Biden tells Netanyahu the US policy hinges on ‘Israel's immediate action’

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President Joe Biden on Thursday spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time since an airstrike killed seven humanitarian aid workers in Gaza, demanding that Israel expand access to humanitarian aid in Gaza and empower negotiators to strike a temporary cease-fire and hostage deal as soon as this weekend.

According to four senior administration officials, Biden in a 30-minute conversation told his counterpart America’s patience had already run thin, but officially ran out after the Israeli military killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen, including an American. It was high time to improve the dire situation in Gaza, the president said, where U.S. officials warn 2.2 million Palestinians are hungry and increasingly desperate.

To do that, Biden directly requested that Israel open the Erez land crossing into Gaza, open the Ashdod port and allow for more aid trucks to enter from Jordan, among other demands. Israel did all three within hours of the conversation.

“President Biden emphasized that the strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are unacceptable,” a White House readout of the call said. “He made clear the need for Israel to 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 U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

The readout resembled a sharp public warning from a president who has grown increasingly frustrated by his Israeli counterpart but unwilling, as of now, to dramatically change the U.S. approach to the war in Gaza. It is as close as Biden has come to saying he would condition aid to Israel since the war began. And it also left the impression that the White House views Netanyahu individually as an obstacle to a ceasefire. The statement said Biden urged the Israeli prime minister to “empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay.”

The sternest part of the conversation was when Biden urged Netanyahu to empower his negotiators to broker a six-week cease-fire that would see around hostages returned and the humanitarian crisis improved.

One of the senior administration officials, like others granted anonymity to discuss sensitive details of the call, said Biden implored Israel to not hold out on tiny issues for leverage. It was better to get an agreement as soon as possible, especially since humanitarian organizations had paused deliveries after the WCK strike.

Biden also spoke about the crisis in personal terms, according to the officials: The Israeli government would be held responsible if the crisis worsened in Gaza, and Netanyahu would be held responsible as the leader of the Israeli government.

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson confirmed some details of the call in a Thursday evening statement. She reiterated the administration’s new stance that if Israel doesn’t follow through with these and other demands, U.S. policy toward Israel could change.

The Biden-Netanyahu conversation, their first in weeks, was constructive and professional, the officials said, but was also the most direct and consequential. Biden made sure Netanyahu knew the U.S.-Israel relationship had reached an inflection point — and what Israel did next would be watched closely in Washington.

It marked a notable shift since Wednesday, when National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters the U.S. would not consider changes to its Israel policy until Israel concluded its investigation into the strike. But during Thursday’s press briefing, Kirby said the White House is hoping to see changes on the Israeli side within “hours and days.”

“What we want to see are some real changes,” he said. “If we don’t see changes on their side, there will have to be changes on our side.”

During a NATO press conference on Thursday afternoon, Secretary of State Antony Blinken similarly adopted a much harsher tone on Israel, saying that the strike on World Central Kitchen “must be the last” attack on aid workers. He insisted that Israel’s approach needs to change if it hopes to retain U.S. support.

“Israel must meet this moment,” said Blinken, who declined to specify what consequences the U.S. is considering imposing. “If we don’t see the changes that we need to see, there’ll be changes in our own policy.”

The tone of the official White House readout Thursday was notably more critical than the previous one following Biden’s March 18 call with Netanyahu. In that readout, Biden was said to have “stressed the urgent need to significantly increase the flow of lifesaving aid reaching those in need throughout Gaza,” according to the White House; and he “reiterated his deep concerns about the prospect of Israel conducting a major ground operation in Rafah.”

The heightened rhetoric in Thursday's readout appeared to be a direct response to the killing of seven aid workers distributing meals in Gaza, as did the implicit threat in Biden’s vow to condition future aid to Israel on proof that it was taking “immediate” steps to “address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.”

But Biden, as he has in prior readouts, continued to express support broadly for Israel’s right to defend itself against outside threats.

Eli Stokols contributed to this report.