US President Joe Biden discussed scaling back Israel’s offensive in Gaza with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but did not request a halt to the fighting, during a lengthy phone call between the two Saturday.
The conversation came a day after Washington withheld its veto from a UN Security Council resolution calling for increased aid, but not an immediate ceasefire to Israel’s war against Hamas, with Netanyahu expressing appreciation for the US’s efforts to soften the language of the text.
Biden declined to discuss most details of what he said was his “long conversation” with Netanyahu Saturday, calling it “private.” Hebrew media reports said the call lasted about 45 minutes.
“I didn’t ask for a ceasefire,” Biden said in response to a question.
The White House later issued a statement saying that the two “discussed Israel’s military campaign in Gaza to include its objectives and phasing.”
“The president emphasized the critical need to protect the civilian population including those supporting the humanitarian aid operation, and the importance of allowing civilians to move safely away from areas of ongoing fighting,” the statement added.
A statement from Netanyahu’s office on the call said the premier “clarified that Israel will continue the war until all of its goals are achieved,” which include toppling the Hamas terror group and bringing home the hostages being held by Palestinian terrorists in the Strip.
It noted that Netanyahu “voiced his appreciation for the US’s position in the Security Council,” after Washington held drawn-out negotiations to keep language demanding a ceasefire out of the resolution.
Instead, the resolution called for “urgent steps to immediately allow safe, unhindered and expanded humanitarian access and to create the conditions for a sustainable cessation of hostilities.”
The US says it opposes a ceasefire that would leave Hamas intact, with the terror group vowing to continue carrying out attacks on Israel of the type it perpetrated on October 7, when thousands of terrorists burst into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 240 people hostage. Most victims were civilians.
But it has increasingly pressured Israel to quickly pare back its military campaign and shift away from high-intensity warfare after nearly three months of a punishing air and ground campaign, amid growing international outcry over the reported death toll in Gaza and a massive humanitarian crisis.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said bringing the Israel-Hamas war to an end “as quickly as possible” is a top priority for the Biden administration in the year ahead.
“It’s clear that this conflict needs to move — will move — to a lower intensity phase,” Blinken said. “We expect to see, and want to see, a shift to more targeted operations, with a smaller number of forces that are really focused on dealing with the leadership of Hamas, the tunnel network and a few other different things.”
“As that happens, you’ll see the harm done to civilians decrease significantly,” the senior diplomat added.
The Biden administration has intensified its rhetoric on the need for Israel to wind down high-intensity fighting in Gaza while being careful not to publicly set a timeline for when this must happen.
Privately, visiting Biden Administration officials have told Israel that they expect the phasing to lower intensity fighting to begin in January, two US and Israeli officials told The Times of Israel.
Blinken said Wednesday that the US will continue to provide assistance to Israel to “ensure that what happened on October 7 can never happen again.”
Israel’s massive aerial and ground campaign has killed 20,258 people in Gaza, according to the enclave’s Hamas-run health ministry, which doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants and includes civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. The IDF, which says it has killed some 8,500 terrorists in the war, said earlier this month that the ratio of civilians to combatants killed is two to one.
During the talks Saturday, Netanyahu and Biden also discussed the importance of securing the release of the 129 hostages believed held in Gaza, some of whom are thought to have died in captivity.
Talks for a deal that would free the hostages appeared to break down on Thursday, with Hamas saying it would only resume negotiations if there was a ceasefire, a demand swiftly rejected by Israel.
At rallies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Saturday night, activists gathered in the rain to call for the release of the hostages and criticized Netanyahu over his handling of the issue; the prime minister and his cabinet have promoted military pressure as the best way to secure the hostages’ release.
“Bibi, Bibi retire. We don’t want you anymore,” a crowd of thousands chanted in Tel Aviv, using Netanyahu’s nickname.