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Biden administration tight-lipped on Israel strike as US looks to maintain distance from decision

Biden responds to escalating Mideast tensions

(CNN) — The Biden administration on Friday adopted a tight-lipped approach that reflected U.S. officials’ desire to keep a level of distance from Israel’s decision to strike back against Iran in what appeared to be a limited retaliation for last weekend’s attack.

Israel has not commented on the strike, which was reported after three explosions were heard close to a major military airbase near Isfahan, state media reported early Friday morning. Iranian officials have said air defenses intercepted three drones and there were no reports of a missile attack.

American officials, who said they received warning from Israel of their plans, neither endorsed nor condemned the counterstrike. Israel had told the U.S. on Thursday that it would be retaliating against Iran in the coming days, a senior U.S. official said, adding that the U.S. “didn’t endorse the response.”

Instead, the U.S. sought to make clear the choice was Israel’s alone.

“We were not involved,” one official said.

Israel informed the U.S. through a variety of different channels ahead of its counterstrike against Iran, a person familiar with the matter said, adding that the warning did not come far in advance but did not catch the U.S. off-guard. Speaking at the G7 foreign ministers’ summit in Capri, the Italian foreign minister said the U.S. received word from Israel at the “last minute” of its plans to retaliate. The person familiar said the heads-up came on Thursday.

In his first public remarks since the counterstrike, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined nearly all comment on the matter while speaking at a G7 meeting in Capri, Italy. But, he said, G7 countries were committed to Israel’s security while seeking to avoid the conflict from further spiraling.

”We’re also committed to de-escalating – to trying to bring this tension to a close,” Blinken said during a news conference.

He also said the countries shared “a commitment to hold Iran to account.”

US anticipated limited Israeli response

Even though President Joe Biden counseled restraint last weekend in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – suggesting to his counterpart that because of the successful interception of nearly all of Iran’s missiles and drones, a counterattack might not be necessary – there were few inside the White House who believed Israel would do nothing.

Instead, officials believed what Israel was planning would be limited in scope and designed to send Iran a message. Officials had asked Israel for advance warning of the plans.

Senior U.S. officials spent a good part of Thursday in virtual conversations with top Israeli officials to discuss, among other topics, the attack last weekend by Iran and efforts to boost Israeli security.

The talks, led by U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, included Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, a top confidante of Netanyahu, and Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi.

Before expanding to a larger group of senior officials, the U.S. and Israeli sides discussed in a smaller format last weekend’s attack, as well as Biden’s decision to apply new sanctions on Iran.

The sanctions, applied in conjunction with other Western nations, appeared designed to send a message that retaliating against Iran didn’t necessarily require a military component.

It’s not clear how much the Israeli side briefed the American officials on the plans to respond to the Iran attack.

The larger meeting focused on another topic of disagreement between the Biden administration and the Israeli government: plans for a ground invasion of Rafah to go after Hamas. The White House said afterward that American officials “expressed concerns with various courses of action in Rafah, and Israeli participants agreed to take these concerns into account.”

The disagreement was an indication even amid the back-and-forth with Iran that the war against Hamas in Gaza continues apace – with negotiations for a ceasefire stalled and with a humanitarian crisis worsening.

The latest counterstrike adds to increasing tensions in the Middle East following Iran’s unprecedented strike against Israel last weekend, in which it lobbed more than 300 drones and cruise missiles toward Israel, nearly all of which were intercepted. That attack was retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on Iran’s embassy compound in Syria earlier this month.