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U.S. officials warn Israel to protect Palestinian civilians, but Biden says little

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And that's where I want to pick up with our next guest. Peter Baker is chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. Biden is the fifth U.S. president he has covered. He also served briefly as Jerusalem correspondent for The Times. Peter Baker, welcome.

PETER BAKER: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So let's start there. Do you see signs, as you report on Biden, that he may be reaching the limits of unconditional support for Israel and Gaza?

BAKER: Yeah. I think you're seeing a hardening of the public rhetoric. Now, they have told us that in private, for weeks, they have, of course, tried to guide or give advice or counsel the Israelis to be careful, more cautious about civilian casualties and to be more aggressive about allowing humanitarian aid in. What you're hearing - the tone of these comments that you just played from the vice president, from the secretary of defense - it's a sharper tone and less about Israel's right to defend itself, which they still say they're for, and more about its responsibility to protect the people who are not the targets of the war.

KELLY: Just step back and remind people listening why the U.S. is so invested in Israel, why, for Biden, the only response to the October 7 Hamas attack was to pledge unconditional U.S. support to Israel.

BAKER: Yeah. Biden is a creature of the - of his era, right? And his era, Democrats - and really Republicans too - but Democrats were particularly strong about Israel and believed in the project of the Jewish state in the Middle East. It's in the last decade or two that Democrats - many Democrats have moved away from that kind of unconditional support for Israel, much more concerned about West Bank settlements, much more concerned about the state of the Palestinians. And Biden isn't. He didn't move. He stayed where he was.

And if you look back at his history, you know, he was of an era where it wasn't unusual to know people who had been in the Holocaust. And that was very powerful, I think, in formulating his thinking. His father talked about it at the dinner table. He hired Tom Lantos, who later became a member of Congress, who was famously a Holocaust survivor, on his staff. This is something that was very real to him. It was closer to his childhood, for instance, than it is to ours. And so I think that framed his thinking about Israel going forward.

KELLY: Yeah. So to what extent are domestic politics factoring in here? We keep seeing polls coming out, seeing how this is hitting President Biden's numbers when it - particularly when we come to younger voters, when we come to Arab American voters and so forth.

BAKER: He doesn't show much concern about it at the moment. I think the thinking in the White House is, look. Yes, they're unhappy, and it's not a good thing for us. But we're a year away from the election. And when it comes down to it, a year from now, this - hopefully this conflict will be behind us. They'll have moved on to some sort of reconstruction phase, maybe even a peacemaking stage. People will come to remember that the contrast between a Democratic president they may not be particularly happy with on all fronts and Donald Trump, who, in the view of these, you know, left-leaning voters, are going to be far more, you know, objectionable and that they'll get these people back. But we don't know, obviously. It's a lot of ifs.

KELLY: I mentioned Biden is the fifth U.S. president you've covered, which prompts me to wonder - and I - this is unknowable, of course - but based on many years covering the White House, can you imagine past American presidents would have navigated this war in a fundamentally different way than Biden is?

BAKER: I think so. And I think we see it even just, for instance, with the president that Biden served, President Obama. In just the last few weeks, you've heard him give across a much different type of message. He's much more of a we have to understand both sides here, we - none of us have clean hands here. That's his phrase, I think. And it sounded very different than the way Biden sounds. And, in fact, there's some friction there, I think, between the Biden and Obama camps because of that. They don't feel like President Obama's comments were very helpful to President Biden at this time. But I think President Obama, just as an example, would have certainly handled it differently, would not have been so full-throated in his support for Israel, would have been much more measured, maybe balanced, in his phrase, in how he handled it.

KELLY: So let me start to bring us to a close by looking forward. There have been all kinds of questions about the day after, meaning what happens the day after this war in Gaza eventually, we hope, comes to some kind of conclusion. When you look at the big picture about how this ends, U.S. policy is to support a two-state solution, an independent state for Palestinians alongside that of Israel. Is that a fundamental clash between U.S. goals and values and Israel's?

BAKER: Well, it is actually. I mean, you know, the Israelis may give lip service at the moment to the idea of a two-state solution, but they have not been there for a number of years. And it doesn't feel like there's a lot of real possibility there at the moment for that, that the energy isn't there. The leadership on both sides isn't there. But having said that, you know, what we saw in history, we saw after the 1973 war, was four years later, Sadat comes to Jerusalem and then goes to Camp David and makes peace with the Israelis. So you never know how these things will work out. But I don't know that the two-state solution in and of itself has a lot of momentum at the moment.

KELLY: Peter Baker sharing many years of reporting and expertise there with us. He is chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. Thank you.

BAKER: Thank you. It was great talking to you.

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Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.