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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden pledged solidarity in his visit to Israel. He also urged caution.

President Joe Biden during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

By Peter Baker

As President Joe Biden slowly made his way around a hotel conference room, each of the survivors or relatives of victims of the devastating Hamas attacks in Israel told him their story of tragedy or defiance. One by one, he gave each of them a hug and talked about his own experiences with loss.

In a way, Biden flew to Israel on Wednesday to give the whole country a hug, to say how much America grieves with Israel and stands by Israel and has Israel’s back. But with the hug came a whisper in the ear as well, a gentle warning not to give into the “primal feeling,” not to let overwhelming grief or overpowering anger drive the country to go too far as he believes America did after Sept. 11, 2001.

“Shock, pain, rage — an all-consuming rage,” Biden said later in a speech to the Israeli nation. “I understand and many Americans understand. You can’t look at what has happened here to your mothers, your fathers, your grandparents, sons, daughters, children, even babies and not scream out for justice. Justice must be done. But I caution this — while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

Biden did not elaborate, but he presumably was referring to the invasion of Iraq, which he voted for as a senator and later came to regret. Nor did he explain what he meant in Israel’s case, but the meaning was clear enough. As Israel seeks to destroy Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 people and took nearly 200 hostages, his message was that it should not give into excesses that cause unnecessary loss of innocent life — and in the process, squander the world’s sympathy the way the United States eventually did two decades ago.

The president announced $100 million in aid to help civilians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but it is not clear how much he got through to Israel’s leaders as they pound Gaza with punishing airstrikes and prepare for a possible treacherous ground invasion. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel clearly heard and welcomed the notes of solidarity; he made no mention of the recommendations of restraint.

No American president has ever visited Israel during a war, and Biden came to its defense on Wednesday not just by offering his symbolically potent presence but by backing its denial of responsibility for the catastrophic explosion that struck a hospital in Gaza. The health ministry there said hundreds of people were killed.

With the region convulsing with anger and protests after the blast, the president rejected Palestinian claims that the hospital was hit by an Israeli airstrike and instead endorsed the government’s insistence that it was an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad, an extremist group aligned with Hamas.

“Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” Biden said unprompted as he sat in a Tel Aviv hotel next to Netanyahu.

“But there’s a lot of people out there not sure,” he said, referring to skepticism in the Arab world. “So we’ve got a lot, we’ve got to overcome a lot of things.”

American officials later said they had multiple strands of intelligence — including infrared satellite data — indicating that the deadly blast was caused by Palestinian armed groups.

The timing of the president’s audacious visit to a nation at war could hardly have been more precarious politically. After an all-night flight from Washington, Biden arrived in a country traumatized by terrorism and girding for a protracted war against Hamas and put himself at the center of a volatile conflict as rockets and recriminations volleyed back and forth with no end in sight. Air Force One landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport, within range of Hamas rockets from Gaza and abandoned by many international carriers fearful for their security.

Biden’s meetings with Netanyahu and the Israeli war Cabinet came as broken bodies were being pulled from the rubble of the hospital in Gaza City. It was unclear whether an American endorsement of Israel’s denial of responsibility would convince many in the Arab world, where protests have broken out in capitals around the region.

Lebanese authorities used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters near the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank was on high alert Wednesday after protests erupted within hours of the blast. In Bahrain, protesters took to the streets in unusually large demonstrations, chanting “death to Israel” and carrying images of Biden’s face labeled with the word “war criminal,” according to videos shared by Bahraini activists.

Biden was determined to allow no daylight between him and Israel. “I want you to know you’re not alone,” the president said with the cameras on. “You’re not alone. As I emphasized earlier, we will continue to have Israel’s back.”

He also said he had asked Israel to agree to the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.

“Based on the understanding that there will be inspections and that the aid should go to civilians, not to Hamas, Israel agreed that humanitarian assistance can begin to move from Egypt to Gaza,” he said.

“The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas,” Biden said in his remarks. “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.

Netanyahu, who had been at odds with Biden for much of the year until the Hamas attack, appeared delighted to highlight the president’s visit. “From the moment Israel was attacked, you have rightly drawn a clear line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism,” Netanyahu told Biden.

The Israeli prime minister again recounted for Biden the horrors of the attack, describing women being raped, soldiers being beheaded and children hunted down in hiding places in their homes. “Just imagine, Mr. President, the fear and the panic of those little children in their last moments as the monsters discovered and found out their hiding places,” Netanyahu said.

Biden heard some of those stories firsthand when he met with survivors and relatives. Several cried as they related their experiences and thanked him effusively for coming.

Among them was Rachel Edri, a retired grandmother who was held at gunpoint in her home for 20 hours and used food and conversation to keep her captors calm and stall them until she could be rescued. Her son, Evatar Edri, is a police officer who helped free his parents.

Another survivor was Amir Tibon, who huddled in the dark with his wife and two daughters for 10 hours as his kibbutz was attacked by Hamas gunmen until his father, Noam Tibon, a retired general, rushed to his rescue armed only with a handgun.

Rarely has an overseas presidential expedition been so uncertain even in its itinerary at the time of takeoff, and so freighted with jeopardy both political and physical. By making such a high-profile personal visit as Israel mounts punishing airstrikes on Gaza and prepares for a possible ground invasion, Biden effectively risked taking some ownership of Netanyahu’s actions.

The trip began unraveling even before Biden left Washington, as a planned second stop in Amman, Jordan, for a four-way summit meeting with Arab leaders was abruptly canceled by King Abdullah II after the hospital explosion. Aides said Biden would instead speak by telephone during his flight home with two of the Arab leaders he was supposed to meet in Amman: President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

Some of Biden’s senior aides learned only during the motorcade ride to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington that the Jordan stop was being scrapped, and they rushed to confirm it before Air Force One took off.

John F. Kirby, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, played down the rupture, saying that Abbas felt compelled to leave Amman to return to the West Bank to observe three days of mourning for the hundreds killed at the hospital.

“He absolutely had to go home,” Kirby said. “We understand that.” He cited the mourning explanation repeatedly to undercut any impression that it was a snub by Abbas.

A foreign trip by an American commander in chief is normally a highly choreographed affair, mapped out to the minute with predictable and scripted results. Likewise, presidents are not typically brought into conflict zones where their security is uncertain.

When Biden’s predecessors visited Iraq and Afghanistan, they did so in secret, with no announcement until they had safely landed. Even then, they were kept within the confines of American military bases. When Biden made a clandestine trip into war-torn Ukraine earlier this year, that too was kept hidden until he arrived in the capital of Kyiv.

By contrast, Biden’s trip on Wednesday was announced in advance, stunning even some administration officials. Israeli officials, perhaps more accustomed to a certain degree of risk, even publicly disclosed the president’s arrival time and the location of his planned meetings with the prime minister and war Cabinet as if it were all routine.

Never mind that the visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to be rushed along with Netanyahu to a bunker at Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv when air raid sirens sounded on Monday, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany had to be rushed off his plane at Ben-Gurion airport during a visit on Tuesday.

Security was tight as Biden made his way into Tel Aviv, with roads flanked by soldiers armed with assault rifles. But while air raid sirens sounded elsewhere in the country during his stay, the president made it through more than 7 1/2 hours on the ground without hearing any himself.

But others said that Biden, who has long described Netanyahu as an old friend with whom he shares deep differences, would need to strategically use the goodwill he has built among Israelis to emphasize, as he said in a “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, that Hamas does not “represent all the Palestinian people.”

Richard Haass, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the risks of the trip were stark. But he said Biden an opportunity to make clear to Israeli officials that a prolonged occupation or invasion of Gaza would not be realistic or sustainable in the long run.

“Biden is the most popular person in Israel right now. More popular than Bibi Netanyahu,” Haass said, using a nickname for the prime minister. “So I actually think it allows him to make this argument that the only sustainable policy is one that distinguishes between Hamas and Gaza.”

Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff, said that if he had been in the room advising Biden about visiting the Middle East, the security concerns surrounding the president’s travel would have been on his list. But Klain said he was not surprised that the president proceeded with the trip to show solidarity with an ally — particularly after Biden made a secret trip to war-torn Ukraine in February.

“I think he’s going to go there and make clear to the Israelis that we have their back,” Klain said, “and he wants to make sure that they know that we’re going to come up with the aid and the assistance they need. And reinforce the points he has made publicly, that they should conduct their military missions in accordance with the rule of law and international law.”

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