President Joe Biden’s 7.5-hour trip to Tel Aviv signaled full US backing for Israel but fell short on another key goal: winning over Arab leaders.
(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden’s 7.5-hour trip to Tel Aviv signaled full US backing for Israel but fell short on another key goal: winning over Arab leaders.
Amid growing signs the conflict may be spinning out of control, Biden made plain that the US will protect its ally, sending a clear message to rivals in the region like Iran to stay out of the fight. With one US aircraft carrier in the area and another on the way, Biden promised a new package of “unprecedented support.”
He also tried to allay concerns about the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza as Israel gears up for a ground invasion to wipe out Hamas after its Oct. 7 attacks killed 1,400 Israelis. On his way home, Biden said he’d won agreement from Egypt to allow 20 trucks of aid across the border but they may not move before Friday, when the road is due to be repaired. Israeli officials said they would allow supplies in only if they could be sure they weren’t diverted to Hamas, which the US and EU have designated a terrorist group.
For more on the Israel-Hamas conflict, click here.
Biden’s challenge in winning Arab acquiescence to the Israeli offensive deepened Tuesday after a deadly blast at a hospital in Gaza. The US president sided with Israel, which blamed a failed missile launch by a Palestinian militant group. But Arab leaders believed Hamas-controlled Gaza authorities who had already pointed the finger at Israel. They canceled a meeting with Biden in Jordan planned for Wednesday.
Biden did manage to speak by phone with Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on his way back to the US about allowing aid access. The Egyptian president, who was among the leaders to pull out of the Jordan meeting, “was not at all reluctant,” Biden told reporters. Biden also said he pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue.
Read more: Understanding the Roots of the Israel-Hamas War: QuickTake
“His visit today was seen as full-throated support of the Israeli government without caveats,” said Sarah Parkinson, political science and international studies professor at Johns Hopkins University. “That is rapidly eroding relationships in the region.”
It wasn’t just Biden’s decision to accept Israel’s explanation for the deadly blast, but also how he did so that’s likely to grate in the region. By saying the “other team” was responsible for the incident, the US president aligned himself even more squarely with Israel.
“To a lot of people in the region that doesn’t seem like it’s fact-based, it seems like it’s a political decision,” Parkinson said. “It’s putting a lot of US allies into an incredibly difficult position.”
Biden said he decided to take Israel’s side after seeing data from the Pentagon. The information, which came from satellite imagery of the hospital and electronic intercepts of Hamas conversations, was shared with Biden during the flight to Israel, according to people familiar with the matter. The White House later announced its intelligence analysis confirmed Israel’s claim that it was not responsible for the blast.
“At a time when Israelis are traumatized seeking leadership and hope, Biden gave it to them,” Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator, wrote on social media.
Biden said he would propose an “unprecedented” package of aid for Israel to Congress this week. Boeing Co. is speeding delivery of GPS-guidance kits for bombs to Israel, officials said.
But after meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu and his war cabinet, Biden had a warning for Israeli leaders as they plan their response.
“I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes,” Biden said, an apparent reference to the US’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He departed for Washington with only limited assurances about the relief supplies that could enter Gaza, which could further inflame tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He announced the US is dispatching $100 million in humanitarian aid but it will go both to Gaza and the West Bank.
Read more: Israel Says Gaza Can Get Aid Via Egypt If Hamas Doesn’t Take It
With most supplies of food and medicine cut off, the borders closed and Israeli airstrikes continuing, the situation is Gaza is getting more dire by the day.
“An unprecedented catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes. Gaza is being strangled and the world seems to have lost its humanity,” Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said Wednesday.
Protests against Israel and the US broke out in cities across the Arab world after the hospital blast.
Biden’s aides said his heartfelt support for Israel in the wake of the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust compelled him to continue on with the visit. At the same time, it allowed the 80-year-old leader to appear active and engaged to the voters back home.
Winning over the Arab leaders was always going to be a tall order, even before the hospital blast.
“Arab leaders across the region are worried about their own national security first and are not going to be willing to contradict public sentiment that is so strongly anti-Israel,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council.
But with Israeli officials saying they remain resolved to go ahead with plans to eradicate Hamas from Gaza and Iran and the Hezbollah militant group it backs threatening to attack Israel from the north if they do, risks of a wider conflict continue to grow.
French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are likely to visit Israel themselves in the coming days, potentially winning a bit more time before a ground invasion of Gaza.
–With assistance from Peter Martin and Tony Capaccio.
(Updates with Biden comments from third paragraph)
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