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A look at the US role and reaction to cease-fire in the Middle East

A cease-fire is at hand in the war between Israel and Hamas. Word of the truce came Thursday from Israel, and Hamas quickly agreed. If it holds, it would end 11 days of fierce fighting that killed at least 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, and wrecked Gazan cities. John Yang begins the report, and Yamiche Alcindor joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the Biden administration's role and reaction.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A cease-fire is at hand in the war between Israel and Hamas.

    Word of the truce came tonight from Israel, and Hamas quickly agreed. If it holds, it would end 11 days of fierce fighting that killed at least 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis and wrecked Gazan cities.

    Again, John Yang begins our coverage.

  • John Yang:

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Security Cabinet approved the cease-fire in a late evening meeting, joining Hamas in accepting an Egyptian proposal for a mutual halt to hostilities without preconditions.

    Earlier, the pace of combat appeared to slow, as behind-the-scenes diplomacy and U.S. pressure intensified. Israel did unleash a wave of airstrikes on targets across Gaza and said it destroyed a rocket launcher belonging to the militant group.

    But parts of towns throughout Gaza were reduced to rubble.

    Fourteen-year-old Amira Isleem's home was struck by a missile.

  • Amira Isleem (through translator):

    What happened was, we were in the sitting room. The missile hit us. There was a lot of smoke, and we did not see anything.

  • John Yang:

    A neighbor said he didn't know why the home was targeted.

  • Majed Jaber (through translator):

    We were sound asleep, and had no idea about this. We suddenly hear a blast, and the house flew. We rushed thinking, it is on our house, but realized it hit our neighbor's house, Abu Khalil Isleem, who works here in Shifa Hospital, who has nothing to do with anything, nor do we.

  • John Yang:

    After an eight-hour pause in Hamas rocket attacks, they hit the Israeli city of Sderot just beyond the border.

    A woman whose parents' home was struck by a rocket is skeptical of an enduring peace, given the history of short-lived cease-fires.

  • Albina Ben Dakon (through translator):

    I do not want a cease-fire, because I know what this will lead to. This is not the first cease-fire. We had so many cease-fires like that, and this always happens again, I do not think the cease-fire will help anything.

  • John Yang:

    Before tonight's announcement, calls for a truce grew louder.

  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

  • Angela Merkel (through translator):

    We stand for Israel's right to self-defense. And that's why it is right that Israel is taking massive action.

    But, on the other hand, we want to contribute to diplomatic attempts to secure a long-term and sustainable situation in the region.

  • John Yang:

    The World Health Organization called for a pause in Israel's bombardment to allow a convoy to bring in COVID vaccines and other medical supplies.

    Inside Israel, opposition leader Yair Lapid lit into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a lengthy Facebook post, Lapid said that the army succeeded, the government failed, and that Netanyahu should have strengthened Israel's relationship with the United States, calling it a first-class policy failure.

    In Washington, those ties appear to be fraying further among progressives. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to block a $735 million sale of U.S. weapons to Israel, an effort that faces long odds.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All of this, of course, has put pressure on President Joe Biden.

    Our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, joins me now to share her latest reporting.

    Yamiche, good to see you.

    So, tell us about the view from the White House on all of this, 11 days of fighting, a cease-fire. What role did President Biden play in getting us to this point?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, I should say President Biden is speaking right now at the White House.

    And what the president is really laying out is the fact that there is going to be a cease-fire starting in two hours. And White House officials stress that President Biden was engaged in increasingly pointed diplomatic talks behind the scenes, quiet, they say, no grandstanding, but they were — he was stressing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he expected a de-escalation and that a cease-fire needed to happen.

    You saw over the week really the language from the White House change. They were still saying that Israel has the right to defend itself. But they were also saying that this needs to stop, that Israel had major military objectives, and they were able to protect their people, and that now they needed to seek peace.

    So, White House officials here are saying that President Biden played a major role here, and that there were over 80 engagements, not just with President Biden talking to Benjamin Netanyahu for about five times, I'm told, including twice today, but also with all sorts of White House officials at all levels talking to their counterparts in Israel to send that message.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, we also know the president has been under pressure from his own party, right?

    People like Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib say that the U.S. needs to do more to protect the human rights of the occupied Palestinians. This has been a rising tide among progressive Democrats.

    What has that done, if anything to influence the president's view?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, this is a cease-fire with no clear winner.

    The fundamental question is, what happens now and how do we go forward? That's the question that President Biden is going to have to contend it. And, of course, as you said, there are shifting politics in the Democratic Party. We see increasingly sympathetic lawmakers saying that there needs to be more done to protect Palestinian civilians, many of them, hundreds of them who were killed during this 11-day back-and-forth, this 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

    That being said, there really are some big questions here for President Biden, but White House officials stress that, because he used to be the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations, because he was vice president, that he brings the experience needed, as well as the longstanding relationship between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — they have known each other for decades — that that will be what he's leaning on.

    But these politics in the Democratic Party are not, of course, just shifting on Israel. They're shifting on all sorts of other things, climate change, on Black Lives Matter, on policing, and racial justice. All of those things are tied up into what happened here in the Middle East and the noise that we heard from both the Democrats, as well as Republicans.

    It's also of course, telling that Democrats, including Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they introduced resolutions to halt an arms sale between the U.S. and Israel. And that tells you something about kind of how much Democrats are really willing to put real teeth to what they're saying, to put action to this new sort of view of the Middle East.

    That said, I talked to White House officials who say President Biden has been working with the Middle East for a long, long time. He has longstanding ideas about how peace can be brought there, and he's going to be leaning on those issues going forward.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, we also know this was not necessarily the foreign policy priority the administration expected to field in this administration.

    They did not know, of course, in any way that this conflict would break out. What do you know about how, within the Biden administration, they were able to handle this as soon as that fighting did break out?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, White House officials say this is why President Biden, they think, is the best president to be handling this, because part of being president, one official told me today, is that there are always going to be problems, there's always going to be chaos.

    This, of course, was not top of the priority when President Biden came into office. He was talking about COVID. He was talking about the economy. He was talking about racial justice.

    But, here, the Middle East came, this conflict came not out of nowhere, but it was a surprising thing that he had to deal with early on in his presidency. And they tell me that this really shows that he's able to, in some ways, really juggle all of the things that are going on, including, of course, that unexpected gas pipeline attack that he had to deal with last week.

    So, what they're saying is that this, of course, is now something that he's going to have to put on his agenda, something he's going to have to think through. His predecessor had all sorts of actions in the Middle East that, in some ways, increased tension, some people feel, in this White House.

    And the president really is going to try to come and try to really have this kind of quiet, intense diplomatic efforts. They say it's a break from the way that his predecessor handled things. But he said that this is really the way that they think that they will be able to get more done in the Middle East.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, as you mentioned, he has faced that increasing pressure from within his own caucus, not just on this issue, but on a host of other issues as well.

    We saw, of course, as well, when he was recently in Detroit, that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib went and actively engaged him on this topic and pressured him to do more, for the U.S. to do more.

    Is there any sense that this could actually have a shift in the White House policy moving forward when it comes to the Middle East?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, I have been talking to White House officials all day about that specific issue. Does the president feel like he's going to be pulled to the left by the people, including increasingly loud progressives, like Rashida Tlaib, who are willing to make noise and to really try to say that we need to have — as an American country, we need to have more support to Palestinian people?

    I was told that Rashida Tlaib brought up her grandmother and said that she was worried about her family, saying that people really need to be worried about the civilians living in Gaza, and that Israel needs to really have a different tack toward it when the United States is approaching them.

    But White House officials here say that's not really what's going to change President Biden's mind. They say that it's going to be conversations, it's going to be talks with the prime minister. It's going to be one-on-one information that he gets from the prime minister to really understand what is at hand here and how he wants to approach this.

    They again continue to talk about the fact that he has been someone who's known Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for so long, and that he will be looking at this in that way, looking at this as a lens to — in some ways, a lens of an elder statesman who is now president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, as you speak to us from outside the White House, we know, inside, as you mentioned, President Biden has been delivering remarks on this very topic.

    We want to share with our viewers now just a brief clip of what the president had to say.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    Folks, I have just spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

    Earlier today I spoke with President El-Sisi of Egypt. Minister — Prime Minister Netanyahu informed me that Israel has agreed to mutual unconditional cease-fire to begin in less than two hours.

    The Egyptians have now informed us that Hamas and the other groups in Gaza have also agreed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That was, of course, President Biden addressing that historic cease-fire after 11 days of fighting in the Middle East.

    Yamiche Alcindor, our White House correspondent, joining us from the White House tonight.

    Thanks, Yamiche. Good to see you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks.

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