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Biden urges Israelis to protect civilian lives as national security adviser meets with Netanyahu amid developing rift

By Michael Williams and Kevin Liptak, CNN

Washington (CNN) — President Joe Biden on Thursday said he wants the Israeli military to focus on saving civilian lives as it conducts its campaign to eliminate Hamas and faces mounting pressure over its military operations in Gaza.

Following a speech on prescription drug prices at the National Institutes of Health, the president was asked whether he wants the Israeli government to scale back its strikes against Hamas as it fights in Gaza.

“I want them to be focused on how to save civilian lives. Not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful,” Biden responded.

Biden’s national security adviser is meeting with top Israeli officials over the next two days as the White House pushes the Israelis to be more precise in their operations against Hamas in Gaza. Jake Sullivan told Israeli broadcaster Channel 12 News Thursday evening that he had an “intense, detailed” conversation with the Israeli prime minister and war cabinet about shifting from a high-intensity phase to a more targeted approach there.

Sullivan’s visit comes as a public rift has opened between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza and differences in opinion about what a future for Palestinians should look like after combat operations end. Sullivan is also set to discuss efforts to release the eight American hostages who remain under Hamas control.

Sullivan met with Netanyahu on Thursday, and is set to meet with other top Israeli officials, including President Isaac Herzog, through Friday.

Sullivan discussed transitioning the Israeli assault on Hamas to “lower intensity operations” in the near future, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

Kirby said Sullivan asked “hard questions” about the Israeli offensive, including efforts to be more surgical and precise in their targeting. And Sullivan raised the imperative of moving to a new phase of the conflict, which has killed thousands of civilians in Gaza.

“He did talk about possible transitioning from what we would call high intensity operations, which is what we’re seeing them do now, to lower intensity operations sometime, you know, in the near future,” Kirby said.

Of the conversation, Sullivan said later Thursday: “I’ll just say we had a very constructive conversation about these phases and how to think about the shift from high intensity to a different phase of the war.” He declined to provide more details on a possible timeframe.

According to a senior US official, the Biden administration has signaled to Israel it wants it to transition to a lower intensity phase of its war on Hamas within weeks – potentially by the end of the year.

The US hopes a new phase would minimize civilian deaths, which have mounted in Gaza and caused international outcry.

CNN reported last week that US officials expect the current phase of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza targeting the southern end of the strip to last several weeks before Israel transitions, possibly by January, to a lower-intensity, hyper-localized strategy that narrowly targets specific Hamas militants and leaders.

The US expects Israel will transition to a lower intensity strategy focused on intelligence-based raids against Hamas, the official said, though the timing of that shift would be based on conditions on the ground.

The talks amount to a “back and forth” conversation between the US and Israel, the official said.

“The Israelis have briefed us on its thinking of potential timeframes and Jake had a very good discussion about the kind of conditions that obviously we all hope to be set up,” the official said.

US officials say they know Israel will continue to go after Hamas leadership and believe it’s critical for them to take out Hamas leadership. But they have continually pressed Israel to take steps to protect civilians as it goes after the group responsible for the October 7 terror attacks.

“It’s not really about timeframes, it’s about the conditions that will be set. And the Israelis have briefed us in tremendous detail about the phasing of its overall campaign,” the senior administration official said, adding it would be “irresponsible for anyone dealing with these issues to talk about timeframes.”

But in a statement released after his meeting with Sullivan, Netanyahu said he would be satisfied with nothing less than total victory against Hamas.

“Our heroic soldiers have not fallen in vain,” the Israeli prime minister said. “Out of the deep pain of their having fallen, we are more determined than ever to continue fighting until Hamas is eliminated – until absolute victory.”

In a meeting on Thursday, Israel’s Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, told Sullivan the war in Gaza would last “more than several months,” according to Israel’s Ministry of Defense.

“It will require a period of time – it will last more than several months, but we will win and we will destroy them (Hamas),” Gallant said, according to a transcript of the meeting released by the Israeli Ministry of Defense on Thursday.

Gallant also thanked Sullivan for US support of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, saying “the United States and Israel share common interests, common values and in this war, we also share common goals.”

According to a readout provided by Netanyahu’s office, the prime minister and Sullivan also “emphasized their commitment to bring about the release of all the hostages remaining in Gaza.”

“The two sides discussed the continuation of the war until victory and the achieving of the common goals, first and foremost the elimination of Hamas, the release of the hostages, dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities and the end of its rule in Gaza,” a Netanyahu spokesperson said on X.

Amid questions about how much influence the administration has over the Israeli war plans, the official said the US, in the early days of the conflict, successfully advised Israel to alter some of its plans.

“The Israelis had ideas for the military campaign very early which we found problematic,” the official said, pointing to Biden’s visit to Israel as a turning point when plans for the ground campaign were “adjusted” based on American advice and recommendations.

Eight Americans are among the more than 100 hostages being held by Hamas since the group’s October 7 attack on Israel. More than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed in the attack.

More than 18,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 50,000 injured in the ensuing Israeli response, according to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry.

Biden met with family members of the eight American hostages at the White House on Wednesday.

Prior to his arrival in Israel, Sullivan traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a person familiar with the matter said.

CNN’s Mitchell McCluskey contributed to this report.

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