message is getting sent to the Israelis that we’re serious about things like aid, or reducing civilian casualties, when diplomatically we are still doing so much for them around the world?

Yes. Yes, I do. Conversations with them in private are very frank and very forthright. I think they understand our concerns. Even though there needs to be more aid, even though there needs to be fewer civilian casualties, the Israelis have, in many ways, been receptive to our messages.

What does that mean, if they understand it, and they’ve been receptive, but the results are not happening?



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