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Biden Remarks On Israel-Hamas Cease-Fire, Says U.S. Officials Worked 'Hour By Hour'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Israel and Hamas have agreed to a cease-fire after 11 days of fierce attacks. The toll of that conflict has grown to at least 230 deaths in Gaza, including more than 60 children killed by Israeli airstrikes. Hamas militants have launched thousands of rockets that killed 12 people in Israel, including two children. President Biden addressed the breakthrough to end fighting this evening at the White House.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You know, we've held intensive, high-level discussions hour by hour, literally - Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and other Middle Eastern countries - with an aim of avoiding this sort of prolonged conflict we've seen in previous years when the hostilities have broken out.

SHAPIRO: We turn now to NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good evening.

SHAPIRO: First, tell us what we know about this ceasefire agreement.

DETROW: The deal went into effect at 2 a.m. local time, which is 7 o'clock on the East Coast in the U.S. And it is important to remember there's a possibility the deal won't hold. Both sides warned after this was announced they could resume attacks if the ceasefire isn't honored. And this comes, as you mentioned, after 11 days of Hamas launching rockets into Israeli cities and intense Israeli airstrikes into Gaza. It's also worth pointing out this deal was brokered by Egypt, not the U.S. The Biden administration played a very quiet public role in all of this over the past weeks.

SHAPIRO: And do you have any insight into why the Biden administration has kept a low profile in this crisis?

DETROW: Yeah. And just to really emphasize that, tonight was the very first time President Biden had delivered prepared remarks on this, and he only spoke for about three minutes. Every other time he's weighed in, it had been responses to questions shouted by reporters after speeches on other topics. That tells you something about two things - one, how the administration was trying to keep the crisis from overtaking their agenda, but secondly, that they were really prioritizing what Biden and White House officials kept calling quiet diplomacy.

The White House stressed they were focusing on doing this behind the scenes, making a lot of phone calls. Even though we weren't hearing public pressure from Biden, you know, those phone call numbers kept updating throughout the week. We've made 20 calls, 60 calls. They grew to 80 today, and that included multiple calls between Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu as well as a call today with Egyptian President al-Sisi. Biden had spoken to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, during this crisis as well.

I'll say one clear trend that we could track in the official readouts of these calls - you know, early on, there was a lot of talk about Israel's right to defend itself. Midweek, the statements began in kind of the dry, diplomatic speak that you get these readouts in all but calling for a ceasefire but very notably not demanding a ceasefire.

SHAPIRO: Even as the president was pushing for a ceasefire, many Democrats in Congress were criticizing him for not emphasizing Palestinian rights. What did Biden say about that tonight?

DETROW: Yeah, and that criticism grew louder and louder as this went on. Tonight he did lead his remarks with how he's lead most of his statements - making it clear that the U.S. stands with Israel.

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BIDEN: In my conversation with President Netanyahu, I commended him for the decision to bring the current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days. I also emphasized what I've said throughout this conflict. The United States fully supports Israel's right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups that have taken the lives of innocent civilians in Israel.

DETROW: And Biden also said he pledged to replenish the Iron Dome system, which had defended Israel against most of these rockets. Biden did say, though, that both Palestinians and Israelis deserve to live safely and securely with freedom. And he pledged U.S. assistance to rebuild Gaza, but he made it clear the U.S. would work with the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas. But, you know, there was a lot of tension from progressive allies. And Biden had really trailed most Democrats in calling for a ceasefire as a lot of progressives really tried to emphasize the death toll in among Palestinians, especially Palestinian children.

SHAPIRO: Does the White House seem likely to engage more in this conflict in the long term going forward?

DETROW: You know, the president said tonight that he saw a real opportunity for progress, and he said he's committed to that. But frankly, the administration has not framed this as a key priority in the Middle East. Biden's trying to resurrect some form of the Iran nuclear deal the Obama administration brokered but the Trump administration walked away from. And more broadly in foreign policy, Biden has really focused his attention on trying to compete with China and counter China's growing influence in the world. I did not hear any major commitments or pledges in these remarks tonight indicating that any of those priorities are going to shift.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Detrow, thank you.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.