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Biden warns Netanyahu that U.S. policy on Gaza hinges on improved conditions there

President Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday to express concerns about Israeli strikes that killed aid workers and humanitarian conditions in Gaza.
Al Drago
Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday to express concerns about Israeli strikes that killed aid workers and humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

Updated April 4, 2024 at 8:35 PM ET

President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call on Thursday that U.S. policy on the war in Gaza will be determined by whether Israel takes "a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps" to address deaths of civilians and aid workers in the territory, the White House said.

The 30-minute phone call came after seven aid workers with World Central Kitchen were killed in Israeli strikes. Biden said the strikes and the humanitarian situation in Gaza were unacceptable and urged Netanyahu to conclude hostage talks so that an "immediate ceasefire" can be put in place and more aid distributed in the region.

"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 statement after 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. He 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 said.

Where the negotiations stand

Later, the White House said Israel had agreed to open the Ashdod port to deliver aid into Gaza, and open the Erez crossing into northern Gaza.

Biden's call for Netanyahu to "empower" his negotiators comes as Israeli media report Netanyahu has limited their authority to reach a final deal. On Wednesday, an Israeli official blamed the impasse in the cease-fire talks on the U.S. decision to allow a U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution to pass on March 25.

The U.S. move "caused harm to the momentum of the negotiations," because Hamas hardened its positions, the official said in a briefing with U.S. media outlets, including NPR. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The U.S. said at the time that vote did not indicate a policy shift, and National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the administration was "perplexed" by Israel's apparent outrage.

Negotiators had been working toward a temporary cease-fire that would take effect during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in exchange for the release of hostages. The end of Ramadan is now just a week away.

The U.S. is looking for an immediate response

On Thursday, Kirby told reporters that the White House wanted to see a dramatic increase in aid getting into Gaza and "a reduction in the violence against civilians and certainly aid workers" and said it expected initial announcements from Israel in "coming hours and days."

"The president made clear that absent changes in the protection of civilians on the ground, absent changes to the volume of humanitarian assistance getting in, absent any movement on a cease-fire that will allow hostages to get out and more aid to get in — absent a calming-down — that he will have to reconsider his own policy choices with respect to Gaza," Kirby said.

Kirby declined comment on what the consequences would be if those actions fail to materialize — or whether that could include a potential halt to U.S. military aid to Israel.

"What we want to see are some real changes on the Israeli side. And if we don't see changes from their side, there will have to be changes from our side," Kirby told reporters.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.