WASHINGTON (JTA) — As Joe Biden was speaking a political fundraiser in Minneapolis this week, a rabbi and activist with an anti-Zionist Jewish group stood up and shouted, “Mr. President, if you care about Jewish people, as a rabbi, I need you to call for a ceasefire right now.”
Biden’s response: “Well, I understand her emotion. I really do.” The president went on to enumerate the steps he’s taken to ease Palestinian civilian suffering in Gaza: urging Israel to pause the fighting so hostages can be released and pushing Egypt to let people exit Gaza into the Sinai Peninsula.
The next day, another expression of concern for Palestinian civilians came from Biden’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, before he boarded a flight to Israel.
“When I see a Palestinian child – a boy, a girl – pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building, that hits me in the gut as much as seeing a child from Israel or anywhere else,” he said. “So this is something that we have an obligation to respond to, and we will.”
Biden and Blinken’s statements are two of several signals that a shift of sorts is happening in the White House and among Democrats in D.C. Alongside the unabashed support Biden has shown Israel since Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 killed and wounded thousands, the president and other leaders in his party are now placing increasing emphasis on protecting Palestinian civilians and pausing the fighting as the war marks its first month with thousands of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes.
One sign of a change came on Thursday, when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s number-two Democrat, called for a ceasefire — the first senator to at least partially endorse the central demand of pro-Palestinian and other progressive groups. Durbin said a ceasefire could happen only when Hamas releases the more than 200 hostages it kidnapped on Oct. 7.
“I think it is,” Durbin said when CNN anchor Poppy Harlow asked him if a ceasefire is needed now. “At least in the context of both sides agreeing. For example, the release of those who have been kidnapped should be a part of this. Immediate release. That should be the beginning of it. An effort should be made to engage in conversation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
On Friday, he joined a dozen other Democratic senators in signing a statement endorsing Biden’s call for “a short-term cessation of hostilities that pose high risk to civilians” and other noncombatants. The statement endorsed a pause in the fighting, rather than a full ceasefire advocated by progressive and pro-Palestinian activists.
The calls for a ceasefire, which began almost as soon as the war started, have been endorsed by more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress — but rejected by Israel as a nonstarter. Israel has vowed to depose Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and a ceasefire would leave the terror group in power. Biden administration officials say they still oppose a permanent ceasefire, and back Israel’s ultimate aim of destroying Hamas.
On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he told Blinken that he would reject a “temporary ceasefire” until Hamas released all of the hostages — a blow to the Biden administration’s push for humanitarian pauses in the fighting.
“We will not accept a temporary ceasefire that does not return our hostages,” Netanyahu said in a televised address to the nation after meeting in Israel on Friday with Blinken, who is in the region to seek relief for Palestinians while showing support for Israel. “We will not allow fuel into Gaza, and we object to the transfer of money into Gaza.”
Blinken went into his Israel trip determined to make the case for increasing the entry of aid into Gaza. At first, Israel fully barred aid from Gaza, but the daily inflow now stands at 50-60 trucks a day. “We need that and want that to increase, and I expect you’ll see that in the coming days,” Blinken said Thursday on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, just before leaving.
The same day, John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said the Biden Administration would seek a series of humanitarian pauses to facilitate relief.
“We’re really not just talking about, like, one pause,” Kirby said at the daily White House press breifing. “What we’re trying to do is explore the idea of as many pauses that might be necessary to continue to get aid out and to continue to work to get people out safely, including hostages.”
Speaking to media after meeting Netanyahu, Blinken did not back down from his quest for pauses in the fighting, but recognized that they would not happen immediately.
“Each of these efforts would be facilitated by humanitarian pauses — arrangements on the ground that increase security for civilians and permit more effective and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he said referring to bringing in relief, releasing hostages and allowing more Palestinians to cross into Egypt.
“How when and where these can be implemented, what work needs to happen and what understandings need to be reached — we recognize this would take time to prepare and coordinate with international partners,” he said. “A number of legitimate questions were raised today — how to use any period of pause to maximize the flow of aid, how to connect the pause to hostage release, how to ensure Hamas doesn’t use the pause to own advantage. We believe they can be solved.”
In his televised address, Netanyahu, his voice at times choked, said he showed Blinken a video of children wailing while watching terrorists murder their father.
Blinken also teared up at his own press conference, describing the video.
“I saw, for example, a family on a kibbutz, a father of two young boys — maybe 10, 11 years old — grabbing them, pulling them out of their living room, going through their very small backyard and into a shelter, followed seconds later by a terrorist who throws a grenade into that small shelter,” he said.
Netanyahu concluded his speech by describing the heroism of some Israeli troops who have fallen in the ground incursion into Gaza, which started last week.
“We will do everything that is needed to defeat our enemies, with the help of God, and with the help of you citizens of Israel,” he said in remarks screened just before the onset of Shabbat. “We will do it and we will be victorious.”