President Biden walked a diplomatic tightrope Wednesday on a high-stakes trip to Israel, firmly expressing U.S. support for the Jewish state but warning the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to show restraint in its response to the surprise attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 Israelis and captured hundreds of Israeli and foreign hostages.
Arriving in Tel Aviv determined to stop the war between Israel and Hamas from spinning into a broader regional conflict, Mr. Biden brought a dual message for Middle Eastern leaders. He said the U.S. would protect Israel and cautioned others in the region to stay out of the fight. He also tried to allay fears about the growing humanitarian crisis in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Israel has bombed multiple targets in the densely populated Palestinian enclave ahead of what many predict will be a brutal and bloody urban ground war to destroy Hamas’ operational base and eradicate its leadership.
Mr. Biden began his day backing Israel’s contention that it was not responsible for the deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday that killed hundreds and further inflamed popular opinion across the region. He concluded his trip by urging Israel not to be consumed by outrage and ask “hard questions” as it responds to the terrorist attack with airstrikes and looming ground invasions.
The White House said late Wednesday that Mr. Biden will deliver a televised address to the nation Thursday about U.S. support for Israel and Ukraine.
Multiple outlets reported that the White House is preparing a $100 billion spending package for the year to cover aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia, aid to Israel, and funding for the Mexico border and disaster aid. The request faces an uncertain reception in Congress.
SEE ALSO: Biden warns Israelis ‘not to be consumed by rage’
Israel is reeling from the terrorist attack by Hamas, an Iran-backed Palestinian militia that has controlled Gaza for more than 15 years. The slaughter deeply shook the Jewish state and pressured Mr. Netanyahu’s government to respond forcefully.
Mr. Biden underscored repeatedly that Israel has unwavering U.S. support, but it’s unclear whether he won over Arab regional leaders who are sympathetic to Palestinians. A planned trip to Jordan to meet with those leaders, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was called off late Tuesday after the fierce reaction to the hospital bombing.
With cross-pressures back home over whether to support Israel or side with the Palestinians, Mr. Biden faced risks no matter what course he chose, analysts said.
“It was a high-stakes visit for the president. We will find out whether he has prevented a regional war or provided speeches as a preamble to it,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The president performed well, but there is a lot more that needs to happen before this trip can be viewed as successful.”
Mr. Biden’s public support for Israel’s explanation of the hospital explosion likely ruffled some feathers in the region. Although Mr. Biden didn’t explicitly blame Hamas or any other terrorist group, he signaled unabashed backing of Israel.
SEE ALSO: Biden says Israel is not to blame for Gaza hospital attack that left 500 dead
Israeli officials released intelligence images and conversations suggesting that the hospital explosion resulted from a misfired missile aimed at Israel from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza. Palestinian officials strongly rejected the Israeli version of events.
During a bilateral meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, the president said the preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment also linked the explosion to an Islamic Jihad rocket.
“I was deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday. And based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” he told Mr. Netanyahu. “But there’s a lot of people out there, not sure, so we’re going to overcome a lot of things.”
Asked how he could be so confident that Israel was not to blame for the rocket attack, Mr. Biden said “the data I [was shown] by my Defense Department.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the panel’s ranking Republican, said intelligence they had seen indicated Israel was not at fault.
“Based on this information, we feel confident that the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists and not the result of an Israeli airstrike,” they said in a statement.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said the strike killed about 500 people at the hospital, which also served as a shelter from the Israeli bombardment.
Mr. Biden later met with the Israeli war Cabinet, part of a unity government Mr. Netanyahu formed with some of his chief political rivals in the days after the Hamas attack. The president also met with first responders who rushed to help those targeted in the Oct. 7 attack and vowed to provide Israel with the full support of the U.S. to defend its citizens.
“In the wake of Hamas’ appalling terrorist assault — it was brutal, inhumane, almost beyond belief what they did — this Cabinet came together and, standing strong, standing united — I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not alone,” Mr. Biden told members of the war Cabinet.
Mr. Biden then addressed Israeli leaders. “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,” Mr. Biden said, referencing the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trying to pivot
Pivoting to assure Arab leaders, Mr. Biden persuaded Israel and Egypt to allow limited aid into Gaza after border officials blocked the Rafah crossing for more than a week. That left no path in or out of Gaza for shipments of food, water and medicine.
The aid from Egypt must be only food, water and medicine and will be allowed as long as the supplies don’t go to Hamas.
Although they did not meet, Mr. Biden was careful to praise Mr. el-Sissi for allowing some 20 trucks bearing humanitarian aid to pass into Gaza. He spoke with the Egyptian president by phone after his Israel stop.
The Egyptian president “deserves some real credit because he was accommodating,” Mr. Biden told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Mr. Biden announced $100 million in U.S. funding for humanitarian assistance in Gaza and the West Bank to support more than 1 million people displaced by the conflict.
Mr. Biden stressed that Hamas doesn’t represent all Palestinians living in Gaza as he advised Israel not to be consumed by rage.
“There’s always a cost. But it requires being deliberate. It requires asking very hard questions. It requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you’re on will achieve those objectives,” he said.
The president’s efforts to rein in Israel were as much about his own political future as it was about appeasing hostile actors considering a wider conflict. Mr. Biden has come under fire from some within his party for his unwavering support for Israel.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Michigan Democrat and the only Palestinian American in the House of Representatives, blamed Mr. Biden for the hospital explosion. She said such incidents happen “when you refuse to facilitate a cease-fire and help de-escalate.”
“Your war and destruction-only approach has opened my eyes and many Palestinian Americans and Muslim Americans like me. We will remember where you stood,” she said in a social media post.
Mr. Schanzer said Mr. Biden’s push for restraint was also in his political interest because it was aimed at the Democrats who have called for Israel to stand down to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
“That warning was probably as self-serving as it was guidance and counsel to Israel,” Mr. Schanzer said. “He’s thinking about his own political horizon.”