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As Calls Grow For Israeli-Hamas Cease-Fire, White House Hesitates On Public Message

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden is now calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants. The president expressed that view in a call today with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. This follows days of the White House insisting that U.S. diplomatic efforts stay behind the scenes. Before now, Biden had avoided putting any public pressure on Israel to dial back its response. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the White House and joins us now.

Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: What else have we heard about Biden's call with Netanyahu?

LIASSON: Well, in addition to calling for a cease-fire, the White House says Biden talked to Netanyahu about White House conversations with Egypt and other Arab countries to try to broker a cease-fire. The readout also says that Biden reiterated his support for Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas rocket attacks. But he also told Netanyahu that Israel should, quote, "make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians." That's notable because the death toll in Gaza has been much higher than in Israel. It's included many innocent civilians, including Palestinian children. Over the weekend, the president also talked to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

SHAPIRO: Now, in past conflicts, the U.S. has played a much more assertive, active role in brokering a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians. What do you make of the response this time?

LIASSON: I think it's pretty interesting. It's very, very low-key. On one level, the White House is signaling to the public that the U.S. has limited leverage. If the two parties don't want to negotiate a cease-fire, it's not going to happen, even if the United States calls for it. But it's interesting. This call for a cease-fire from the president comes after a lot of Israel's supporters in Washington had already done so. A majority of Senate Democrats have called for a cease-fire. A bipartisan group put out a statement. And today, we heard from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is a staunch defender of Israel, that it was time for a cease-fire. So the president has now caught up with where the majority of his party is.

SHAPIRO: Is this causing tensions within the Democratic Party?

LIASSON: I wouldn't call it tensions. I would say this is the biggest gulf between Biden and the progressive base of his party so far. Progressives have really centered themselves more around racial justice issues, and that's how many of them view the Palestinian cause. But in recent days, this call for a cease-fire got much broader support among Democrats, even among some Republicans. But it's not the defining issue for Democrats that it was in the past. I don't think this rift is going to have repercussions that will hurt Biden's economic agenda. But there's no doubt that there's been a difference between him and the base of his party. And on the other hand, you've got Republicans criticizing the president for not being pro-Israel enough.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that signals a broader shift in U.S. politics around Israel?

LIASSON: I think there has been a shift already in U.S. politics around Israel. One big shift is that American Jews have become less monolithically supportive of Israel than they used to be. About a quarter of American Jews - 25% vote Republican now. Conservative Jews often describe Israel as their No. 1 issue, but progressive Jews in the U.S. have become less supportive of the current Israeli government for a couple of reasons. One - because Netanyahu and Likud threw in their lot with evangelical conservatives. They really identified themselves with Trump. Trump and Netanyahu were joined at the hip. Netanyahu's last campaign for reelection was all about his relationship with Trump. And I think in general, this is an issue that Americans care less about. They're weary of the conflict in the Middle East. It's been 40 years since the Camp David peace accords, and we still don't have peace in the Middle East. And don't forget; the Biden administration is trying to pivot U.S. foreign policy to deemphasize the Middle East and focus more on competing with China.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Mara Liasson speaking with us from the White House.

Thanks a lot, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.