Biden keeps to 'quiet diplomacy' as calls for Israel-Hamas cease-fire ramp up

The White House has said he privately "expressed support" for a cease-fire.

May 18, 2021, 6:35 PM

The White House on Tuesday continued to insist private, diplomatic conversations were the best way the United States could help broker an end to fighting between Israel and Hamas, and despite saying the day before President Joe Biden supported a cease-fire, it provided no details on what or when the president wanted that to happen and he has yet to say so publicly.

On Monday, in a carefully worded statement, the White House said Biden "expressed his support for a cease-fire" during a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the same time, the president has repeatedly issued strong and public messages of support for Israel since the current spate of violence dramatically escalated eight days ago.

Biden has kept the United States' role largely limited to telephone diplomacy, supported by a mid-level State Department official sent to the region and conversations with countries like Egypt and Qatar that typically have a role in brokering deals with Hamas.

His focus remained this week on domestic issues, and on Tuesday he flew to Michigan to visit a Ford plant and pitch his infrastructure proposal. He did not take questions from reporters.

President Joe Biden drives a F150 Lightning electric truck at the Ford Dearborn Development Center in Dearborn, Mich., May 18, 2021.
Leah Millis/Reuters

As he test drove an electric truck, ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega asked if she could ask him "a quick question on Israel before you drive away."

"No, you can't," he replied. "Not unless you get in front of the car as I step on it. I'm only teasing."

"Our goal is to get to the end of this conflict," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told Vega aboard Air Force One en route to Michigan. "We're going to evaluate, day by day, what the right approach is. It continues to be that quiet, intensive, behind the scenes discussion are, tactically, our approach at this point."

Day after day, Psaki's message has remained the same. On Monday, when asked if the continued fighting showed the limits of what Psaki had called "quiet diplomacy," the press secretary sought to limit expectations.

"It has been seven days," she said Monday. "As you know, these conflicts have been far longer than that."

Asked a similar question Tuesday by Vega, Psaki replied: "This has been going on now for eight days."

Each day that passes, the death toll has climbed, and an increasing number of Democrats in Congress have called for a cease-fire.

Palestinian children salvage toys from their home at the Al-Jawhara Tower in Gaza City, May 17, 2021, which was heavily damaged in Israeli airstrikes.
AFP via Getty Images

At least 213 Palestinians have been killed, including 61 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, while Israel says Hamas rocket attacks have killed a dozen people in Israel, according to the Associated Press. Israel says at least 160 Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters have died, while the groups say the total is at least 20, according to the AP.

Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department adviser and negotiator on Israeli-Arab issues across Democratic and Republican administrations, told ABC News he thought Democratic pressure would not dent Biden's reluctance to get drawn into such a fraught issue. The president, he noted, wanted to focus on domestic priorities -- and when it came to the Middle East -- on Iran.

Biden could convert the weeklong "green light" he gave Israel into leverage with Netanyahu in the future, according to Miller, who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That green light turned yellow on Monday, with the president backing a cease-fire, he said.

"Biden is anticipating that this is manageable and in fact he can use this with the Israelis," Miller said. "I think he's hoping that the combination of standing with the Israelis, quote unquote, while ramping up pressure… will work."

On Sunday, 29 Democratic senators -- including Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- signed a letter backing an "immediate cease-fire." The next day, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also called for a cease-fire, and after the White House said Biden had expressed support for one, on Tuesday House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi followed suit.

Throughout Biden's decades on Capitol Hill, support for Israel was generally sacrosanct -- for members of both parties. But in the past week, he has weathered blowback from more progressive members of the House of Representatives, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who have called out the lack of expressions of support for the Palestinians in the administration's statements about the fighting.

President Joe Biden speaks with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, right, as he arrives at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, May 18, 2021.
Evan Vucci/AP

Tlaib, whose relatives live in the West Bank, greeted Biden upon his arrival at Detroit's airport this afternoon, and they spent eight minutes in conversation on the tarmac. They were out of reporters' earshot; the White House declined to say what they discussed.

A Tlaib aide said that the congresswoman "conveyed to President Biden the same messages she has shared on the House floor and publicly."

"The U.S. cannot continue to give the right-wing Netanyahu government billions each year to commit crimes against Palestinians," the aide said.

Later, Biden addressed Tlaib during remarks at the Ford plant, although he repeatedly misstated her name as "Rashid."

"I want to say to you that I admire your intellect, I admire your passion, and I admire your concern for so many other people," Biden said. "And it's my -- from my heart that I pray that your grandmom and family are well. I promise you, I'm going to do everything to see that they are in the West Bank. You're a fighter and, God, thank you for being in the fight."

A woman holds a sign during a pro-Palestinian protest in Dearborn, Mich., May 18, 2021.
Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Dozens of people also held a protest outside the Dearborn Police Department condemning Israel's actions, according to ABC's Detroit affiliate WXYZ-TV. The protest was timed to coincide with Biden's visit.

Republicans have largely defended Israel's actions against Hamas, while criticizing Democrats' intra-party debate over U.S. support for Israel.

On Capitol Hill, progressives calling for a cease-fire have also raised questions about a scheduled $735 million sale of precision-guided weapons to Israel, about which the administration first notified the relevant congressional committees on May 5.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said Monday he would send a letter to the administration calling for a delay in the transfer to provide more time for congressional review.

But on Tuesday, Meeks said he would no longer send a letter to the Biden administration, after the White House committed to brief lawmakers and engage with Congress more robustly on future transfers.

"The purpose of the letter initially was to make sure that there's dialogue, conversation," Meeks told reporters. "We're going to have a meeting with the administration tomorrow where the issues and the questions that one may have will be able to be asked."

ABC News' Benjamin Siegel, Molly Nagle and Rachel Scott contributed to this report.