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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kamala Harris pushes for pause in fighting in meeting with top Israeli official

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to a crowd gathered at the South Carolina State House on Jan. 15. Harris plans to meet Monday with Israel's top war cabinet official.  (Tracy Glantz/(Columbia, S.C.) State)
By Michael D. Shear, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Erica L. Green New York TImes

Vice President Kamala Harris, who has emerged as one of the leading voices for Palestinians in closed-door meetings, pressed for a pause in fighting in Gaza with a member of Israel’s war cabinet, Benny Gantz, at the White House on Monday afternoon, according to the White House.

The vice president emphasized the urgency of securing a hostage deal and reducing the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded alongside Israel’s war against Hamas in response to attacks on Oct. 7. She praised Israel’s “constructive approach” to seeking a six-week cease-fire but urged the government to do more to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to reach those in need in Gaza.

“The vice president expressed her deep concern about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza and the recent horrific tragedy around an aid convoy in northern Gaza,” a White House description of the meeting said. It added that “she urged Israel to take additional measures in cooperation with the United States and international partners to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza.”

The meeting came as the United States said it would continue airdrops of food that began on Saturday in an effort to confront what humanitarian groups say is a crisis for the more than one million displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in southern Gaza, as Israel prepares to deploy ground forces there.

Although Harris has not strayed too far from President Biden’s war message, in a speech on Sunday she took a tougher tone in demanding an “immediate cease-fire.” Still, she directed her remarks at Hamas, not Israel’s leadership, and repeated that she and the president remained “unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security.”

In meetings at the White House, she has been forceful in urging the administration not to dismiss the anger from Palestinian Americans and others in the United States, who contend that Biden has not done enough to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Harris’ remarks are a shift in the administration’s public position on Gaza and are meant in part to address a deepening political liability for Biden as he campaigns for re-election this year. In Michigan last week, about 100,000 voters in the Democratic primary cast ballots for “uncommitted,” many of them to register anger about the president’s unwavering support for Israel.

Harris’ focus on Israel could also help promote her foreign policy credentials at a time when many in her party have questioned whether she is ready to take over for Biden if something were to happen to him.

Harris has on multiple occasions advised Biden and senior White House officials that the administration must show more empathy for Palestinian civilians by speaking publicly about the high death toll in Gaza and the plight of survivors, the people familiar with the matter said. The vice president has said this should be done in addition to continuing to condemn the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people in Israel.

The public remarks from the vice president come as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has worsened. After 100 Palestinians were killed in a chaotic scene at an aid convoy last week, she issued a statement that went beyond the careful comments from other American national security officials.

“Just a few days ago, we saw hungry, desperate people approach aid trucks, simply trying to secure food for their families after weeks of nearly no aid reaching Northern Gaza,” she said. “And they were met with gunfire and chaos.”

On Sunday, she said “people in Gaza are starving. The conditions are inhumane. And our common humanity compels us to act.”

Later, she added the “Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses.”

Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces who visited Washington last year, was scheduled to meet separately with Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, his office said in a statement, as well as with members of Congress and pro-Israeli lobbyists.

U.S. officials told reporters over the weekend that negotiations were continuing and that Israel had “more or less accepted” a framework for the hostage deal, but also that Hamas had not yet accepted it. Hamas has rejected the proposal to release the more than 100 Israeli hostages because it does not include a permanent cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza — concessions that Israel has said would prevent it from destroying Hamas.

In a statement, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said it had not approved Gantz’s travel to Washington, D.C. An official in Netanyahu’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Gantz did not represent the government on his trip to Washington and insisted that the prime minister continued to maintain open communication with Biden.

Gantz, however, told Netanyahu on Friday of his intention to fly to the United States to coordinate on messages he would convey in his meetings with American officials, Gantz’s office said in a statement on Saturday. Netanyahu’s displeasure was so firm that he told Gantz that he thought his plans were “counterproductive,” according to an Israeli official close to Gantz, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the call between the leaders.

Gantz’s trip is another representation of the divisions within Israel’s five-member war cabinet that burst into the open in January when Gadi Eisenkot, Gantz’s ally and fellow cabinet member, rebuked Netanyahu’s goal of achieving “total victory” in a television interview.

Key issues that Gantz and Netanyahu were wrangling over were how to address the future of Gaza and enlistment into the army, said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research group. “As the war winds down, the differences over postwar priorities are being magnified,” he said.

Gantz is often floated as a possible future prime minister and is considered a top rival of Netanyahu, who has not visited Washington since the start of the war and whose relationship with Biden has encountered obstacles.

Harris’ aides have long felt that foreign policy is an opportunity for her to carve her own lane and shape a forceful role as vice president. The White House has also previously deployed Harris to speak about issues that galvanize young voters and voters of color. Harris is now trying to do both of those at the same time — using an urgent foreign policy issue to speak to a frustrated bloc of voters and carve out her own distinct political identity.

But some groups that have been calling for a permanent cease-fire said Harris did not go far enough. They said her remarks amounted to little more than invoking the rhetoric of those who have protested the war, without actually calling for a radical shift in policy that might change the situation.

Layla Elabed, the campaign manager of Listen to Michigan, the group that mobilized more than 100,000 voters to vote “uncommitted” against Biden in the Michigan primary, said in a statement that it was clear the administration was responding to pressure.

“But let’s be clear: This is a temporary cease-fire, or what they used to call a humanitarian pause,” Elabed said in a statement. “Our movement’s demands have been clear: a lasting cease-fire and an end to U.S. funding for Israel’s war and occupation against the Palestinian people.”