White House defends behind-the-scenes approach to Israel-Hamas conflict
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s approach to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, saying “intensive” diplomatic discussions behind the scenes are the best means of reducing the violence.
“The president’s objective is clear, which is that he wants to see an end to the violence on the ground, an end to the suffering of the Israeli and Palestinian people,” Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday. “Our focus and our strategy here is to work through quiet, intensive diplomacy, and he’s been doing this long enough to know the best way to end an international conflict is typically not to debate it in public.”
Biden administration officials have conducted more than 60 calls to date with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional officials, Psaki noted, including President Biden’s three calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in less than a week.
Biden last spoke with Netanyahu on Monday and expressed support for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, according to the White House, after officials had stopped short of backing a cease-fire in previous public comments.
Asked Tuesday if Biden asked Netanyahu for a cease-fire or expressed support for one, Psaki answered that the president “conveyed his support for a cease-fire.”
Biden has commented on his conversations with Netanyahu a handful of times over the past week as the violence in the Middle East escalated, but he has otherwise kept his public remarks focused on domestic challenges including the coronavirus pandemic and the ransomware attack that forced a major U.S. pipeline to suspend operations last week. Psaki made the comments Tuesday as Biden and other officials traveled to Michigan, where he is due to tour a Ford electric vehicle plant in Dearborn.
Tuesday was the eighth day of sustained violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes it says are targeting Hamas’s infrastructure. Hamas has fired over 3,000 rockets at civilian targets in Israel. Officials say at least 212 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, including children on both sides, have been killed.
Biden has faced pressure from progressive Democrats to condemn Netanyahu for the violence against Palestinians. Some Democrats have also raised concerns about the administration’s approval of $735 million weapons deal with Israel, about which Congress was notified on May 5, before the latest clashes intensified.
Psaki reiterated Tuesday the administration’s position that Israel has a right to self defense but acknowledged the loss of life among both Israeli and Palestinian civilians and said the goal of Biden and his team is to bring an end to the conflict.
The U.S. is said to have blocked a joint statement from the United Nations Security Council urging an immediate cease-fire. Asked why the administration would do so if Biden supports a cease-fire, Psaki suggested that officials do not believe such a statement would help the effort to end the conflict.
“Our role in this conflict is ensuring every conversation that we are having, every statement we support, every action we take is toward the end goal of ending the violence on the ground, ending the suffering of the Israeli and Palestinian people. We are not going to take actions or steps that we think are going to hinder that effort,” Psaki said.
“Sometimes diplomacy needs to happen behind the scenes. It needs to be quiet,” she added.