The Biden administration has advised Israel to delay a ground invasion of Gaza, hoping to buy time for hostage negotiations and to allow more humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians in the sealed-off enclave, according to several U.S. officials.
American officials also want more time to prepare for attacks on U.S. interests in the region from Iran-backed groups, which officials said are likely to intensify once Israel moves its forces fully into Gaza.
The administration is not making a demand of Israel and still supports the ground invasion and Israel’s goal of eradicating Hamas, the group controlling Gaza that killed more about 1,400 people in terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, the officials said.
But fast-moving events since Hamas released two American women on Friday have spurred the administration to more urgently suggest that the Israelis allow time to negotiate the release of 212 other hostages, the officials said.
President Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday afternoon to discuss the latest developments, the White House said. Mr. Biden also spoke to the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Britain.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu agreed that after the entry of the first two convoys of humanitarian aid into Gaza on Saturday, there “will now be continued flow of this critical assistance,” a White House summary of the call said. The leaders also “discussed ongoing efforts to secure the release of all the remaining hostages taken by Hamas — including U.S. citizens — and to provide for safe passage for U.S. citizens and other civilians in Gaza who wish to depart,” the White House said.
Two U.S. officials said the advice to the Israelis to hold off on the land war was being conveyed through Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III because the Pentagon is helping advise Israel on military actions, including the ground invasion.
Mr. Austin has had near daily calls with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, to discuss operational matters, American arms shipments to Israel and U.S. military deployments to the region. He has also talked about recovering the hostages as a priority, one U.S. official said.
A spokesperson for Mr. Gallant declined to comment on the conversations.
A diplomat from the Israeli Embassy in Washington denied that the U.S. government was advising the Israelis to delay the ground invasion and said: “We have a close dialogue and consultations with the U.S. administration. The U.S. is not pressing Israel in regards to the ground operation.”
An official with knowledge of the hostage negotiations, which are taking place mainly through Qatar, said Hamas had warned that a ground invasion would make hostage releases much less likely. Qatar has close ties to the political leaders of Hamas.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken avoided answering directly when asked on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday whether the United States was asking Israel to delay a ground invasion to allow time for hostage negotiations. He stressed, though, that the United States was giving advice to the Israelis on the invasion.
“It’s important, as we said, not only what they do, but how they do it,” he said, “particularly when it comes to making sure that civilians are as protected as they possibly can be in this crossfire of Hamas’s making.”
Mr. Blinken continued: “There are many, many Israelis who are hostages and of course, hostages from other nationalities. So we’re working to do everything we can, using whatever levers, partnerships, relationships we have to get them out. Israel is doing the same. But in terms of what we’re talking to Israel about with regard to their military operations, it really is focused on both how they do it, and how best to achieve the results that they seek.”
Mr. Blinken also said it was important that more food and medical supplies get into Gaza, as a humanitarian crisis worsens. Israel imposed a complete cutoff of water, electricity and food on the impoverished coastal strip of two million people soon after the Oct. 7 attacks. The Israeli military has maintained a naval blockade of Gaza since 2007.
American officials say they hope the ground invasion will be delayed, but they are wary of playing into the narrative that Iran and its allies have long spread about the United States secretly controlling Israel.
There have already been a flurry of drone attacks targeting U.S. forces in the region. U.S. officials said that leaving the impression that Biden administration officials are the ones pulling the strings in Israel could drag the United States into a direct conflict with Iran or pro-Iran groups in the region.
“In fact we expect that there’s a likelihood of escalation, escalation by Iranian proxies directed against our forces, directed against our personnel,” Mr. Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We are taking steps to make sure that we can effectively defend our people.”
The State Department announced Sunday that it had ordered the departure of nonessential American government employees and family members from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, Iraq, and increased the travel alert in Iraq to Level 4, meaning U.S. citizens should not go there. The department cited the threats of “terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest and Mission Iraq’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.”
U.S. officials fear that Iraqi militias supported by Iran will attack the 2,500 or so U.S. troops in the country and other American institutions or citizens.
Even behind closed doors, American officials are carefully wording their advice to the Israelis. When Mr. Biden met with the Israeli war cabinet during his trip to Tel Aviv last week, he avoided making requests of Mr. Netanyahu, officials said. Instead, the president offered a series of questions that should be answered before a ground invasion starts and raised the specters of the disastrous U.S. decisions to invade Iraq and to wage a long, open-ended war in Afghanistan.
Mr. Biden’s questions included who takes over for Hamas after the operation is finished and how the invasion might affect the hostages, as well as what a two-front war might do to Israel.
One of the U.S. officials said the Americans had stressed not only the hostage issue to the Israelis, but also concerns about civilian casualties and humanitarian aid.
Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, said on CNN that the United States had frequently raised important questions about Israel’s war plans but had not tried to dictate decision making.
“There is really no pressure,” he said. “They give us advice, but they are not telling us what to do or what not to do.”
The ground invasion has been repeatedly delayed, according to four senior Israeli defense officials, who added that they did not know the reason for the postponement. Two of the officials said it was possibly related to the negotiations.
CNN reported Sunday that U.S. officials believe a delay could allow time for the release of more hostages.
The New York Times reported last week that American and other Western officials familiar with the talks said there was optimism that Hamas might release women and children because of international backlash to the abductions.
A senior Israeli military official said that based on conversations between the United States and Qatar, Hamas could possibly release about 50 dual nationals separate from any broader deal.
The repeated delays also reflect a growing tension between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant, his defense minister, who supports a broad military operation that would also include Hezbollah, the powerful militia in Lebanon.
Mr. Netanyahu has opposed the wider operation for now, and American officials have also privately expressed concern to Israeli leaders about any major strike against the group that would draw it into Israel’s war against Hamas, opening a second front.
Hezbollah has stepped up its rocket attacks aimed at northern Israel in recent days, and Israel has retaliated with airstrikes and artillery fire in southern Lebanon but has so far refrained from carrying out a major offensive against the group. The Israeli government has asked more residents of northern Israel to leave their homes.
During a visit on Sunday to the underground command of the Israeli Air Force, Mr. Gallant expressed his appreciation to the officers there and, referring to the invasion, his “confidence ahead of the next stage, which will come soon.”
Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.