Biden aide acknowledges missteps on Gaza & regrets failure to express concern over loss of Palestinian life

A top Biden administration aide privately admitted failures and “missteps” in the communication of US policy regarding Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza in a closed-door meeting with Arab American and Muslim leaders in Michigan last week. 

“We have left a very damaging impression, based on what has been a wholly inadequate public accounting for how much the President, the administration, the country, values the lives of Palestinians,” Deputy National Security adviser Jon Finer was heard telling community leaders in a recording obtained by CBS News. “We are very well aware that we have misstepped in the course of responding to this crisis.” 

Finer also acknowledged that many in the Arab American community believe Mr. Biden doesn’t empathize with Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

The audio recording was verified by a National Security Council official. 

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy responded to Finer’s remarks Sunday during an interview on “Face the Nation With Margaret Brennan and said the administration plans to make changes. He pointed to President Biden’s Thursday statement that Israel has “gone too far” in Gaza, and a recent call by Secretary of State Antony Blinken for Israel not to dehumanize others as Israelis themselves had been dehumanized by Hamas during the brutal attacks on Oct. 7 that began the current conflict.

“I think you will clearly hear the president,” Murphy said. “My guess is that, based upon what the President said last week, that you’re going to hear the President continue to stand up for a campaign that defeats Hamas, but it’s done in a way that is much more respectful of civilian life.”

In the closed-door meeting, Finer expressed regret over several specific instances of the administration’s response, including a failure by the U.S. to publicly condemn remarks made early in the conflict by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who called for a complete siege of Gaza and described those they were fighting in the Gaza Strip as “animals in human form.” 

“We did not sufficiently indicate that we totally rejected and disagreed with those sort of sentiments out of a desire to sort of focus on solving the problem and not engaging in a rhetorical back and forth with people who, in many cases, I think we all find somewhat abhorrent,” Finer said in the recording.

Finer also expressed regret over a statement made by the president on the 100th day of the conflict. The statement spoke to the plight of Israeli victims of the initial Hamas attack, including those taken hostage, but did not speak to Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli response.

“There is no excuse for that,” Finer said. “It should not have happened. I believe it will not happen again. But we know that there was a lot of damage done.” He referred to that damage as, “a very, very big hole.”

Last week’s meeting with community leaders was the first visit by Biden administration officials on this issue in the key state of Michigan since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, and one of many attempts by the administration to reach out to Arab and Muslim voters across the country. The White House said that several senior advisors including Tom Perez, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, and NSC Director for Partnerships and Global Engagement Mazen Basrawi, were among those dispatched by Mr. Biden.

Michigan, a critical swing state, is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation, with more than 310,000 residents claiming Middle Eastern or North African ancestry, according to a 2020 analysis commissioned by Emgage, a Muslim-American political advocacy group. 

The Biden administration has tried multiple channels of outreach to the Arab American population in recent weeks including through Blinken as well as Vice President Kamala Harris. A White House official told CBS that Vice President Harris hopes to reschedule a Monday meeting with Palestinian Americans that had been called off a little more than 24 hours before it was to take place, but plans to continue to engage with the community through phone calls and meetings.

“The President and Vice President have made it a priority to hear directly from and listen to Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities across the country on the conflict in Gaza,” a White House official said in a statement and pointed out that the administration has done the same with Jewish Americans and families of Americans held hostage in Gaza.

CNN was first to report the meeting was called off. 

The White House issued a detailed readout Sunday of a call between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that mentioned American efforts to press for more aid to be permitted into Gaza, where the civilian population faces starvation and what multiple countries have described as a ‘humanitarian catastrophe.’ Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has drawn condemnation from the United States for its controversial proposed judicial reforms and statements made against Arabs and other minority groups. 

One of the meeting participants can be heard on the recording describing the White House’s messaging on the conflict as done “in a way that puts our communities in harm.” 

In the days following the Oct. 7 attack, a 6-year-old boy was stabbed to death in a Chicago suburb. He and his family were allegedly targeted for being Muslim Palestinian Americans. In the wake of that killing, Mr. Biden spoke by phone to the family of the slain child as did Harris. 

During the Michigan meeting, Finer is also heard saying that the Biden administration does “not have any confidence in the current government of Israel” to “do the hard thing that’s going to be required of them” in terms of “meaningful steps” for a two-state solution. 

Still, the Biden administration has continued to back the Netanyahu government through words, weapons, and billions in aid despite Netanyahu’s public refusals to endorse a two-state solution. Giving the Palestinian people hope and a path for a future state is what the Biden administration argues needs to happen to achieve peace in the region. 

The shift toward contrition in the administration’s tone comes at the same time that half of Americans polled by the Associated Press said that Israel’s war in Gaza has gone too far, and the U.S. as Israel’s main weapons supplier faces backlash. Asked last week about declining public approval of Biden’s Mideast strategy, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation,” that “we don’t design our policy towards Israel, or Gaza or the Middle East based on politics. We do it based on the national security interests of the United States.”

Netanyahu’s continued defiance of U.S. calls to downshift the military assault on Gaza and what some Senate Democrats have said is deliberate slow-rolling of aid deliveries is something the Biden administration is grappling with as it tries to contain regional tensions and counter the US domestic fallout. President Biden and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu spoke by phone Sunday as Israel continued to plan an invasion into Rafah in southern Gaza, where 1.4 million Palestinians are currently sheltering after being directed to evacuate there by Israel. According to the White House readout of their Sunday phone call, Mr. Biden told Netanyahu not to proceed with a military operation in Rafah without a “credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety and support for the more than one million people sheltering there.”

In a statement, the White House said that Mr. Biden “called for urgent and specific steps to increase the throughput and consistency of humanitarian assistance to innocent Palestinian civilians” and “reaffirmed his view that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there.”

The crisis began Oct. 7, when Hamas militants killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped about 240 more civilians in a surprise attack on Israel. The Biden administration has argued that Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas, but has expressed concern about how it wages that war. The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Hamas-controlled Gaza reports that 28,000 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in the conflict.

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