President Biden backs Middle East cease-fire in call with Netanyahu

WASHINGTON (thehill): President Biden on Monday expressed support for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip during a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the White House said.

It marked the first time the president has publicly called for a cease-fire over the course of a week of intensive diplomatic efforts to ease violence as Hamas rocket fire and Israeli retaliatory airstrikes have terrorized the region.

“The President expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed U.S. engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end,” the White House said in a readout of the call.

Egypt is considered a key interlocutor in dealing with Hamas and negotiating with the Israelis on efforts to achieve a cease-fire. The U.S. does not speak with Hamas, which it considers as a terrorist organization.

Biden has faced increasing pressure from Democrats leading up to the call on Monday, particularly after an Israeli strike on a Gaza building that housed The Associated Press and other international media organizations. Israeli airstrikes are said to have killed at least 42 civilians in Gaza on Sunday.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters on Monday that he wants “to see a ceasefire reached quickly and mourn the loss of life.”

Israeli officials insist that the strike against the building housing the AP was justified and that Hamas was operating out of the building, which was struck on Saturday. Netanyahu has defended the Israeli military’s airstrikes, saying the country needs to degrade Hamas’ capabilities and levy a price on the group.

The call between Biden and Netanyahu on Monday was the third in less than a week as the violence has intensified.

 “The President reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks. The President welcomed efforts to address intercommunal violence and to bring calm to Jerusalem. He encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians,” the White House said in the readout. “The two leaders discussed progress in Israel’s military operations against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza.”

Biden has largely taken a back-seat approach to the conflict, only weighing in on the developments when asked by reporters or through written White House statements. Officials have called for de-escalation and engaged heavily with regional partners, like Egypt, in an effort to to facilitate an end to the hostilities that dramatically escalated last week.

In total, the White House says that senior officials have had upwards of 60 calls with Israeli, Palestinian and other regional partners about the violence.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Monday that the ultimate goal is to reduce violence and bring an end to the conflict, suggesting the administration was keeping some of its messages private.

 “Our calculation, at this point, is that having those conversations behind the scenes, weighing in with our important strategic partnership we have with Israel, also with other countries in the region, is the most constructive approach we can take,” Psaki told reporters when asked why the administration was not publicly calling for a ceasefire. “So our approach is through quiet, intensive diplomacy, and that’s where we feel we can be most effective.”