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Where is the Biden administration's red line when it comes Palestinian deaths in Gaza?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden vowed to stop supplying bombs and artillery shells to Israel if it went into Rafah in southern Gaza. He made the threat on CNN earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED CNN BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I've made it clear to Bibi and the war cabinet. They're not going to get our support if, in fact, they go into these population centers.

FADEL: Over the weekend, Israel did strike a population center, a tent displacement camp where civilians were told they'd be safe. At least 45 people were killed, according to the health ministry there. And National Security Council spokesman John Kirby effectively said this does not cross Biden's red line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: This is an airstrike. It's not a major ground operation. It's different.

FADEL: We asked for a Biden administration official to come on the program this morning to explain. They declined. So we're turning to a veteran of Middle East diplomacy, Aaron David Miller. He's now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Good morning, and thanks for being on the program, Aaron.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Good morning.

FADEL: So this attack over the weekend, the images of charred bodies, killed children, it's drawing international condemnation. Israel's prime minister is saying it was a tragic mishap. And yet the Biden administration is saying this doesn't constitute a major offensive in population centers. Does this surprise you?

MILLER: No, because when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, red lines have a way, historically, of turning, let's say, pink. And that seems to have been the case here. The president's May 8 red line was willfully vague, or unintentionally vague, which is not unusual when the president speaks sometimes. But it's clear with Kirby's comments that the administration does not consider the character of the Israeli operations - no large-scale ground maneuvers, no massive airstrikes, no use of 2,500-pound bombs - to be a violation of that red line. The problem, of course, is when the Israelis are operating in densely populated Palestinian areas. The prospect of a major mass casualty event - as the last nine months, and we're now in the nine month - almost in the nine month of this war - it's almost inevitable.

FADEL: So is there any red line for this administration when it comes to Israel's operations?

MILLER: That's a fascinating question. I mean, if you look at the last eight or nine months, it's quite clear that the - that the president, the Biden administration, has gone out of its way to impose any serious costs that normal humans, like you and me, would consider to be significant or serious pressure. And I think the basis of the president's reluctance to do that has remained constant. Really, it's quite remarkable, frankly, particularly in the wake of what we've seen.

It's the president's emotional bond with the state of Israel. It's the fact that, you know, we're not fighting - as far as the president's concerned, Israel's not fighting a conventional war. It's fighting a war against a terror organization which holds and abuses hostages. Then there are the politics. You've seen the Republican reaction to the one pause of a - one single munition shipment...

FADEL: Right.

MILLER: ...That the administration applied several weeks ago. And then there's this. I think the administration has argued that - itself, internally - there's only one way out of this war, at least, to de-escalate it. And that's an Israeli-Hamas hostage deal. They're stuck. And without that, there's no way to de-escalate Israeli military activity, no way to free hostages, no way to improve - significantly improve the humanitarian situation for Palestinians and no way to even begin to think about the prospects of winning that war.

And for that, you need, better or worse, the ascent of the prime minister of Israel, who has conflated his own personal and legal travails with what he believes is the best way to prosecute this war, the worst possible leader at the worst possible time for a country. So all those reasons, I think, have made the president risk-averse.

FADEL: Now, why then, in the few seconds we have left, does Biden make these ultimatums and red lines public at all if he's going to be seen as going back on them?

MILLER: A very good question. And as his former boss, Barack Obama, learned in his administration with respect to the Syrian...

FADEL: Syria.

MILLER: ...Red line, that red lines only make sense, frankly, if they're carefully thought through and if, in fact, you're prepared, whatever the circumstances, whatever the costs, to actually follow up on them and impose costs for crossing them.

FADEL: That's Aaron David Miller. He's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you for your time.

MILLER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.