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Biden warns Netanyahu US support for Gaza war now depends on Israel protecting civilians and aid workers

President Joe Biden told Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that future US policy towards Israel will be determined by whether its government takes action to protect aid workers and civilians in Gaza.

The warning came in their first telephone conversation since Israel Defense Force drones fired three missiles into a World Central Kitchen aid convoy.

In a readout of the call, the White House said Mr Biden told the Israeli leader that the strike on aid workers and the “overall humanitarian situation” in Gaza were both “unacceptable” and “made clear” to Mr Netanyahu that US policy will hinge on whether his government can “announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers”.

“He made clear that US policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps,” the White House said.

The White House also noted that Mr Biden “underscored that an immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilize and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians” and “urged” Mr Netanyahu to “empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay” so hostages held by Hamas can be returned home.

Speaking to reporters at the daily White House press briefing, national security communications adviser John Kirby declined to go into detail about any possible future policy decisions, but stressed that the US wants to see “some real changes on the Israeli side” that go beyond merely making statements about changes.

“It’s not just about the announcement of concrete steps and changes in their policies, but it’s the execution of those announcements and those decisions and implementing them as we obviously will watch closely and monitor how they do on the commitments that they make,” he said.

“If there’s no changes to their policy and their approaches, then there’s going to have to be changes to ours,” he said.

Mr Kirby said it’s clear that “there are things that need to be done” by the Israeli government because “there are too many civilians being killed” and “the risk to aid workers is unacceptable”, but he stressed that the US will look to see what actions Israel takes before taking any further actions itself.

He also told reporters that the call was “very direct, very businesslike, very professional on both sides” and said Mr Biden had “felt strongly that it was time to talk to Prime Minister Netanyahu about his concerns”.

“The president made clear that absent changes in the protection of civilians on the ground, absent changes to the volume of humanitarian assistance getting in, absent any movement on a ceasefire that will allow hostages to get out and more aid to get in, absent ... a calming down, that he will have to reconsider his own policy choices with respect to Gaza”.

The call between the two leaders, their first interaction since the Israeli strike killed seven aid workers, including one American, comes as Mr Biden faces increasing pressure from a growing chorus of voices who are fed up with what they perceive as a callous refusal to rein in Israeli violations of international humanitarian law.

There have been calls for the American president to back a complete ceasefire in Gaza since the first weeks of Israel’s military response to the 7 October terrorist attacks by Hamas, but those insistent voices were once limited to the leftward flanks of his party and peace activists who could be dismissed as cranks by the experienced foreign policy hands in the Biden administration and ignored by most Democrats in Congress.

But as Israel has continued to carry out operations in protected facilities such as hospitals and has appeared to repeatedly target aid workers even as civilian protesters have blocked food deliveries from entering Gaza, the calls for Mr Biden to make full use of America’s leverage against its longtime ally have grown to encompass a diverse cross-section of the Democratic base, including prominent Jewish lawmakers such as Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders.

Mr Biden’s warning to Mr Netanyahu comes just days after he issued a statement saying he was “outraged and heartbroken” over the strike on the World Central Kitchen workers.

The statement, made public late on Tuesday, contained what might be the strongest criticism of Israel expressed over his half-century in public life.

In it, Mr Biden said incidents like the strike on the convoy by Israeli Defence Forces “should not happen” and said Israel “has not done enough” to protect civilians or aid workers during the six-month-old war against Hamas.

“This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed. This is a major reason why distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza has been so difficult – because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians,” he said.

For his part, Mr Kirby denied that the president’s warning to Mr Netanyahu meant any change in what he described as America’s “ironclad” support for Israeli self-defence. Instead, he stressed to reporters that it reflects changes to the humanitarian situation after half a year of war.

“We’re talking about a conflict here, which is dang near at six months here this weekend ... and it has changed over time,” he said. “The president’s message today was we need to see some changes in the way Israel is dealing with that threat.”

The threat that Mr Biden could end his administration’s policy of backing Israel without conditions in its conflict with Hamas could, if carried out, be a first step towards healing a political wound that has imperiled his re-election bid.

His refusal to more loudly call for a ceasefire or criticise Israel’s handling of the war has started to cost him support from Arab-American and other pro-ceasefire voters who, if they stay home on Election Day, could deny him enough votes in key states such as Michigan to allow former president Donald Trump – Mr Biden’s presumed Republican opponent – to return to the White House next year.

White House officials and staffers with Mr Biden’s 2024 campaign have at times had to closely guard the locations of his public appearances because his speeches have routinely been interrupted by protesters. And Arab-American and Muslim leaders who backed him against Mr Trump in 2020 have soured on him as the civilian death toll in Gaza has continued to grow.

Though he has continued to be steadfast in his support for Israel and has sought to draw distinctions between the Israeli state and the Likud-led Israeli government, in the wake of the attack on the World Central Kitchen aid workers Mr Biden has reportedly been “angry” and “increasingly frustrated” with Mr Netanyahu, and according to a source who spoke to CNN ahead of the call, the president was ready to “express those frustrations” with his Israeli counterpart.

Yet even as Mr Biden’s aides have privately communicated to reporters that his patience with Mr Netanyahu may be running thin, administration officials have – until now – steadfastly refused to even entertain the possibility of conditioning aid to Israel on whether aid to Palestinians can get into the war zone and aid workers can do their work unmolested by Israeli fire.

Under questioning from The Independent earlier this week, Mr Kirby stressed that the administration would continue to make sure Israel “has what it needs to defend itself” and declined to say whether Mr Biden had considered putting any conditions on future military aid to Israel.

“No country should have to live next door to a threat that is truly genocidal as Hamas has been,” Mr Kirby said on Wednesday. “So, while we make no bones about the fact that we have certain issues about some of the way things are being done, we also make no bones about the fact that Israel is going to continue to have American support for the fight that they’re in to eliminate the threat from Hamas.”

Mr Kirby and other top officials have also dismissed questions over whether Israel is in compliance with a US statute known as the Leahy Law, which bars American military aid from going to countries known to commit “gross violations of human rights”.

The author of that legislation, former Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, was asked by The Independent last month if US support for Israel’s military complies with that law.

He replied: “No. Is that succinct enough for you?”

Continuing, he said “the number of civilians who are being injured or killed by US paid armaments” indicated a clear violation of the law.

But multiple former US officials who’ve spoken to The Independent in recent days say Mr Biden is unlikely to change his mind about supporting Israel militarily. They also warn that the president’s decades-long and deeply held personal connection to Israel, however sincere, has had the effect of rendering US laws and regulations concerning US arms sales essentially toothless.

“There’s no incentive to investigate if the president and the White House themselves have announced that aid is unconditional,” said Brian Finucane, who worked for a decade in the office of the legal adviser at the State Department advising on arms transfers and the laws of war.

“That means they don’t want to hear inconvenient legal conclusions,” he said.

Mr Finucane also told The Independent that senior administration officials he had spoken to had been met with a “shrug” by the US intelligence community when they quizzed them about mass civilian casualty incidents caused by Israeli bombing, “because it’s no one’s job in the US intelligence community, apparently, to actually investigate these things.”

Charles Blaha, former director of the State Department’s Office of Security and Human Rights, which regulates weapons transfers, said investigations into breaches of humanitarian law in the Gaza conflict – if they are taking place at all – are likely not being taken seriously.

“My sense is that people get patted on the head and say, ‘this is all very interesting,’ But I think the president is the decider here,” he said.

But the sheer horror of the Israeli attack on the aid workers may end up forcing Mr Biden’s hand due to the high-profile nature of the killings as well as WCK founder Jose Andres’ personal connection to the president, with whom he spoke on Tuesday.

Russell Honore, a retired US Army Lieutenant General who oversaw multiple high-profile humanitarian operations during his decades-long career, told The Independent in a phone interview that the US must demand more accountability from Israel in the wake of the airstrike on the World Central Kitchen aid workers.

He explained that the investigation Israel’s government has pledged to undertake into the strike must shed light on the intelligence used to plan the strike,

“What was that intelligence they were using that told them that this was a potential Hamas target, as opposed to what had been coordinated through World Central Kitchen? Whatever that coordination cell is, was it done locally? Or was it done at a central command centre in Tel Aviv – or a regional command centre? That’s the question that’s got to be answered. And then some commander has got to stand up and say: ‘My team did it,’ because it takes a commander to say ‘shoot’, “ he said.

“That’s the level of accountability we got to have. And that’s the answer they owe the world, and they’re not gonna be able to bulls*** their way out of this.”

Gen Honore also said it appears to him as if the Israel Defense Forces are operating with “attitude of revenge” after the shock of the 7 October attacks, particularly in light of how Israeli army units were not on station along the Gaza border because of Mr Netanyahu’s priorities.

“They didn’t listen to their own intelligence and they were totally embarrassed by what happened on October 7. We’ve seen the reports that they were told that they were planning to get attacked, and then disregarded the intelligence in that case, and they were focused on the West Bank doing some political s*** behind what Netanyahu wanted them to do. That army was not focused on Hamas, and they’ve been in a fit of revenge since, bottom up,” he said.

He added that if the US were enforcing the Leahy Law fairly, Israel would have already been barred from receiving US defence aid, and said Mr Biden needs to communicate to Mr Netanyahu that he is ready to enforce that law in the wake of what Mr Andres called an “intentional” attack on his aid workers.

“If it’s intentional, and you are causing atrocities, then that’s a violation of the Leahy Law, which means we can’t sell you weapons. And we need to f***ing remind them of that,” he said. “You lost 1,400 on the seventh of October, but it does not give you impunity to shoot whoever the f*** you want, when you want.”