Analysis-Behind Biden's Israel weapons pause: a defiant Netanyahu, a tense phone call

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the White House in Washington

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden spent months urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protect Gaza civilians, but the U.S. decision to pause some military aid to Israel was linked directly to a pointed phone call they had a month ago, a U.S. official said.

In the April 4 call, soon after seven World Central Kitchen aid workers were killed in an Israeli air strike, Biden gave Netanyahu an ultimatum: protect citizens and aid workers, or else U.S. policy would change.

Biden had been pressed by international allies and many of his fellow Democrats at home to condition billions in U.S. aid to Israel over the massive death toll from its Gaza assault for weeks. Among many difficult calls between the two leaders, the April 4 conversation was pivotal, the official said. Until then, Biden had not threatened to hold back assistance despite increasingly tense conversations.

Last week, the White House acted on the ultimatum. The United States withheld a shipment of thousands of heavy bombs, out of concern over Israel's slow-rolling assault in Rafah, where Washington opposes a major Israeli invasion without civilian safeguards.

"Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers," Biden said Wednesday night, his first public words about the weapons pause. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested to reporters Wednesday more weapons could be withheld.

While Biden's weapons pause is nowhere near as severe as President Ronald Reagan's 1982 ban of cluster bomb sales to Israel, it is a turning point in the testy relations between Israel and its most reliable ally, one that has provided military aid, fighter jets and support at the United Nations.

"This isn't a halt to all offensive weapons sales to Israel, but it's a ratcheting up the pressure that the U.S. really doesn't want the Rafah operation," said Bruce Riedel, a 30-veteran of the CIA and now a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.

On Thursday, Israel struck eastern Rafah as a ceasefire-for-hostages deal appeared to crumble, and the U.S. warned that Israel's military strategy was a mistake.

A second US official said the administration had intended to keep the weapons pause quiet but they spoke up after the Israelis leaked the news.

The public nature of the move could work in Biden's favor, some supporters say.

There have been "months and months of discussion about ‘What are the messages being conveyed by this government to the Israeli government’ and 'To what extent do they take it seriously,’" said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Jewish advocacy group J-Street.

"The fact that this became public is part of the message,” said Ben-Ami. "It’s a message to the world that…you can’t have carte blanche with American aid."

Biden's Republican opposition, which almost universally supports Netanyahu, has been scathing in its criticism, accusing the US president of undermining Israel's security. "If any Jewish person voted for Joe Biden, they should be ashamed of themselves," Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said Thursday on social media.


Biden considers his ability to negotiate with foreign leaders - even those he frequently disagrees with like Netanyahu - a hallmark of his presidency. His administration has said it is keeping far-right Netanyahu close because it has greater influence over the Israeli leader that way.

Netanyahu's open defiance of Biden's advice on Rafah has tried Biden's image as a foreign policy expert, while increasing pressure at home.

After Biden pushed him to not to attack Rafah Monday, Netanyahu rejected a Gaza ceasefire deal accepted by Hamas, and began airstrikes in Rafah. A third U.S. official told Reuters then that the Israelis did not appear to be negotiating a ceasfire-for-hostage deal in good faith. Netanyahu's decision to move ahead came just days after 57 of the 212 Democrats in the House of Representatives signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to take every possible measure to dissuade the Israeli leader from an all-out assault on the city near the Egyptian border.

Top U.S. officials from Biden on down spent weeks publicly and privately stressing Israel should outline a plan for Rafah that would minimize harm to the hundreds of thousands sheltered there after fleeing Israeli bombing in the north.

As far back as a Feb. 11 Biden-Netanyahu phone call, Biden "reaffirmed his view that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there," the White House said.

As concerns over Israel's Rafah plans grew, Biden officials were also raising questions about the legality of earlier phases of Israel's Gaza campaign.

Several senior U.S. officials have advised Secretary of State Antony Blinken that they do not find "credible or reliable" Israel's assurances that it is using U.S.-supplied weapons in accordance with international humanitarian law.

Last week U.S. officials said the Israelis had given them a broad brush idea of what they were planning in Rafah but did not provide a full-blown concept on how to protect Gaza civilians, a key U.S. demand.

"Right now, the conditions are not favorable to any kind of operation. We've been clear about that," Austin, a retired four star general, told reporters last week. "It's necessary to take care of the civilian population that's in that area before anything else happens."

Austin's appeals on humanitarian aid to Rafah had also become a fixture of his private, weekly calls with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, including on Sunday night.

But then on Monday, Gallant's office issued a statement expressing that military action was required, "including in the area of Rafah."

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart, Nandita Bose, Jeff Mason and Humeyra PamukEditing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)