President Biden sharply escalated his criticism of Israel’s approach to the war against Hamas on Thursday, calling military operations in Gaza “over the top” and saying that the suffering of innocent people has “got to stop.”
Mr. Biden, who has strongly supported Israel’s right to retaliate for the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas that killed an estimated 1,200 people, exhibited growing impatience with the scale and duration of Israel’s response during a nighttime meeting with reporters at the White House.
“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top,” Mr. Biden said in response to questions at the end of the rowdy session, meant to address a special counsel report on his handling of classified documents. “I’ve been pushing really hard, really hard, to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” he added. “There are a lot of innocent people who are starving. There are a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying. And it’s got to stop.”
But even as he offered a sharp assessment of the latest events in the Middle East, he made the kind of mistake that his staff had hoped he would avoid, given questions about his age and memory, by confusing the presidents of Egypt and Mexico.
“I think that, as you know, initially the president of Mexico, Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in,” he said, referring to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt, not Mexico. “I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate. I talked to Bibi to open the gate on the Israeli side.”
Mr. Biden’s comments revealed his increasing frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, known by his nickname Bibi, making public what has been clear in private for weeks. Mr. Biden has pressed the Israeli leader to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza, where more than 27,000 people have been killed, according to health authorities in the strip run by Hamas, and to consider creation of a Palestinian state once the war is over.
Mr. Biden has come under enormous pressure from the progressive wing of his own party to rein in Mr. Netanyahu, with protesters now regularly disrupting the president’s events and calling him names like “Genocide Joe.” At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu, under fire for not preventing the Oct. 7 attack, has sought to hold onto his right-wing coalition by standing up against Mr. Biden’s entreaties for a so-called two-state solution.
Mr. Netanyahu in recent days seemed to rebuff Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s efforts to broker a deal through intermediaries with Hamas to secure the release of more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas in exchange for a lengthy pause in the fighting. Hamas had made “ludicrous demands” that if met would “only invite another massacre,” Mr. Netanyahu said on Wednesday shortly after meeting with Mr. Blinken.
In the four months since the Hamas attack, Mr. Biden has sought to walk a careful line, emphasizing his unstinting support for Israel and shared outrage over the killings of innocent Israelis while increasingly counseling restraint on Mr. Netanyahu. At one point, he complained about “indiscriminate” bombing by Israel, but broadly speaking he has moderated his views in public, leaving it at times to other members of his administration to speak more critically.
The president did not intend to address the situation on Thursday night and was leaving the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House after his statement on the special counsel report when a reporter’s question prompted him to return to the lectern.
He cited his efforts to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza, where much of the population has been displaced and desperate for basic goods.
“I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage cease-fire,” he said. “I’ve been working tirelessly in this deal,” he added, because it could “lead to a sustained pause in the fighting and the actions taking place in the Gaza Strip. Because I think if we can get the delay for that — the initial delay, I think that we would be able to extend that so that we can increase the prospect that this fighting in Gaza changes.”
He also said he believed that Hamas may have mounted its attack on Oct. 7 to disrupt American efforts to establish normal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a project many believe would have transformed the region but could have undercut the urgency of the Palestinian cause.
“I have no proof what I’m about to say,” Mr. Biden said, “but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that Hamas understood what was about to take place and wanted to break it up before it happened.”
Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Seoul.