President Joe Biden arrived Wednesday in Tel Aviv, seeking to reinforce the US commitment to Israel and prevent its war with Hamas from spreading and plunging the Middle East into chaos.
(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden arrived Wednesday in Tel Aviv, seeking to reinforce the US commitment to Israel and prevent its war with Hamas from spreading and plunging the Middle East into chaos.
His visit comes with tensions soaring after a massive bombing at a Gaza City hospital on Tuesday night killed at least 500 people and led to Israel and the Hamas militant group trading blame for the attack.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog met Biden at Ben Gurion Airport and hugged him.
Biden had originally also envisioned the trip as an opportunity to secure additional humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians after Hamas’s bloody incursion from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel on Oct. 7.
Yet the hospital blast threw that mission — and regional stability — into peril. Instead, Biden’s shortened his trip and will focus primarily on a public show of support after the assault by Hamas, which runs Gaza and is designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union.
In Tel Aviv, Biden will sit with Netanyahu and senior aides before a larger discussion with Israel’s war cabinet to discuss the country’s defense-assistance needs.
Later, the American president is expected to meet with Israeli victims’ families, including relatives of those being held hostage in Gaza. He is then scheduled to make public remarks on the conflict and confer with Herzog.
During its shock incursion — seen as Israel’s worst intelligence failing in 50 years — Hamas militants rampaged through Israeli towns, communities and military bases, killing more than 1,400 people. It abducted at least around 200.
Thousands of Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the Israeli military responded with mass airstrikes. It’s widely expected to be planning a ground assault soon, with Netanyahu vowing to totally destroy Hamas as an organization.
Biden’s visit to Israel, which enjoys broad bipartisan support in the US, and to a war zone provides a clear political opportunity for the 80-year-old president, who has sought to combat concern over his age and competence by wielding US influence abroad. Yet Biden must balance that show of support with growing anger over the hospital explosion.
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In response, the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, called off a summit with Biden that meant to take place later on Wednesday. Jordan was going to host it in its capital, Amman.
Arab leaders, Turkey and Hamas blamed the blast on Israel. Israel’s military said Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad were responsible because a missile they fired malfunctioned and landed on Gazan territory.
The blast caused large protests around Israeli and American embassies across the Arab world, as well as in the West Bank.
US officials said Biden would speak by telephone with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi by telephone after leaving Israel.
While on the flight to Israel, Biden issued a statement saying he was “outraged” by the hospital deaths, and that he had directed his national security team to continue gathering information about what happened and who was responsible.
Fears of Escalation
Still, the episode and furious reaction threatened to draw other regional players into the conflict against Israel, dashing an initial goal of Biden’s trip. US officials have urged other nations – in particular, Iran – not to open new fronts in the conflict as the Israeli military targets Hamas.
Hamas is backed by Iran, as are some other militant groups in the region including Hezbollah. Tensions on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, have soared in the past 10 days. Israeli troops and Hezbollah have regularly exchanged fire.
The US has pressed Egypt, without success to date, to allow some civilians, including US citizens, to pass from Gaza into Egypt via the Rafah border crossing. Egypt has responded by saying Israel should take in any people allowed to leave Gaza.
White House aides said that despite the heightened tensions, they remained optimistic that Biden could work with Israelis, Egyptians, and Palestinians to improve the flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza.
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Before Biden’s trip was announced — and before the hospital explosion — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Netanyahu had agreed to jointly develop a plan to get aid into Gaza without benefiting Hamas, and to limit civilian casualties.
That deal was forged over nine hours of negotiations in Israel. They were occasionally punctuated by air raid sirens that forced diplomats to shelter in a bunker.
–With assistance from Adveith Nair.
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