Biden hails Israel-Hamas cease-fire, sees ‘opportunity’

(AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday hailed the cease-fire in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, saying he sees a “genuine opportunity” toward the larger goal of building a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Biden credited the Egyptian government with playing a crucial role in brokering the cease-fire and said he and top White House aides were intensely involved in an “hour by hour” effort to stop the bloodletting.

“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” Biden said. “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that.”

The president spoke soon after Israel and Hamas announced a cease-fire would go into effect at 2 a.m. local time Friday, ending an 11-day war that caused widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip and brought life in much of Israel to a halt. The fighting killed at least 227 in Gaza and 12 in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Israel accepted the Egyptian proposal after a late-night meeting of his Security Cabinet. Hamas quickly followed suit and said it would honor the deal.

Biden, who spoke to Netanyahu six times in the last 11 days, said Thursday the prime minister credited the Iron Dome missile defense system with limiting the death toll inside Israel. The system is designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells. Biden said he assured Netanyahu that his administration would work to quickly restock the missile defense system.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke twice Thursday, first after the Israeli Cabinet decided to accept the Egyptian proposal, according to an official familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition on anonymity. There was still about 2½ hours to go before the cease-fire went into effect and both U.S. and Israeli officials were concerned that Hamas could fire another barrage of rockets and unravel the agreement.

As the deadline drew near, Netanyahu called Biden again to let him know he believed the cease-fire was moving forward.

The cease-fire was announced one day after Biden told Netanyahu in a telephone call that he expected “significant de-escalation” of the fighting by day’s end, according to the White House. But the prime minister came right back with a public declaration that he was “determined to continue” the Gaza operation “until its objective is achieved.”

Hours before the cease-fire agreement was reached, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Israelis had “achieved significant military objectives” in their strikes intended to degrade Hamas military capabilities and reiterated that Biden expected the Israelis to start “winding down” their operations.

“We believe the Israelis have achieved significant military objectives that they laid out to achieve in relation to protecting their people and to responding to the thousands of rocket attacks from Hamas,” Psaki said.

The White House, according the official, was not concerned by Netanyahu’s comments that seemed to contradict Biden’s call to de-escalate. The prime minister, administration officials believed, did not want to telegraph to Hamas that he was ready to accept terms to end the violence and was also sending a message to a domestic audience that had become traumatized by the barrage of rocket fire.

Biden, who studiously avoided extensive public comment about the Israeli military strikes through the 11-day conflict, was facing mounting pressure from fellow Democrats to speak out against the Israelis as the death toll climbed in Gaza and tens of thousands of Palestinians were displaced by the aerial bombardment.

Throughout the crisis, Biden, in carefully-worded statements and brief exchanges with reporters, underscored Israel’s right to defend itself. But as the death toll and suffering of innocent bystanders in Gaza spread, the position was becoming more difficult to sustain with his Democratic caucus and the international community.

On Tuesday, while in Michigan to visit a Ford facility, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib confronted Biden on the Detroit airport tarmac and called on him to speak out forcefully against the Israeli strikes. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York introduced resolutions to block the sale of $735 million in military weaponry to Israel that’s already been approved by the Biden administration.

As the outside calls for Biden to speak more forcefully grew, Biden and top aides privately made the case to Israeli officials that time wasn’t on their side in the court of public opinion.

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for more than 30 years and have frequently butted heads. Their conversations through the crisis were far from scripted and they probed each other on how they were gaming the path forward, according to the official familiar with the leaders’ conversations.

Administration officials pointed to Hezbollah’s stature rising in the region after their 34-day war with Israel in 2006 to make the case for limiting the time of the military action. Israeli officials pushed back that a slightly prolonged campaign to degrade Hamas’ military capabilities was necessary and in their interest, according a person familiar with the talks who was not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Hamas had sought to portray their rocket barrages as a defense of Jerusalem. Israeli officials made the case to the White House that Hamas’ message lost resonance as mob violence against Arabs in mixed Israeli cities, including Lod, was tamped down.

Biden, in his remarks Thursday, reiterated that United States continues to “fully support Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks” by Hamas and other Gaza-based militants.

Biden also offered condolences for Palestinian lives lost during the conflict and vowed humanitarian aid would quickly flow through the Palestinian Authority, which is in control of the West Bank but not Gaza.

“We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas … and in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal,” Biden said.