Biden urged ‘de-escalation today’ in new call with Netanyahu

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE, May 19 (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden prodded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday to immediately lower tensions in the Gaza conflict "on the path" to a ceasefire, the White House said.

But Netanyahu said even after speaking with Biden in their fourth call in a week that he was "determined to continue" operations against Gaza's ruling Hamas militants. read more

Biden has faced increasing pressure, even from fellow Democrats, to take a more active and public role in brokering a ceasefire between Israel, the country's closest ally in the Middle East, and the militant group Hamas. read more

"The two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel's progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in a brief statement aboard Air Force One.

"The president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire," Jean-Pierre added.

The call took place shortly before Biden left Washington for Connecticut, where he gave the commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Palestinian medical officials said 223 people have been killed in 10 days of aerial bombardments, while Israeli authorities put the death toll in their country at 12.

In the early days of the conflict, Biden effectively gave Israeli forces more time to press their offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza by citing Israel's right to defend itself against a rocket barrage from the Hamas-ruled enclave and not publicly insisting on an immediate ceasefire.

But Biden's latest calls and diplomatic efforts have increasingly been geared toward pressing Netanyahu on a timetable.

"Israel has been a loyal ally and partner, and there needs to be no daylight between Israel and the United States on this issue," said congressman Lee Zeldin of New York, a leader of the House of Representatives' Republican Jewish Caucus. Zeldin spoke at one of two news conferences held by his party to criticize Democrats' response to the outbreak of violence.

In response to Biden's de-escalation call, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said those who sought to restore calm must "compel Israel to end its aggression in Jerusalem and its bombardment of Gaza."

Qassem told Reuters that "if the occupation stopped its aggression against the people of Jerusalem and ended its bombardment on Gaza, there can be room to talk about arrangements to restore calm."

Hamas began firing rockets on May 10 in retaliation for what it said were Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The rocket attacks followed Israeli security police clashes with worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and a court case by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from a neighborhood in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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