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Biden’s Support for Israel Now Comes With Words of Caution

The administration has become more critical of Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks, a shift that U.S. officials attribute to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The change in President Biden’s tone has occurred against the backdrop of global denunciations of Israel’s actions and an explosion of divisive protests in the United States.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Three days after Hamas terrorists slaughtered more than 1,400 people, President Biden offered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu support in the wake of the vow by Israel’s leader to “avenge this black day” and to turn Hamas hide-outs “into a ruin” from the air and on the ground.

“I told him if the United States experienced what Israel is experiencing, our response would be swift, decisive and overwhelming,” Mr. Biden recalled saying during a call between the two leaders on Oct. 10.

But the president’s message, in which he emphatically joined the mourning that was sweeping through Israel, has shifted dramatically over the past three weeks. While he continues to declare unambiguous support for Israel, Mr. Biden and his top military and diplomatic officials have become more critical of Israel’s response to the terrorist attacks and the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

The president and his senior aides still cling to the hope that the new war between Israel and Hamas might eventually give way to a resumption of talks about normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and could even offer some leverage for a return to negotiations over a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine exist side by side. Mr. Netanyahu has long resisted such a move.

“Though it may seem a little bit more illusory now, we still believe it’s the right thing to do for the region, for the world, certainly for the Palestinian people,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Monday.

But in the short run, American officials have grown more strident in reminding the Israelis that even if Hamas terrorists are deliberately intermingling with civilians, operations must be tailored to avoid nonmilitary casualties. Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the United Nations that “humanitarian pauses must be considered,” a move that Israel has rejected.

“While Israel has the right — indeed, the obligation — to defend itself, the way it does so matters,” Mr. Blinken said, adding that “it means food, water, medicine and other essential humanitarian assistance must be able to flow into Gaza and to the people who need them.”

On Sunday, just a day after Israeli military leaders said Hamas terrorists were using a hospital in Gaza as a command center, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, was more blunt. Mr. Sullivan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields “creates an added burden for the Israeli Defense Forces.”

He added, “This is something that we talk about with the Israelis on a daily basis.” He then noted that hospitals were not legitimate military targets just as Israel was warning that another major hospital in Gaza had to be emptied out before the next round of bombing.

Administration officials said the shift in tone and substance was the result of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where the health ministry says more than 8,000 people have been killed, provoking outrage in the United States and around the world.

The change has occurred against the backdrop of global denunciations of Israel’s actions and an explosion of divisive protests in the United States. The campus police at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., were guarding the university’s Center for Jewish Living on Sunday after online posts threatened violence against Jewish students, according to a statement by Cornell’s president, Martha E. Pollack.

Mr. Biden “is acutely aware of not only how polarized our country is, but how polarized the world is,” said Timothy Naftali, a historian and faculty scholar at the Institute of Global Politics at Columbia University. “That is the line he’s trying, I think, to follow, and it’s difficult in a polarized world, because it’s a very logical approach in a moment that provokes emotionalism.”

Mr. Biden has long been an ardent defender of Israel and in the past several weeks has repeatedly referred to meeting former Prime Minister Golda Meir when he was a first-year senator in 1973. But the president has also been a fierce critic of Mr. Netanyahu’s government, which he has called the most extreme in the country’s 75-year history.

In the first days after the Hamas attacks, Mr. Biden drew praise for his unreserved support for Israel, describing the wave of killings as “an act of sheer evil” and vowing to ensure that Israelis “have what they need to respond” to the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust. Mr. Biden has sent to Congress a request for $14.5 billion in military aid for Israel.

But as Israel began pounding Gaza from the air in preparation for a ground invasion that began in earnest over the weekend, Mr. Biden settled into a pattern of delivering increasingly critical messages to the Israelis — in private first, and then in public.

The United States has kept a rotating list of senior officials in front of Mr. Netanyahu — each being careful not to tell the Israelis what to do, but to ask a series of questions intended to communicate the administration’s concern. How do you handle the tunnels in Gaza? If you are successful, who administers Gaza? Have you thought through how public opinion will turn if civilian casualties mount, or whether the crisis in Gaza might draw in Hezbollah or other militias?