Say it bluntly: The president just moved heaven and earth

Joe Biden just had a come to Jesus meeting on a phone call with Benjamin Netanyahu

By Brian Karem


Published April 7, 2024 11:20AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 22, 2024, as he returns from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 22, 2024, as he returns from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Ultimatum: n. a final proposition, condition or demand 

Especially: one whose rejection will end negotiations and cause a resort to force or other direct action 

-Merriam Webster

It sounded like an ultimatum. 

Thursday President Biden spoke for about 30 minutes with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The call came after Biden took it in the shorts from a variety of critics after the IDF killed humanitarian workers in Gaza. Biden told Netanyahu the “overall humanitarian situation is unacceptable” and that there was a clear need for “Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering and the safety of aid workers.”

According to the readout of the call provided by the White House, Biden also said he made it clear, “that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

In my neighborhood, that’s called an ultimatum, and one could only imagine what the conversation with Netanyahu was actually like. On background, some administration officials said it would be a stretch to say it was characterized as a “shot across the bow” to Netanyahu. 

Others said it was spicier than that. 

Biden is hip-deep in a re-election bid and trying not to lose the coalition that put him into office nearly four years ago. Part of that coalition consists of younger voters and Arab-American voters – both groups which are currently extremely upset with Biden. Just about everywhere the president goes these days you can find protesters screaming “Genocide Joe.” So, I have no doubt Biden was extremely curt with Bibi. I’m sure Biden reminded him in direct terms who Israel’s greatest ally is and how Netanyahu is risking that friendship by killing innocent people. After all, as we’ve been told in the briefing room by Admiral John Kirby for the last three months, we’ve often tried to guide Israel in how to conduct the war and inflict minimal casualties on civilians.

If Israel’s immediate reaction to that phone call is any indication, then it is obvious Biden was a bit more strident. I’m sure there were some words used that would be best not spoken in public.

And that’s the way it should have been. But, Biden’s team, and the president himself would not call it an ultimatum, though it had the effect of being just that. Hours after Biden and Netanyahu spoke, the Israeli Prime Minister fired those responsible for ordering the attack that led to the deaths of humanitarian workers and also announced plans to provide additional aid to the citizens of Gaza.

You’d think Biden won it in a walk-off, and could now silence the critics who continue to ask if Biden has lost influence in Israel.  Obviously, that’s not the case. But, when I asked Press Secretary Karine Jeanne-Pierre in the briefing room Thursday if that was an ultimatum, she balked at calling it such. Really? Just say it.

The closest I got was a background comment from an administration official who called it, “a very direct statement of concern.” Like I said, in my neighborhood, it was an ultimatum. I appreciate we’re not in my neighborhood, but if the president is hoping to keep his coalition intact  in the fall, he might try to visit that neighborhood.

It was at least a partially successful ultimatum as well. 

As White House NSC spokesman John Kirby told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos Friday morning, the actions taken were “good starts.” Now, Kirby added, “we’re going to have to watch and see where they go from here.”

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In his first on-camera comment about the phone call Thursday, before he left the White House to visit the site of the recent Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore, Biden said “I asked them to do what they’re doing.” That’s fine. So, when he showed up to Baltimore I asked him on two occasions if he was “satisfied” with what Israel has done. The first time, he completely ignored me. The second time he just looked at me. He didn’t answer.

Someone needs to explain to the president that his actions, which have already paid some dividends, are worth clarifying for the American people. Those close to the president say the “shot across the bow” was also a “stern warning”, but those actions have not been promoted enough, nor have they been clarified.

That’s important for Biden because it answers several of his critics who say he’s a weak leader. With all that he’s done, from infrastructure to strengthening the economy (300,000 new jobs in March) gets buried because the White House simply can’t hit the layups. These are easy. Biden’s actions in Israel show strong leadership. The March jobs report announced Friday does the same thing.

The action Biden has taken in Baltimore to support the rebuilding of the Francis Scott Key bridge does the same thing – and that news got buried even though Biden flew to Baltimore Friday, got a birds-eye view of the damage and then spoke about it before reporters. It got buried under the political circle-jerk speeches of the Baltimore Mayor, County Executive, Congressional delegation from Maryland, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the Maryland governor before Biden came out and thanked all of them after they had already thanked each other. He then told us how quickly they all responded to the crisis. Then he thanked them again, and they accepted his thanks and were all thankful for it.

With all the glad-handing done, Biden then told us one channel in the port would be open before the end of the month, and the entire port will be open by the end of May. That was the news that should have topped every speech. 

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All of this was done on a cold, blustery day with the collapsed bridge situated behind Biden as he spoke, on a low stage, behind a black curtain, on a soggy, newly sodded piece of turf behind the Maryland Transportation Authority’s office, with inadequate lighting, poor framing and inadequate facilities. At least the sound was good. 

If it had been Trump it would have been a Hollywood production – especially the framing and the lighting. Trump also loves a large stage. The larger the better. Biden is understated, almost shy about the things he does. And while that endears him to some, it makes for lousy television and doesn’t translate well to those who think he’s not a very good leader.

He almost needs to be out there a bit more and loving it a lot more. For all the pomp and circumstance of a presidential visit, Friday’s trip to Baltimore was flat. There were more reporters than guests, who clapped quietly and politely until Biden encouraged them to step up their game. Biden’s advance team even removed a row of empty chairs from the newly sodded field so the cameras wouldn’t show empty seats.

Retiring Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin said afterward that he agrees that the Biden team needs to get better at messaging. “I’ve said that too,” he explained. Is anyone listening?

Say it bluntly.

Biden delivered an ultimatum to Israel and Netanyahu responded.

Biden pledged he’d have the back of everyone in Baltimore and the federal help will enable to the port to re-open quickly, thus saving jobs and billions of dollars in the local and national economy.


By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Benjamin Netanyahu Commentary Elections 2024 Joe Biden