The Biden administration underlined its public and fulsome show of support for Israel Friday as two of its most senior national security officials visited the Middle East ahead of an expected Israeli ground incursion into Gaza.
Behind the scenes, however, the US faces a difficult diplomatic challenge – providing support for Israel’s “legitimate security operations” while trying to mitigate the devastating impact on civilians and prevent the war from expanding out to further fronts.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel for meetings with senior leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He pledged unwavering US solidarity, echoing a message delivered by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv a day prior.
Blinken, meanwhile, is engaged in extensive shuttle diplomacy to press “countries to help prevent the conflict from spreading, and to use their leverage with Hamas to immediately and unconditionally release the hostages,” he said Thursday. Following his departure from Israel Thursday, Blinken traveled to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and then on to Doha for meetings with senior Qatari officials. He also briefly stopped in Bahrain before landing Saudi Arabia on Friday evening. He will also visit the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt before returning to the United States Sunday.
In public remarks, Blinken and Austin both offered full-throated support for Israel’s actions in the wake of the brutal Hamas attack last weekend, which killed 1,300 people, including 27 Americans. The subsequent Israeli air strikes on Gaza have killed nearly 1,800 people, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
“No county can tolerate having a terrorist group come in, slaughter its people in the most unconscionable way, and live like that. What Israel’s doing is not retaliation. What Israel is doing is defending the lives of its people and, as I said, trying to make sure that this cannot happen again,” Blinken said at a press conference in Doha Friday.
“This is no time for neutrality, or for false equivalence or for excuses for the inexcusable,” Austin said at another press conference in Tel Aviv Friday.
US administration officials have not publicly urged de-escalation or called for a ceasefire.
They have discussed “with Israel the importance of taking every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians,” Blinken said Friday – a discussion that comes as Israel’s actions are likely to face immense scrutiny from nations in the region, human rights groups, and progressive lawmakers in Washington. On Friday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to President Joe Biden and Blinken urging them to call on the Israel Defense Forces to show restraint in Gaza. to show restraint in Gaza.
In remarks Friday, Biden said the US was working “urgently to address the humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, noting that “we can’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas.”
In his meetings in Tel Aviv Thursday, Blinken pressed Israeli officials on the need to establish safe zones for civilians inside Gaza, a senior State Department official said Friday.
“We do want to find some way to establish some sort of safe area where the people who live in Gaza City can go to be saved from Israel security operations,” the official explained. “It’s work that’s still coming together.”
“I can tell you from the meetings we had with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the security cabinet yesterday, it is something that they are actively focused on and actively working on,” they added.
The US is also working with Egypt and Israel to try to establish a humanitarian corridor for supplies to come into Gaza and for American citizens and other civilians to evacuate to Egypt.
The specter of imminent military action is looming, though, and it is unclear if the mechanisms can be set up in time. The Israeli military warned the 1.1 million people living in northern Gaza to evacuate their homes – an order that the United Nations decried as impossible to undertake “without devastating humanitarian consequences.”
Some Palestinian-Americans have received their first set of instructions that family members stuck in Gaza may be able to evacuate into Egypt on Saturday afternoon, according to emails shared with CNN. The US State Department’s Consular Affairs Crisis Management System told family members that on Saturday the Rafah Crossing “may be open.”
“We understand the security situation is difficult, but if you wish to depart Gaza you may want to take advantage of this opportunity,” the CACMS email said.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN they “are actively discussing this with our Israeli and Egyptian counterparts.”
“We support safe passage for civilians,” they said. “We are working with our Israeli and Egyptian partners to establish a safe humanitarian corridor both for Gazans trying to flee this war and to ensure humanitarian assistance reaches those in need within the territory.”
The US is scrambling to try to stop adversaries like Hezbollah and Iran – who have threatened to join the war – from doing so.
“A big part of my own conversations here throughout this trip, including today, following up the next couple of days, is working with other countries to make sure that they’re using their own contacts, their own influence, their own relationship to make that case – that no one else should be taking this moment to choose to create more trouble in some other place,” Blinken said.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.