White House downplays Biden, national security aide’s blunt comments on Israel

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BY AAMER MADHANI

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Friday sought to downplay sharp criticism levied against Israel by President Joe Biden and a senior national security official over how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has conducted Israel’s four-month-old war aimed at rooting out Hamas militants from Gaza.

Biden, speaking to reporters Thursday evening, called Israel’s military operations in Gaza “over the top” and said the suffering of innocent people has “got to stop.” While Biden has previously expressed concern about the mounting Palestinian civilian toll — more than 27,000 have been killed in Gaza since the conflict erupted — his direct criticism of the Israelis has been muted.

Then on Friday, the New York Times reported it had obtained a recording in which the president’s deputy principal national security adviser, Jon Finer, expressed a “lack of confidence” in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government during a meeting with Arab American and Muslim community leaders this week. The White House National Security Council confirmed that Finer’s comments, as reported by the Times, were accurate.

An administration official told The Associated Press that Finer was speaking specifically about the Netanyahu government’s commitment to pursuing a two-state solution — one in which Israel would co-exist with an independent Palestinian state — once the war ends. Netanyahu throughout his political career has consistently opposed the creation of a Palestinian state.

“The President and Mr. Finer were reflecting on concerns we have had for some time and will continue to have as the Israeli operation proceeds, about the loss of Palestinian lives in this conflict and the need to reduce civilian harm,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “The President has made clear since the first days of this conflict that we share the aim of defeating Hamas, but that Israel must reduce, as much as possible, the impact of its operation on innocent civilians.”

Finer in the recording also spoke of “missteps” by the Biden administration and expressed regret that the administration may have left a “a very damaging impression” early in the war with its “wholly inadequate public accounting for how much the president, the administration and the country values the lives of Palestinians.”

The comments appear to reflect a growing frustration in the White House with the conflict that was sparked on Oct. 7 after Hamas militants launched an attack on Israel, killing 1,200 and taking about 250 others hostage. Earlier pauses in fighting led to release of mostly women and children taken by Hamas, but U.S. officials believe more than 100 remain in captivity.

Biden on Thursday said he hasn’t given up on a U.S.-Egypt-Qatar effort to get the two sides to agree to an extended pause in fighting to facilitate the release of the remaining hostages.

Hamas, however, has demanded that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and end the war as part of a hostage deal. Netanyahu has refused to agree to those terms.

Biden said he still is hopeful that a deal can be worked out that might create a path to ending the war.

“I am pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage cease-fire,” Biden said. “I’ve been working tirelessly on this deal.”

Biden had dispatched Finer and other senior aides to Michigan on Thursday to meet with Arab American and Muslim community leaders as his administration has been looking to mend rifts with a key constituency in a 2024 battleground state.

Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Steven Benjamin, who directs the Office of Public Engagement, and Tom Perez, who leads the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, were among administration officials who took part in the Michigan visit.

Some of Biden’s campaign team have faced a tough reception from Michigan’s sizable Arab American and Muslim community.

Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, and other campaign aides went to suburban Detroit late last month, but found a number of community leaders unwilling to meet with them.

Other community activists have gone even further as they press their disapproval of the president’s handling of the war and have formed a group called “Abandon Biden,” a movement discouraging voters from supporting the president in November.

Michigan has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation and over 310,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. Nearly half of Dearborn’s roughly 110,000 residents claim Arab ancestry.

After Donald Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016, Wayne County and its large Muslim communities helped Biden retake the state for the Democrats in 2020 by a roughly 154,000-vote margin. Biden enjoyed a roughly 3-to-1 advantage in Dearborn and 5-1 advantage in Hamtramck, and he won Wayne County by more than 330,000 votes.

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