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HomePoliticsAdministration officials watered down Kamala Harris' Gaza speech before delivery

Administration officials watered down Kamala Harris’ Gaza speech before delivery

WASHINGTON — Before Vice President Kamala Harris delivered pointed remarks Sunday about the need for an immediate six-week cease-fire between Israel and Hamas as part of a deal to release hostages, officials at the National Security Council toned down parts of her speech, three current U.S. officials and a former U.S. official familiar with the speech told NBC News.  

The original draft of Harris’ speech, when it was sent to the National Security Council for review, was harsher on Israel about the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the need for more aid than were the remarks she ultimately delivered, according to one of the current officials and the former official.

One of the U.S. officials said the initial draft specifically called out Israel more directly about the need to immediately allow additional aid trucks in. The official described Harris’ original language as strong but not controversial.

The move to soften Harris’ comments highlights how reluctant the White House still is to aggressively criticize Israel in public as President Joe Biden tries to maintain some influence over the Israeli government and secure a hostage deal.

The current officials said that the changes were tonal, rather than shifts in policy, and that Harris’ comments about a cease-fire — which were widely covered — reiterated Biden’s remarks two days earlier and the administration’s position on the war. 

Asked about reports that the speech Sunday was watered down and made to be less aggressive, Kirsten Allen, Harris’ communications director, said, “That is inaccurate.”

Allen also provided NBC News with a separate statement explaining Harris’ stance on her remarks.

“The Vice President felt it was important to address the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, given recent developments, and to reiterate our Administration’s call on Hamas to accept the terms of the hostage deal,” she said. 

As is protocol for most high-level White House principals giving speeches about foreign policy, Harris’ speech was submitted to the National Security Council and West Wing staff members for review, and a number of changes were made, said several officials, including two from Harris’ office. Edits were made up until the last minute, as is often the case with a live foreign policy issue, the officials said. 

The National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Harris’ comments about the Middle East came at the beginning of a speech she delivered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to mark the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday — when civil rights activists, including the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., were beaten by law enforcement officers for demanding racial justice. 

Harris stressed, among other things, the need for Israel to allow aid into Gaza to help what she called “clearly a humanitarian catastrophe.”

She noted that last week, the Defense Department carried out its first airdrop of humanitarian aid into Gaza and said the U.S. will continue such assistance. She also said the “Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid.” 

“They must open new borders for aid,” Harris said. “They must not impose any unnecessary restrictions on the delivery of aid. They must ensure humanitarian personnel, sites and convoys are not targeted. And they must work to restore basic services and promote order in Gaza so more food, water and fuel can reach those in need.”

But her comments on a cease-fire drew the most attention. 

“And given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate cease-fire for at least six weeks as is what is currently on the table,” Harris said to loud, sustained applause. “This will get the hostages out and get a significant amount of aid in. This will allow us to build something more enduring to ensure Israel is secure and to respect the right of the Palestinian people to dignity, freedom and self-determination.”

Even though Harris was restating the policy position the Biden administration has held in recent weeks, her forceful delivery went viral, with thousands of people posting her comments online and a number of media outlets writing about them. It was a notable moment for Harris, who has long been criticized for not being visible enough as vice president. 

A number of activists and faith leaders have been pushing Biden to call for a permanent cease-fire, but so far, the administration has not done so.  

Even as it became clear that Harris was not saying something new, her words continued to get attention. Those close to her believe her words stuck out both because of her delivery and because she delivered them while marking the anniversary of a key chapter in the Civil Rights Movement. Others said her message that emphasized what civilians in Gaza are facing was especially effective. 

“She did what she does best, which is to take the policy issues, break them down in a way that people can understand them and then address it with her own passion and her own sense of what’s right,” said Leah Daughtry, a Democratic political strategist with close ties to Harris’ office who is a co-founder of Black Church PAC, an organization of clergy members and Black church leaders who have been pushing for a permanent cease-fire. “It all came together in a way that we’re still talking about it.”

An official in Harris’ office said she decided she wanted to talk about Gaza in her speech in Selma after Biden said Friday that the administration would back an immediate six-week cease-fire as part of a hostage deal. 

“We’re trying to work out a deal between Israel and Hamas,” Biden said in the Oval Office. “The hostages being returned and, and immediate cease-fire in Gaza for at least the next six weeks. And to allow the surge of aid through the entire Gaza Strip, not just the south, but the entire Gaza Strip.”

On Monday, Harris’ team made sure to stress that there was no disagreement between her and Biden. After she delivered remarks at the firefighters union conference at a Washington hotel, reporters were taken to the hallway where Harris was exiting close enough to be able to ask about the reaction to her remarks.

“The president and I have been aligned and consistent from the very beginning,” Harris told reporters. “Israel has the right to defend itself. Far too many Palestinian civilians, innocent civilians have been killed.”

A senior Biden administration official echoed that sentiment Monday. 

“She’s on the same page as the president,” the person said.

Still, the public took notice of Harris.

Christopher Huntley, a Democratic strategist who worked as a speechwriter for Harris last year, said he thinks her speech struck a chord because of her delivery and the setting of the speech.  

“There was a clear choice to use the words ‘immediate cease-fire,’” he said. “It broke through because it was very clear language, it was direct, and it spoke specifically to the hearts of young, Black and brown folks and younger voters who are really, really upset about this issue.”

“It was also apt that it happened at Selma, right at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the fight for justice, equality, civil and human rights was defined in that generation,” he added. “For that legacy to be the place where she addresses this made a lot of sense to folks.”

Even before Harris called for a six-week cease-fire, people inside and outside the Biden administration who are critical of Biden’s handling of the war viewed Harris as wanting, but unable, to take a more forceful stance against the fighting in Gaza, a Democrat who helped elect Biden in 2020 told NBC News.  

The person said Harris had gone to great lengths to show up as a more empathetic voice in her outreach to Muslim and Arab Americans, as well as other Democrats, who are disturbed by the worsening situation after months of bombardments. 

“Her hands are tied,” the person said. “People are not attacking her because they know that this is not her policy. This is Biden’s war. This is Biden’s failure.”

“I think she would have asked for a cease-fire a long time ago,” the person added.

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