An Israeli army tank shells the Gaza Strip from the border area in southern Israel on Dec. 14, 2023, amid ongoing battles with the Palestinian Hamas movement.

An Israeli army tank shells the Gaza Strip from the border area in southern Israel on Dec. 14, 2023, amid ongoing battles with the Palestinian Hamas movement. (Jack Guez, AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

JERUSALEM (Tribune News Service) — When President Joe Biden touched down in Israel 10 days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet formally declared war on the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the two leaders shared a warm embrace.

That tight bear hug eight weeks ago is now entwined with some of the most hellish aspects of this war.

Those include the immense suffering of Palestinian civilians trapped in the Gaza Strip and the unresolved fate of dozens of hostages seized during Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7 rampage in Israel — and increasing world isolation faced not only by Israel, but also by its closest ally, the United States.

By declaring unwavering support for Israel, Biden hoped to rally international backing in the face of the worst mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust — but also to maintain some U.S. influence over the course of action chosen by the embattled prime minister.

Both those efforts have faltered.

Israel is confronting some of the fiercest worldwide blowback in decades. It faces outrage over its relentless bombardment and ground attacks in Gaza, which have killed more than 18,000 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them women and children, and set off a far-reaching humanitarian crisis. Hunger and disease stalk the devastated and blockaded enclave; 4 in every 5 of its 2.3 million people are displaced, according to the United Nations.

After weeks of defending Israel to the world, Biden on Tuesday issued his sharpest rebuke yet of Netanyahu and the way he is conducting the war. Biden said that the far-right Israeli government needed to undergo major changes, and that Israel is losing what had been wide international support over“indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza.

Biden used the term “indiscriminate bombing” once before to refer to the massive destruction Israeli airstrikes inflicted on northern Gaza, with entire districts reduced to rubble. U.S. officials have repeatedly told the Netanyahu government that its attacks in Gaza’s south, which began late last month, had to be more surgical and less devastating. Israel has largely ignored that warning, and Biden apparently now believes the actions in the south are as dangerous as those in the north.

Speaking to a group of Jewish donors at the White House, Biden went on to recall an oft-repeated anecdote of inscribing on a photo he had taken with Netanyahu, referring to him by a nickname: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say.” In this recounting, Biden added: “That remains to be the case.”

Netanyahu on Wednesday forcefully insisted that the war would go forward despite “international pressure.”

“We are continuing until the end, there is no question,” he said, speaking to military commanders. “Nothing will stop us — we will continue until the end, until victory, nothing less.”

Biden is sending national security advisor Jake Sullivan to Israel on Thursday to discuss “timetables” for the war amid reports that the U.S. is urging Israel to wrap up fighting in weeks, not months. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III heads there again next week.

U.S. officials describe the parade of officials as necessary to put the seniormost members of the Biden administration in the room with Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders to try to make them comply with international law.

The isolation of Israel — and its U.S. ally — was illustrated at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, when a nonbinding resolution demanding a cease-fire in Gaza was approved by 153-10.

The United States, which opposed the measure, was supported by a handful of Pacific Island nations and a few others but abandoned by major allies including Canada and several Group of 7 democracies that just two months ago in Tokyo joined the U.S. in solid pro-Israel support.

The U.S. and Israel maintain that a cease-fire now would leave Hamas leadership in place in southern Gaza and allow the militants to rearm and regroup.

But Biden administration officials have repeatedly expressed frustration over the difficulty of persuading Israel to follow the rules of war even as the number of Palestinian civilian casualties has soared.

Israel’s stated war aims — eradicating Hamas and freeing the hostages— have met with mixed success. Army chieftains claim to have degraded Hamas militarily, but its command structure is believed to be largely intact, and its leader, Yahya Sinwar, is still apparently alive and well in Gaza.

Hamas, in a statement Wednesday, gloated over Israel’s combat losses.

“You have no choice but to withdraw from Gaza,” it said. “You’ll leave with your tail between your legs, God willing.”

Israel, meanwhile, is coping with an ongoing narrative of grief and trauma, mourning at least 1,200 people killed on Oct. 7, most of them civilians, and some of whose remains are only now being identified, while other bodies of civilians are recovered from Gaza. The round of funerals is unending.

The toll of military dead in Israel’s Gaza offensive, 115 soldiers as of Wednesday, is nearly double the number of troops killed in the last major fighting there, almost a decade ago. On Tuesday, Israel absorbed its largest one-day battlefield death toll in a month, when 10 soldiers were killed in an ambush, including two high-ranking officers.

A swap of Hamas’ hostages for Palestinian prisoners in late November raised hopes of a broader release, but mediated talks over a further exchange — involving the nearly 140 remaining hostages held by Hamas and other groups, and some or all of the approximately 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails — have stalled.

Families of Israeli hostages have engaged in furious exchanges with Netanyahu’s government over a military strategy they say endangers their loved ones — including a plan, now said by U.S. officials to be in its early stages, to flood Hamas’ network of tunnels with seawater.

Under a cold rain, hundreds of relatives of hostages, some weeping and others grimly resolute, rallied Wednesday in Jerusalem near the Knesset, or parliament. Some set up a protest tent near the prime minister’s office.

“I don’t want to get my boy back in a body bag,” Chagit Chen, whose 19-year-old son Itai is a hostage, told Israel’s former president, Reuven Rivlin, who met with the families.

Netanyahu has kept the hostages’ relatives largely at arm’s length — in contrast to Biden, who on Wednesday met with the families of eight U.S. citizens believed to still be held by Hamas. The family members, mostly dressed in black, said afterward that Biden promised to do everything in his power to free the hostages. Four Americans, including a 4-year-old girl, who were seized Oct. 7 have been released so far.

“We felt before and we’re only reinforced in seeing and believing that we could have no better friend in Washington or in the White House than President Biden himself and his administration,” Jonathan Dekel-Chen, whose son Sagui is among the Americans believed to be held by Hamas, said on the White House lawn.

The Americans believed to still be held are one woman and seven men, some of whom may be Israeli soldiers. “I reassured them that I will continue doing everything possible to secure the release of their family members,” Biden said later on X, formerly Twitter. “And that we will not give up hope.”

Early in the war, it seemed the United States, Israel’s chief patron, would be able to stem the bloodshed in Gaza.

The Biden administration strategy of publicly announcing unquestioning support for Israel from the war’s earliest days was intended to be coupled with the understanding that American officials would offer private criticism about the conduct of the war, and weigh in on matters under discussion via mediators including Qatar, U.S. officials have said.

Instead, the Americans have repeatedly found themselves at loggerheads with Israeli counterparts over terms of the most basic U.S. expectations, including brief humanitarian pauses for the entry of food, water and other supplies, setting the stage for the release of at least some hostages.

Amid the catastrophic deterioration of living conditions in Gaza, one of the enclave’s most critical needs, fuel, proved to be a major stumbling block, according to U.S. officials familiar with recent dealings between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government.

Israel didn’t want fuel to potentially be available to Hamas and also wanted hostages freed before any was provided. After a flurry of lower-level contacts, the U.S. officials said, it finally took a call from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who bluntly stated to Ron Dermer, Israel’s U.S.-born minister of strategic affairs and a close Netanyahu ally, that fuel could not be tied to the hostages and had to flow — before it eventually did, albeit in small amounts.

Many Israeli analysts have expressed skepticism that the prime minister, who is fighting corruption charges, has any interest in bringing the conflict to a halt, in large measure because it puts a hold on efforts to oust him from power and delays an accounting of the enormous security lapses that made Hamas’ deadly attack possible.

Defying Washington, Netanyahu again this week ruled out any postwar role in Gaza for Hamas’ more moderate main political rival, the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank.

“Netanyahu is not dealing with ‘the morning after’ for the State of Israel, or for Gaza,” said a scathing editorial Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Everything is geared toward preparing for an eventual state commission of inquiry into the Oct. 7 debacle, and for an election.”

King reported from Jerusalem, and Wilkinson reported from Washington.

©2023 Los Angeles Times.

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