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Politics chat: Biden's response to Rafah escalation


Two months ago, President Biden was asked if he had a red line when it came to Israel. He replied that while he stood by Israel, there was a line it could not cross. That line was launching a major military operation in Rafah without safely evacuating the over 1 million Palestinians sheltering there. But last week, Israel edged closer to crossing that line. Fighting has intensified in Rafah, and evacuation orders are in place, but Palestinians say there's nowhere safe for them to flee to. So now what? We're now joined by NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: And happy Mother's Day.

KHALID: Happy Mother's Day to you, too.

RASCOE: In an interview with CNN on Thursday, President Biden said he was ready to withhold some support for Israel.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If they go into Rafah - they haven't gone into Rafah yet. If they go into Rafah, I'm not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah.

RASCOE: And in response, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who vowed to enter Rafah with, quote, "extreme force," said Israel was ready to go it alone. Where do things stand now?

KHALID: Well, one of the big questions to me has actually been where exactly is Biden's red line because this administration, I would say, has not really clearly articulated what that could be? You know, the Biden administration has characterized the recent escalation in Rafah as a limited operation, not the major ground assault. But we are at this point where, Ayesha, it seems like there's this sort of semantic debate about what it means to go into Rafah.

You know, that being said, the Biden administration did pause an arms shipment of about 3,000 bombs last week, out of concern that these types of weapons could be used in a densely populated area like Rafah. And I think, you know, you can sense the growing frustration that President Biden has with the Israeli government just based on his willingness to publicly threaten to cut off some weapons. But also, to this point, we have not seen any sort of sea change in actual administration policy.

RASCOE: Speaking of policy, the State Department on Friday released a report on whether Israel has violated humanitarian law in its operations in Gaza. What did it conclude?

KHALID: Well, the report does not fundamentally adjust the status quo in this conflict. It criticized Israel and suggested it is, quote, "reasonable to assess" that Israel had violated international humanitarian law. But at the same time, it did not make any sweeping conclusions that would lead to any shift in weapons being sent to Israel. You know, I do think it's worth pointing out that the report will certainly not quiet the political pressure that Biden is facing from some Democratic lawmakers who feel that Israel has killed too many civilians in this war and also some other Republicans and other pro-Israel Democrats who feel that he needs to strongly stand by Israel.

RASCOE: You've been on the ground reporting on what voters think about how President Biden is handling this war. What are people telling you?

KHALID: That's right. I went to Georgia this last week because it is a state that Biden won by some 11,000 votes, a really slim victory. And what I've found is deep frustration amongst many young voters with how Biden has handled this war. You know, these are the types of folks who helped get Joe Biden elected in 2020. They were phone banking. They were trying to get out the vote. And some of them told me they are not sure that they can vote for Biden this time.

I will also say, you know, it's not just the politics overseas. They told me that they are frustrated with how the administration is dealing with protests at home. You know, this is a generation that got activated through the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, and they don't feel like the administration has been taking their concerns around policing and excessive force of policing very seriously.

You know, I will also say, though, you know, Biden's decisions this last week, his words to pause this one shipment of weapons and threaten to possibly pause some other weapons shipments, really seems to have caused him, I think, some additional political headaches here at home. You know, he has been facing criticism from protests, pro-Palestinian supporters, for many months. He is now also seeming to face criticism from supporters of Israel, not just Republicans, but also some Democratic donors, lawmakers and voters.

And, Ayesha, I think that is the delicate line this president is going to have to try to continue to navigate. He stitched together a very ideologically diverse coalition that helped him win the presidency in 2020. And this coalition is not united when it comes to this particular issue, and I don't see how that entirely is going to play out, but we'll have to see how this operation into Rafah proceeds or not.

RASCOE: That's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thank you so much, Asma.

KHALID: Always good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.