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Biden presses Netanyahu toward cease-fire deal, warns of change in US policy

President Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday toward a cease-fire deal that would release the remaining hostages in Gaza and suggested that U.S. policy on the war will depend on Israel’s ability to better protect civilians and humanitarian workers after an attack that killed a contingent of international aid workers this week.

Biden spoke with Netanyahu days after an Israeli strike killed seven humanitarian aid workers with World Central Kitchen, a charity group that was distributing food to Palestinians in Gaza. The president told Netanyahu the incident was “unacceptable.”

“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,” the White House said in a readout of the call. “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 White House said Biden “underscored that an immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilize and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians, and he urged the Prime Minister to empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home.”

The White House has for weeks been pressing for a cease-fire that would last at least six weeks and allow hostages to get out of Gaza and allow humanitarian aid into the region. Officials previously blamed Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, for holding up a potential deal.

“It takes active participation and negotiation of both sides here,” White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “And that’s what the president is urging: that the prime minister empower his team to the max extent possible to see if we can get this deal in place.”

The prospect of a shift in U.S. policy toward the Israel-Hamas war, which was set off last October after Hamas killed nearly 1,200 Israelis in an attack, is significant and marks a notable change from Biden and his team.

Officials as recently as Tuesday were downplaying the idea that the strike that killed World Central Kitchen workers a day prior would lead to a change in U.S. support for Israel. The administration has called for Israel to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident.

Kirby said Thursday that Biden was “shaken” by the attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy, though he noted there had been other incidents involving humanitarian workers.

“I’m not going to preview any potential policy decisions coming forward,” Kirby said. “What we want to see are some real changes on the Israeli side, and you know, if we don’t see changes from their side, there will have to be changes from our side.”

He added the U.S. hoped to see Israel announce potential changes in the coming “hours and days.”

Kirby said “there’s been growing frustration” on the part of Biden, given that his previous messaging to Netanyahu has not gotten through.

Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan were also on Thursday’s call, Kirby said, though the conversation was between Biden and Netanyahu. The call lasted about 30 minutes.

Tensions between Biden and Netanyahu have been simmering for months as the president faces growing outcry from activists and some Democratic lawmakers over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, where more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed and much of the remaining population is on the brink of famine.

Biden has argued the Israelis have a right to defend themselves from Hamas while simultaneously pushing for Netanyahu to do more to protect civilians. In an interview last month with MSNBC, Biden said Netanyahu was “hurting Israel more than helping” with his handling of the conflict.

The White House has also been at odds with Israeli leadership over a planned military invasion of the Gazan city of Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering. U.S. and Israeli officials were set to hold a meeting in the coming days for White House officials to lay out their concerns with the potential operation.

Updated at 2:37 p.m. EDT

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