The West hardens its tone with Netanyahu over bombing of civilians in Gaza

Allies of Israel are pressuring for an easing of attacks on Palestinians, while affirming that it has the right to defend itself against Hamas. Macron has called on the country to stop killing women and children

Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 18.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

The West is hardening its tone towards Israel due to its bombings on civilians in the war against Hamas. Every day, there is more public criticism. And the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is greater.

Western countries support Israel’s right to defend itself and respond militarily to the massacre of October 7, in which, according to the latest assessment, 1,200 people were killed. But the images of death and destruction in Gaza and the rising number of civilian victims — more than 11,000, according to Palestinian authorities — have pushed the West to demand a pause in Israeli bombing.

What until recently European and U.S. leaders suggested in hushed tones to Netanyahu and his government is now being called for publicly and loudly. Words like “ceasefire” seemed taboo in some Western capitals. They preferred to speak of “humanitarian pauses.” Now they are on the table.

“I think the only solution we have is a ceasefire because it’s impossible to explain we want to fight against terrorism by killing innocent people,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday in an interview with the BBC. “These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop.”

Few have gone as far in their criticism as Macron, who Netanyahu accused of making a “serious mistake, factually and morally.” But in the European Union, there is growing alarm and increased calls for international law to be respected. However, efforts to translate this concern into a declaration calling for a humanitarian pause have not had success, according to diplomatic sources. Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria are opposed.

On Sunday, the EU — which will meet on Monday to discuss the situation — issued a joint statement calling for “humanitarian pauses.” “We urge Israel to exercise maximum restraint to ensure the protection of civilians,” the document stated.

The change in Western tone is significant because, after the Hamas attacks of October 7, Europe and the United States gave the impression of providing unwavering support for Israel. This prompted accusations of double standards from the Arab world, the Global South and a part of the West, with critics arguing that while the West was quick to condemn Russia for bombing civilians in Ukraine, it was silent when it came to Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

Demonstrations in support of Palestine on both sides of the Atlantic have brought together hundreds of thousands of people. On Saturday, 300,000 people marched in London, while other protests were held in Brussels and Paris.

Blinken: “Too many Palestinians have been killed”

The United States continues to reject a ceasefire, arguing that it would only give Hamas breathing room. And at no time has it publicly condemned the way in which Israel is conducting its offensive, or questioned whether it is violating the laws of war. That said, it has also hardened its tone in recent days.

“Far too many Palestinians have been killed, far too many have suffered these past weeks,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in New Delhi. “We want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them and to maximize the assistance that gets to them.”

Blinken’s words reveal a shift — subtle but significant — in Washington’s position in the conflict. The shift comes amid divisions in the U.S. administration, where senior officials have criticized the government for giving “carte blanche” to Israel and warned that this position will hurt America’s reputation in the Muslim world.

Meanwhile, an open letter signed by more than a thousand officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) called on the White House to demand an immediate ceasefire. “We are alarmed and disheartened by the numerous violations of international law,” said the letter to which Reuters had access.

There are also divisions within the Democratic Party, which is concerned the White House’s position could alienate left-wing voters ahead of the 2024 presidential election. More than 500 workers from Biden’s 2020 election campaign also signed a document calling for a ceasefire. And in Congress, half of Democratic senators have signed a letter calling on the White House to balance its support for Israel with assistance to Gaza and efforts for sustainable peace.

Discontent is also growing among the bases of the Democratic Party. Last week’s pro-Palestine march in Washington brought together 300,000 people, according to organizers. What’s more, two surveys published by the Brookings Institution show that support for Israel among Democratic voters — especially young voters — has dropped in the last month, after initially rising following the Hamas attack. At the same time, although to a smaller degree, support for the Palestinians is increasing.

Little influence

President Biden defines himself as a “Zionist,” and his relationship with Netanyahu goes back more than 30 years, when the Israeli prime minister was a diplomat at the Israeli embassy in Washington. The phrase “whatever Israel needs” continues to be heard at White House press conferences.

But in addition to this message of support, the White House has made other calls on Israel. First, the U.S. called for the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Then, it said that the conflict needs to be resolved with measures that include the two-state solution. This has been Washington’s official position for decades, but it was sidelined after Israel signed peace agreements with Arab countries.

For the past two weeks, Washington has also been insisting on the need for humanitarian pauses, so that foreign passport holders, the wounded and, possibly, hostages held by Hamas, can leave Gaza. Biden believes that, by making his support for Israel clear, he has greater ability to influence Netanyahu and persuade him against using excessive force in Gaza.

But so far this subtle pressure has had little effect. Biden had called for a humanitarian pause “longer than three days,” but Israel only accepted a four-hour daily pause. The president also admitted that it took “longer than expected” to be implemented.


In a press conference this past weekend, Netanyahu said that he occasionally had “disagreements” with world leaders, but blamed this on pressure from “minorities.” “I tell them: ‘Do not give in to the pressure.’ Our war is also your war. We must win this war for us but also for you,” he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also spoke out against leaders for criticizing Israel. “How do you find the courage to preach at us in the middle of a war?” he asked at the same press conference. “I want to say to some of these European leaders who criticize us: for the State of Israel and the people of Israel, this is the year 2023 and not the year 1943 [in reference to the Holocaust], and we have the ability and the duty to defend ourselves. And that is exactly what we will do.”

Israel’s Western allies have not denied Israel’s right to defend itself. What’s more, they have blamed Hamas — which is considered a terrorist organization in the U.S. and the EU — for the offensive. Macron said that since the October 7 attack, Hamas “shouldered the responsibility for exposing Palestinians to terrible consequences.” “All lives have equal worth and there are no double standards for those of us with universal and humanist values,” he added, while speaking at an event aimed at providing aid to civilians in the Gaza strip.

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