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Inside President Biden’s pointed phone call with Benjamin Netanyahu

By MJ Lee, CNN

Washington (CNN) — President Joe Biden ticked through several things that he needed to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do immediately: open up the Erez crossing into northern Gaza and the port of Ashdod in southern Israel for humanitarian aid; significantly ramp up the supplies getting in through Kerem Shalom.

A person familiar with the Thursday call paraphrased Netanyahu as responding: “Joe, we’re gonna do it.”

But Biden wasn’t finished. The prime minister must announce the moves that evening, the president insisted.

By Thursday night, the Israeli security cabinet had approved those three measures to increase humanitarian aid entering the besieged enclave.

The relatively brief phone call between the two leaders this week marked the first time since Hamas’ attack on Israel in October that Biden threatened Netanyahu with serious consequences if Israel did not change the way it was waging its war in Gaza. Biden, who has remained steadfast in his support of Israel’s right to defend itself — even amid growing political backlash at home — warned the prime minister that if conditions did not rapidly improve for civilians in the strip, he would reconsider how the US was backing Israel in the conflict.

The prime minister’s office declined to comment on the exchange. The White House declined to comment for this story.

In both the official White House readout of the Biden-Netanyahu phone call and public statements following the call, US officials have declined to specify exactly what US policy changes are under consideration.

Slowing down the US’ supply of weapons to Israel would be the most likely policy change, one senior administration official told CNN, pointing to a recently released national security memo that lays out standards foreign governments that receive US military aid must adhere to.

But that official stressed that no decisions have been made and that the question of how the US supports Israel’s current war is a complicated one. There are other levers that the administration could potentially pull, they said, including those related to military aid writ large or the United Nations, as well as drastically shifting Biden’s public rhetoric about his administration’s support for the war.

Even as the administration considers what changes it could make if Israel doesn’t follow through, the US government is still sending deadly weapons to its ally. Biden is set to greenlight an estimated $18 billion sale of American-made fighter jets to Israel, and the administration also recently authorized the transfer of over 1,000 500-pound bombs and over 1,000 small-diameter bombs to Israel, CNN has reported. The White House has defended those sales and transfers as the product of a process that has been in the works for years.

Through the month of April, the Biden administration plans to monitor the new steps that Israel takes to alleviate the civilian and humanitarian crises in Gaza. But how exactly Biden would measure Israel’s commitment to a course correction is also unclear.

US officials have not publicly specified metrics for how much humanitarian aid per day they wish to see enter into Gaza, nor have they said how they would determine whether the Israel Defense Forces were sufficiently being careful about protecting civilians, including aid workers, in Gaza.

Senior administration officials have said it was the IDF strike that killed seven World Central Kitchen (WCK) workers on Monday that prompted Thursday’s call between the two leaders. US officials view the incident, which killed a Canadian-American dual citizen, as a glaring tragedy that captures the Biden administration’s growing concerns about Israel’s operational strategy.

The Israeli government on Friday shared the findings of an investigation into the killing of the WCK workers, revealing a series of botched assessments and decision-making failures. The IDF also fired two senior officers and reprimanded a top commander as a result.

Publicly, White House officials have avoided describing Biden’s demands to Netanyahu this week as an ultimatum.

“I would characterize this call as very direct, very businesslike, very professional on both sides,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters moments after the call ended. The president was clear, Kirby added, that the US is “willing to reconsider our own policy approaches here, dependent upon what the Israelis do or don’t do.”

The two men, who have now known each other for some four decades, have had their relationship tested by the Israel-Hamas war, as global condemnation for Israel’s conduct has grown louder by the day. The president and the prime minister are both facing angry constituents at home, and both could have their political fate determined by the outcome of the conflict.

For Biden, the end of the war can’t come soon enough. His support among key constituency groups such as Muslim and Arab Americans, progressives and young voters has eroded since October. And almost everywhere he turns, Biden appears to be met with angry protesters calling for a permanent ceasefire.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, stands to face a political reckoning once the war comes to an end. The moment could very well lead to the fracturing of his already tenuous right-wing coalition.

Biden himself indicated recently that he believed a rupture in his increasingly strained relationship with Netanyahu was coming — and that it was only a matter of time.

The president was caught saying on a hot mic after delivering his State of the Union speech last month: “I told Bibi, don’t repeat this, I said: ‘You and I are going to have a come-to-Jesus moment.’”

CNN’s Eugenia Ugrinovich contributed to this report.

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