VP Harris highlights U.S. efforts to pressure Israel behind the scenes

At DealBook conference, the vice president sounds a more critical note towards Israel than President Biden

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for The New York Times

Vice President Kamala Harris, shown here at The New York Times Dealbook Summit 2023 in November, stressed the U.S.' support for Israel on Friday at the Munich Security Conference.

As Israel has ramped up its military offensive against Hamas in Gaza, Biden administration officials have offered carefully calibrated messages to Israel — supporting Israel’s fight to defeat Hamas while cautioning that civilians in Gaza must not be targeted. When asked if Israel is obeying or violating the laws of war, White House officials have generally said they will not weigh in on Israeli military actions. 

On Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris took a different approach: When asked during an interview at The New York Times DealBook Summit whether Israel is following the laws of war, she left the question open. 

“Well, that’s a very broad question.  There are many rules,” she told interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin. 

Harris highlighted the closed-door meetings between American and Israeli leaders, and suggested that Washington is putting pressure on Israel behind the scenes to constrain its military campaign that, she said, has killed too many civilians. 

“There have been many conversations both in public and private about the fact that far too many Palestinians have been killed, and it is important that Israel do all it can to protect innocent civilians,” said Harris. 

She declined to offer further details about the conversations, but noted that Washington can exert more influence in private. 

“When you are in the midst of attempting to leverage whatever influence or authority you have in a relationship in a way that it will impact decisions, it is counterproductive to do that publicly. It doesn’t mean it’s not being done,” Harris said, when asked about the Palestinian civilians in harm’s way due to Israel’s military campaign against Hamas. 

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel, the Biden administration has been “consistent,” Harris said, on three points. “We would stand with Israel’s right to defend itself,” she said, and work for the release of the hostages. “We have also been consistent, both in public and private conversations — at the beginning, perhaps, most of them private — with [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu that it is critically important that humanitarian aid be given to Gaza and that the rules of war be followed,” she said, hinting at a growing impatience with the Israeli leader.

Harris also acknowledged internal Democratic Party politics on the Israel-Hamas war, telling Sorkin “there’s no question” that the party is divided on the issue. 

“The reality of it all is not about politics for us. In fact, maybe we would make different decisions if it were about political popularity,” Harris said. “We are making decisions based on what we absolutely believe is the right thing to do.”

Harris offered a meandering and somewhat confusing answer when asked whether antisemitism, which is now on the rise, has always been present in the United States.

“Yes,” she said. “We did see it. Come on.” Harris then shared a story about having breakfast with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the end of her term, which concluded in 2018. Harris said that Merkel turned to her and asked about what was happening in the U.S. “‘What’s happening in terms of the hate, what’s happening in terms of the voting right attacks?’ And various things,” Harris recalled. She likened hate to a dormant virus, waiting to flare up.

“To the point of your question, antisemitism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia — these things have always existed in our country,” Harris said. 

Then, after condemning those who measure the strength of a leader “based on who you beat down instead of who you lift up,” she addressed the question about antisemitism.

“If one has been aware of the suffering, of the fears, of the experience of people in our country over any period of time, one would know antisemitism never left,” Harris said. 

Harris reportedly urged the president to denounce Islamophobia alongside antisemitism in an Oct. 10 speech, according to a Washington Post report detailing internal divisions within the White House in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack.

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