Rohit Kachroo reports from Tel Aviv as concerns grow over escalation in the Middle East
“The restoration of communications in Gaza was critical,” the White House said in a social media post last night shortly after mobile phone connection popped back up in pockets of the Gaza Strip.
"Our Administration cared about this, worked on it, and are glad to see it restored,” the statement continued.
The self congratulatory message offers a glimpse into some of the tensions and fears which haunt the Biden administration, as it tiptoes through the crisis in the Middle East trying to support Israel while deterring, but not emboldening, Iran.
Their claim, that the US administration “cares,” was its latest attempt to fill what officials in some countries feel is a dangerous deficit in the Israeli government’s willingness to publicly acknowledge the pain and the needs of Palestinian people.
But in Gaza and in the West Bank today there was little evidence the US message had been heard.
“The Americans have read this differently to a lot of the other key players,” said a source from a Middle Eastern country familiar with diplomatic talks. “They are very worried about escalation, even though some of our people think they are too concerned.”
The shifting tone and growing concerns of the US about where this might all lead are reflected not only in our conversations with diplomatic sources, but by ITV News's analysis of dozens of speeches, tweets, statements and interviews by senior US figures over the last 23 days.
US ‘messaging’ is currently being steered away from its original path following the October 7 attacks - shifted in part by what officials have seen happening on the streets, with large protests across the Middle East and elsewhere, from the West Bank to Westminster.
The tone of public statements has been influenced by fears that the conflict will escalate into an unpredictable regional crisis, and by a sense that Israel is not seen in many parts of the world to have done anywhere near enough to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza.
Officials are terrified that it will be used by Iran and its proxies to add legitimacy to their threats to intervene.
In the hours after the October attacks, President Biden offered his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, saying “Israel has the right to defend itself," on camera.
The phrase, which was repeated by the leaders of many US allies, has became the slogan for their response to the conflict. A joint statement issued with the UK, France, Germany, and Italy also repeated it.But by day four of the crisis, on October 10, caveats to that phrase had begun to appear.
Growing more worried that Iran might intervene, the focus of the US messaging moved towards deterrence, as some allies expressed concerns Israel had underestimated the potential consequences.
Biden tweeted about the need to “deter hostile actors” and warned in a recorded statement that day: “Anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word, don’t.”
When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken later travelled to several Middle Eastern capitals on the second weekend of the crisis, to shore up support for Israel’s delayed ground offensive, he heard directly from some counterparts that it was not just a military response from Iran that should concern him, but the popular response in some Arab countries to any Israeli operation judged to be disproportionate.By October 14, one week after the attacks inside Israel, a tweet posted by Biden didn’t mention its “right to defend itself”, but instead reflected the need to protect citizens in Gaza.
Biden said the US wanted “to ease the humanitarian consequences of Hamas’s attack”.
In a post the following day, he added the “overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas’s appalling attacks, and are suffering as a result of them.”This change of tone, reflecting serious concerns behind the scenes, was echoed in a round of television interviews by US National security advisor Jake Sullivan.
He said: “We're very focused on making sure that the broader civilian population of Gaza – because the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza have nothing to do with Hamas – that they can get to safe areas”.
Trying to chart an optimistic path, he added in a subsequent interview a few minutes later, the US hoped initiatives might “lead to a long-term more stable, more integrated region.”With protests growing around the world, and Iran’s warnings turning more bellicose, senior American officials attempting to step back from the heat of the moment began saying more about the need for a two-state solution.
The change in language was led, as ever, by a Biden tweet: “We cannot give up…” he posted on October 23.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also wrote "we need to invest more deeply in regional stability and in the two-state solution.”
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Secretary of State Blinken repeated the message at the United Nations the following day referring to the need for “two states for two peoples”.Nothing new on the face of it. Blinken and Biden were reflecting a long-standing position of the US government, for an independent Palestinian state sitting alongside the state of Israel.
But they chose this moment to say it loudly, in the hope of building support in the Middle East for a position seen to many as perhaps more palatable than that of Israel.Language matters, but only so much. Images of civilian deaths and destruction in Gaza will do more to shape the opinions of governments and ordinary people in the Middle East.
There is little evidence the United States’ strategy is working in the way it wants yet - privately influencing the way Israel fights the war, and publicly shaping the way the region responds.