By Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday a “path toward peace” must be forged once the Israel-Gaza crisis concludes, with independent states for the Israelis and Palestinians and an integration of Israel among its Arab neighbors.
Biden opened a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese by saying U.S. support for Israel’s defense was ironclad, but the parties needed to think about a way forward in the region once the Gaza crisis was resolved.
“Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live side by side in safety, dignity and peace,” Biden said.
“When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next. And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution. It means a concentrated effort from all the parties – Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, global leaders – to put us on a path toward peace,” Biden said.
Biden said he believed one reason Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, killing 1,400 people on Oct. 7, was to prevent normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israeli airstrikes in retaliation have killed over 6,500 people, the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said on Wednesday. Reuters has not been able to independently verify the casualty figures of either side.
Biden said he had “no notion” that the Palestinians were telling the truth about how many had been killed.
“I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war,” he said. “I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”
Biden did not elaborate but also expressed concern about treatment of Palestinians by some Israelis.
“I continue to be alarmed about extremist settlers attacking Palestinians in the West Bank,” Biden said, accusing them of pouring gasoline on a fire. “They’re attacking Palestinians in places that they’re entitled to be, and it has to stop.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, called Biden’s remarks about Palestinian casualties “dehumanizing.”
“President Biden should apologize for his comments, condemn the Israeli government for deliberately targeting civilians, and demand a ceasefire before more innocent people die,” CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement.
AUSTRALIA OFFERS AID
Albanese, in his opening remarks, said Australia will provide an additional $15 million in aid for Gaza civilians.
Earlier, at a White House arrival ceremony, he called American leadership indispensable but not inevitable.
“It takes a leader to deliver it. It takes wisdom to show empathy, courage to provide humanitarian assistance, and true leadership to seek peace. Because protecting innocent people is not a show of weakness. It is a measure of strength,” he said.
A growing chorus of nations are pushing Israel to take a humanitarian pause in its attacks on Hamas in Gaza that have killed thousands of Palestinians, many of them children. Biden, a self-described “Zionist”, has strongly supported Israel following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack while cautioning the country to abide by democratic principles.
Australia is a key ally in the Pacific, and Biden scheduled the visit after canceling a trip to Sydney in May to stay in Washington and negotiate a government funding crisis.
Biden appeared to issue China a warning after a series of maritime confrontations with the Philippines, saying the United States’ commitment to Manila’s defense is iron clad.
China is having its own internal and external difficulties right now, Biden added.
The U.S.-Australia alliance is “marked by imagination, ingenuity and innovation,” Biden told the prime minister in opening remarks upon his arrival at the White House, citing their partnership in World War One, World War Two and the “war on terror.”
The visit resulted in agreements aimed at deterring and competing with China, even as separately the two countries try to thaw relations with Beijing. The two nations are committed to making sure the “Indo-Pacific remains free, open, prosperous and secure,” Biden said.
Albanese, greeted with a red carpet, military band and a receiving line of Biden’s top advisers, praised American democratic values and lauded Biden for maintaining “that every innocent life matters, Israeli and Palestinian, and that in every conflict every effort must be made to protect civilians.”
He also pledged continued cooperation in Ukraine’s ongoing fight against Russia’s invasion last year.
Later in the evening the two men attended an elaborate state dinner, though a planned performance by the B-52’s was scrapped out of respect for those suffering in the Middle East.
The deals between the two sides included an undersea internet cable project and maritime wharf infrastructure investment designed to benefit and woo Pacific Island nations whose assistance may be needed to respond to any future conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Washington and Canberra, already partners in a decades-old collective defense agreement, also announced wider security cooperation with Japan.
The balancing act of strengthening deterrence against China without offending Beijing too much is made more complicated by a Middle East crisis that has again diverted Washington’s attention away from the Indo-Pacific.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tom Hogue, Heather Timmons, Josie Kao and Gerry Doyle)