After seven weeks of struggling with a crisis that defies easy solutions, President Biden could take solace over the weekend in saving a single 4-year-old girl whose parents were killed in the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel.
But gratifying as it was to secure the release of Avigail Idan from her Hamas captors on Sunday, the challenge for Mr. Biden going forward is not only to free the rest of the Americans being held hostage but to use the success of recent days to alter the trajectory of the war consuming Gaza.
In brief comments on Nantucket, the Massachusetts island where he spent Thanksgiving, Mr. Biden on Sunday declared that it was “my goal, our goal” to extend the temporary pause in the war between Israel and Hamas, which is set to expire after another group of hostages is freed on Monday, so as to obtain the release of additional captives and send more humanitarian aid into Gaza. Israel had already indicated willingness to do that and Hamas has now done the same.
The president spent part of the weekend trying to turn that willingness into a reality, calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Sunday, a day after consulting with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, whose government hosts some Hamas figures and has served as an intermediary with the group.
“He’s continuing to work this hour by hour to see if we can secure those additional days of pause and those additional hostages coming home to their families,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC, one of several television interviews he gave on Sunday.
In seeking to extend the pause and hostage releases, Mr. Biden has American interests to consider as well as those of Israel. Among the 240 hostages taken by Hamas, 10 are believed to be American. Among those released under a deal brokered by Mr. Biden last week to free 50 hostages, the only American to be handed over so far has been Avigail, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Israel and whose name is often spelled Abigail in U.S. media.
Two American women from that group are expected to be among the hostages set to be released on Monday in the final stage of the initial deal between Israel and Hamas, leaving seven American men in captivity. Mr. Biden hopes an extension of the pause in exchange for the release of more hostages will result in the rest of the Americans being freed. Israel has said it would extend the pause by a day for each 10 additional hostages released.
“We’ll continue to remain personally engaged to see that this deal is fully implemented and work to extend the deal as well,” Mr. Biden told reporters.
Left unspoken is what might happen after Hamas has released all the hostages it is willing to give up and the temporary truce officially expires. Mr. Netanyahu has made clear that he intends to resume the military operation to destroy Hamas in response to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack that killed an estimated 1,200 people.
Mr. Biden has publicly supported Israel’s right to defend itself but appears to hope that if the war does erupt again, it can be recalibrated to spare more civilians and ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
He was vague when asked about that on Sunday. “We’re looking for a way to end this so the hostages are all released and Hamas is completely — how can I say it? — no longer in control of any portion of Gaza,” he said. Asked how long the halt in fighting should continue, he said, “I’d like to see the pause go on as long as prisoners kept coming out.”
Mr. Sullivan noted that Israel intended to resume its attack on Gaza at that point. “Ultimately, Israel is going to want to continue to conduct military operations against Hamas, particularly the leadership of Hamas, that were the architects of this brutal, bloody massacre, the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” he said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “And Hamas represents a continuing threat to Israel.”
He also acknowledged that Hamas had exploited the hostage agreement. “I can’t deny that Hamas gained some benefits from this deal,” Mr. Sullivan said. “One of them is the ability to refit and retool inside Gaza. Another is to try to use social media and other formats to generate some propaganda out of it.” But he added that the trade-off had been dozens of “innocent people coming out of Gaza to be reunited with their families.”
Republicans have offered mixed responses to the hostage deal, leery of challenging Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to exchange not only a temporary truce but three Palestinian prisoners for every one hostage freed under the deal brokered by Mr. Biden’s envoys.
“What I’m grateful for is that these hostages have been returned to their families,” former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican presidential candidate, said on CNN. “That’s extraordinarily important and humane to have that done. So I think President Biden deserves credit for that.”
“Where I think he’s starting to err,” Mr. Christie added, is “to say he hopes that this continues, that the truce continues. He can’t be doing that kind of stuff, in my view, publicly.”
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, took a harsher position on “Fox News Sunday.” While he said he did not “want to second-guess the Israeli government,” he was happy to second-guess Mr. Biden, accusing him of not supporting Israel enough.
“I have to say it seems like President Biden puts more pressure on Israel than he does on Hamas and its hosts in Qatar,” Mr. Cotton said. “The Biden administration has consistently behind the scenes insisted that Israel’s government take steps that are clearly not in Israel’s interest,” he added, citing the delivery of fuel to Gaza, which he said would aid Hamas, not just civilians.
Still, the pause in fighting has eased some of the criticism Mr. Biden has taken from the left wing of his party, which has assailed him for, in their view, supporting Israel too much. Israel’s military campaign has killed thousands of civilians in Gaza even as it has focused on destroying Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.
The release of Avigail gave Mr. Biden a small but emotionally powerful victory amid all the tumult in the region. Taken hostage after her parents were gunned down in front of her, Avigail spent seven weeks in captivity and turned 4 years old on Friday in the hands of Hamas. Her case generated waves of international concern and condemnation.
“She’s been through a terrible trauma,” Mr. Biden said. “What she endured is unthinkable.”
But he reveled in her release. “Thank God she’s home,” he said. “I wish I was there to hold her.”