WASHINGTON (AP) — After more than a week of public pressure from the U.S. for “humanitarian pauses” in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday allowed that his government might be open to only “little pauses” in its assault on Hamas. The Israeli leader sought to play down differences with his country’s most vocal backer on the world stage at a time of rising scrutiny of the sharply rising civilian toll of fighting.
Netanyahu spoke after President Joe Biden made a direct appeal to him nearly a month into the war seeking to rally support behind securing even limited relief for civilians in the spiraling conflict. The back-and-forth spotlighted the challenges facing Biden and his administration as they seek to manage what is emerging as one of the defining foreign policy crises of his presidency.
The U.S. thus far remains focused on keeping the fighting from exploding into a wider regional war and pushing for limited steps to alleviate civilian suffering. But it has remained steadfastly behind Israel and Netanyahu’s goal of ending Hamas control over Gaza, even as the death toll in Gaza reached 10,000, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Biden used his first conversation with Netanyahu in eight days to repeat in private his public calls for lulls in the fighting to allow civilians to flee Israel’s campaign to crush Hamas and for humanitarian aid to flow to hundreds of thousands in need.
“We consider ourselves at the beginning of this conversation, not at the end of it,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said when describing Biden’s conversation with Netanyahu, “so you can expect that we’re going to continue to advocate for temporary, localized pauses in the fighting.”
Hours later, Netanyahu, in an interview with ABC News, ruled out any widespread cease-fire, but suggested an openness to “little pauses” — though it was not clear whether some kind of small stoppage had been agreed to or whether the U.S. was satisfied with the scope of the Israeli commitment.
“Well, there’ll be no cease-fire, general cease-fire, in Gaza without the release of our hostages,” Netanyahu said when asked about Biden’s call for humanitarian pauses. “As far as tactical little pauses, an hour here, an hour there. We’ve had them before, I suppose, we’ll check the circumstances in order to enable goods, humanitarian goods to come in, or our hostages, individual hostages to leave. But I don’t think there’s going to be a general cease-fire.”
Biden’s engagement with Netanyahu followed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s frantic weekend of travel that took him from Israel to Jordan, the occupied West Bank, Cyprus, Iraq and onto Turkey to build support for the Biden administration’s proposal for the humanitarian initiatives.
“All of this is a work in progress,” Blinken said before leaving Turkey. “We don’t obviously agree on everything, but there are common views on some of the imperatives of the moment that we’re working on together.”
CIA Director William Burns also was in the Middle East meeting with intelligence partners and leaders of several countries, a U.S. official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Burns’ typically off-the-record travel plans. The U.S. intends for his discussions to reinforce American commitment to intelligence cooperation, especially on terror and security, the official said.
The flurry of U.S. diplomacy came as Israeli troops surrounded Gaza City and cut off the northern part of the besieged Hamas-ruled territory. Troops were preparing to enter the city, where they were likely to face militants fighting street by street using a vast network of tunnels. Casualties will likely rise on both sides.
Asked whether the toll gave the U.S. pause for its staunch support for Israel, Kirby said, “I think we all need to remember who they’re fighting,” and he referenced Hamas’ Oct. 7 incursion into Israel that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and started the war. He insisted no country would tolerate such an attack “without a swift and aggressive response.”
Kirby said the U.S. was having “frank” conversations with Israelis about trying to reduce the civilian death toll, but it was not directly involved in Israel’s targeting decisions nor was it helping develop the country’s operational plans for its invasion of Gaza, home to 2.3 million people.
Blinken said pauses in the war would allow for a surge of humanitarian aid to Gaza and the release of the more than 200 hostages captured by Hamas while also preventing the conflict from spreading regionally.
“We’ve engaged the Israelis on steps that they can take to minimize civilian casualties,” Blinken said before leaving Ankara. “We’re working, as I said, very aggressively on getting more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.”
“We are very focused on the hostages held by Hamas, including the Americans, and we are doing everything possible to bring them home,” he added.
As Blinken’s meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan got underway, dozens of protesters from an Islamist group waved Turkish and Palestinian flags and held up anti-U.S. and anti-Israel placards outside the Foreign Ministry. Police earlier in the day dispersed a group of students marching toward the ministry chanting “murderer Blinken, get out of Turkey!”
Also Monday, about 150 people rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, carrying a large banner that read “No to genocide!”
Blinken did not meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been highly critical of Netanyahu and an outlier among NATO allies in not expressing full support for Israel’s right to defend itself.
Turkish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks, said Fidan had urged Blinken to prevent the targeting of civilians in Gaza and their forced displacement, and also press for a “full cease-fire.”
Blinken’s mission, his second to the region since the war began, has found only tepid, if any, support for his efforts to contain the fallout from the conflict. Israel had rejected the idea of pauses, while Arab nations were demanding an immediate cease-fire as the casualty toll soared among Palestinian civilians.
Arab states are resisting American suggestions that they play a larger role in resolving the crisis, expressing outrage at the civilian toll of the Israeli military operations and believing Gaza to be a problem largely of Israel’s own making.
U.S. officials are seeking to convince Israel of the strategic importance of respecting the laws of war by protecting non-combatants and significantly boosting deliveries of humanitarian aid to Gaza’s beleaguered civilian population.
It remained unclear, however, if Netanyahu would agree to temporary, rolling pauses in the massive operation to eradicate Hamas — or whether outrage among Palestinians and their supporters could be assuaged if he did.
Already Jordan and Turkey have recalled their ambassadors to Israel to protest its tactics, and the tide of international opinion appears to be turning from sympathy toward Israel in the aftermath of Oct. 7 to revulsion as images of death and destruction in Gaza spread around the world.
On Saturday in Amman, Jordan’s capital, the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers appeared at a joint news conference with Blinken. The two said Israel’s war had gone beyond self-defense and could no longer be justified as it now amounted to collective punishment of the Palestinian people.
That sentiment was echoed by tens of thousands of demonstrators who marched in the streets of world capitals over the weekend to protest Israel and condemn U.S. support for Israel.
From Turkey, Blinken headed to Asia for a series of events in Japan, South Korea and India where the Gaza conflict will likely share top billing with other international crises — including Russia’s war on Ukraine and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report. Lee reported from Ankara.