WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his envoy reached out to Palestinian and regional Arab leaders Tuesday on a ninth day of Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rockets, while some House Democrats split on whether to step up pressure for a cease-fire and for more forceful U.S. diplomacy to end the fighting.
Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee weighed — but on Tuesday shelved — writing President Joe Biden to demand that he delay a pending $735 million sale of precision-guided missiles to Israel. Dozens of progressive and mainstream Democratic lawmakers have called for a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas militants, and some Democrats are demanding Biden push harder for an end to fighting.
Committee member Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, was among Democrats seeking a harder line, saying he has "serious concerns about the timing of this weapons sale, the message it will send to Israel and the world about the urgency of a cease fire." He said late Monday that the Biden administration "must use every diplomatic tool to de-escalate this conflict and bring about peace."
Committee chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. said the lawmakers expect an administration briefing Wednesday on the crisis. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Tuesday acknowledged the difference between a growing number of progressive Democrats and the Biden administration on the U.S. approach to the conflict, but played it down.
"Every Democrat, and I think every Republican, wants to minimize the exposure of both sides in Gaza and in Israel," Hoyer told reporters. "There's a difference about how that can be done."
"All of us are very concerned about the violence that is occurring," Hoyer said, and stressed support for Biden's efforts.
Tuesday's U.S. consultations with Arab leaders on the conflict came as the death toll rose to at least 213 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel. Efforts by Egypt and others to mediate a truce have stalled.
Biden has spoken out strongly on Israel's right to defend itself from Hamas rockets, and refrained from publicly criticizing Israel, or pressing it to wrap up what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated could be extended military strikes aimed at weakening Hamas in Gaza.
Biden in a call to Netanyahu on Monday expressed support for a cease-fire. He did not join in the calls by some of his party's lawmakers and by many foreign governments to demand one, however.
Administration officials are defending Biden's decision to avoid racheting up public pressure on Israel for its role in the fighting. The U.S. this week killed a proposed U.N. Security Council statement that would have expressed concern for civilian deaths and raised the issue of a cease-fire.
"The president has been doing this long enough...to know sometimes diplomacy has to happen behind the scenes," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday, as Biden headed to a Ford electric vehicle site in Michigan to promote a green infrastructure plan. Pressure on the White House to do more in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dogged the trip.
Democrats this week scrutinized the latest in what are normally routine arms sales to Israel as the death toll mounted. The current sale deals with JDAM precision-guided missiles.
Congress typically has 15 days after notification of such a sale to raise objections, although presidents can cite national security interests in allowing arms deals to go forward.
The U.S. is Israel's top ally, and Israel historically has been the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid, according to the Congressional Research Service, part of what gives the United States more of whatever leverage international leaders have over Israel's decision-making. Most of what the congressional researchers say is the more than $140 billion in U.S. aid to Israel over the years has been military, including for Israel's missile-defense system
Blinken, working the phone on an unrelated overseas trip focusing on Russia and Nordic countries, spoke with foreign ministers of Morocco and Bahrain, two Arab countries that recently have moved to normalize relations with Israel. US envoy Hady Amr in Israel spoke with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Blinken defended to reporters accompanying him the U.S. decision to block what would have been a unanimous U.N. Security Council statement on the fighting and its civilian toll, and the overall U.S. approach to the conflict.
"Our goal remains to bring the current cycle of violence to an end" and then return to a process in which a lasting peace can be forged, the U.S. diplomat said.
Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers were meeting Tuesday to discuss how to use the 27-nation bloc's political clout to help diplomatic efforts to end the fighting between the Israeli armed forces and Palestinian militants. The EU has been united in its calls for a cease-fire and the need for a political solution to end the latest conflict, but the nations are divided over how best to help.
Netanyahu told Israeli security officials late Monday that Israel would "continue to strike terror targets" in Gaza "as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens."
Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City, Lee from Copenhagen, Denmark, and Lederer from New York. Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Alan Fram, Aamer Madhani, Padmananda Rama and Joshua Boak in Washington contributed.