As violence raged between Israeli and Hamas for 10 days, President Biden spoke with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, privately six times, conversations in which he pressed him to answer a simple question: “How does this end?”
Mr. Biden’s tactic was to avoid public condemnation of Israel’s bombing of Gaza — or even a public call for a cease-fire — in order to build up capital with Mr. Netanyahu and then exert pressure in private when the time came, according to two people familiar with the administration’s internal debates.
In private conversations, Mr. Biden and other American officials reiterated to the Israelis that they had achieved some significant military objectives against Hamas, the militant group that fired thousands of rockets at Israel from Gaza, including targeting its tunnel networks. Mr. Biden pressed Mr. Netanyahu on what his objective was, and what would allow him to say he had achieved it so that a shorter war was possible, rather than a drawn-out military conflict.
In response, according to the people familiar with the discussions, Mr. Netanyahu did not lay out specific objectives that he had to accomplish before agreeing to a cease-fire.
In his public comments, Mr. Biden refused to join the growing calls from world leaders and many of his fellow Democrats for a cease-fire, or express anything short of support for Israel’s right to defend itself.
Dennis B. Ross, who has served as Middle East envoy to three presidents, said a public demand for a cease-fire could have backfired.
“Had Biden followed that advice to call for a public cease-fire, we would not have a cease-fire right now,” Mr. Ross said. “All of this takes place in a political context as well. Had Biden responded to that, Bibi’s political need to stand up to him would have been much greater.”
Mr. Biden’s approach, he added, also sent a message to Hamas. “The more they understood we were not going to be pressuring Israel that way, the more they understood they can’t count on us stopping Israel,” he said.
At the same time, Richard N. Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, cautioned against exaggerating how much credit Mr. Biden deserved for setting the stage for a truce.
“About 90 percent of the reason for the cease-fire is that both Hamas and the government of Israel determined that prolonging the conflict didn’t serve their interests,” Mr. Haas said. “This was a cease-fire that essentially was ready to happen.”
Mr. Biden’s strategy of quiet diplomacy was intended to build credibility with the Israelis, in order to privately push them toward an end to the violence in a final conversation with Mr. Netanyahu on Wednesday. And it took into account the need to tread carefully with Mr. Netanyahu.
Aware of the mistakes made by the United States in trying to mediate the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, Mr. Biden and his team did not want the United States to become the focus of the story. Instead, Mr. Biden tried to create space for Mr. Netanyahu, whom he will need as a partner in the future in dealing with Iran, to achieve his objectives.
“Israel and the United States are going to have big things to work out, in particular Iran,” Mr. Haas said. “The president had to be careful in how he handled Bibi. Both needed to maintain a working relationship so that if and when the Iran situation moved to the front burner, they would be able to work together.”
Mr. Biden began his conversations with Mr. Netanyahu by making no demands. That helped to pave the way for a gently worded statement that came after their third phone call, in which Mr. Biden said he would support a cease-fire, but stopped short of demanding one.
In follow up conversations on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr. Biden built up the pressure by demanding privately to Mr. Netanyahu the need for a cease-fire.