It was over in the blink of an eye. U.S. President Joe Biden returned to Washington after spending less than eight hours in Tel Aviv, where he gave a fiery speech in support of Israel. The trip was intended to be Biden’s effort to prevent the conflict from escalating and to moderate Israel’s reaction to the Hamas attacks. But the bombing of the al-Ahli Al Arab Hospital in Gaza put a stop to those plans. Biden’s unwavering support for Israel, Washington’s initial assessment that the Palestinian militia Islamic Jihad was responsible for the attack and the cancellation of the Jordan summit with Arab leaders threatens to add further fuel to the unrest, and may also take a toll on the president at home.
This Thursday at 8:00 p.m. Biden plans to give a televised speech about the conflict in the Near East and the war in Ukraine, as announced by his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre.
Biden had staked a lot on the trip. His goal was to hone his credentials as an empathetic mediator, who was respected by all parties. And to defend his policy in the region, in which he has tried to facilitate the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and to thaw ties with Iran. Biden has invested years of work and diplomacy in this policy, but it now threatens to fall apart.
Rather than appearing as the conciliatory mediator, through his enthusiastic words of support for Israel and his photos with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — which were not balanced by photo ops with Arab leaders — he now risks being identified with the military campaign that Israel is preparing to launch in Gaza. This campaign is feared to take a deadly toll on the Palestinian people, and the Arab world is already condemning the move, especially after the explosion at the Gaza hospital on Tuesday. The Netanyahu government says a rocket from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militia was responsible for the attack. Arab countries believe it was due to a missile fired by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Biden to Israel: “You are not alone”
Before leaving Tel Aviv, Biden repeatedly stressed that Israel counted on the support of the U.S. “You are not alone. You are not alone. As long as the United States stands — and we will stand forever — we will not let you ever be alone,” he said in a passionate speech, in which he also highlighted the need to protect human lives on both sides. “The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas,” he stressed.
Biden believed that his clear support for Israel would help him influence the Netanyahu government and extract concessions from it. The two leaders did agree to one of the U.S. president’s main demands. “Israel agreed that humanitarian assistance can begin to move from Egypt to Gaza,” said Biden in his public remarks. More than a hundred containers of humanitarian aid were waiting at the Rafah border crossing connecting Gaza with Egypt, which is the only crossing not controlled by Israel. The aid could not enter Gaza until the Netanyahu government gave the green light.
On his return route to Washington, Biden planned to speak by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to discuss this humanitarian assistance, ways to minimize the suffering of civilians in Gaza and how to prevent the crisis from deepening and spreading.
But his attempts to pressure Israel to restrain its response to the Hamas attacks and his contacts with Arab leaders do not appear to have eased tensions in the region, where protest demonstrations continued. The U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to Gaza has only fueled resentment.
Anger and frustration
“Biden’s strong support for Israel has contributed to the heightened anger and frustration in the region. As we have seen in the protests of the last 24 hours, that anger is palpable and will only grow as long as the United States continues to block a ceasefire or even a humanitarian pause at the U.N.,” said Professor Osamah Khalil, from Syracuse University, in an email. “It is the responsibility of President Biden and Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken to take steps toward a diplomatic solution that prevents a broader regional conflict and further loss of innocent life.”
The fury in Arab countries threatens to derail the U.S.’s flagship project in the region: the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Representatives from Saudi Arabia indicated that talks on that topic have been suspended.
Washington’s support for Israel also raises complications for Biden on the domestic front, as the U.S. prepares to enter the campaign for next year’s presidential elections. So far, both Democrats and Republicans back support for Israel. A poll published last weekend by CNN indicated that 96% of voters feel some level of sympathy for Israel in the face of the Hamas attacks. More than 70% declared they felt “a lot.” Regarding the Palestinian population, 82% felt sympathy, but only 41% felt “a lot.”
Another poll, carried out by Quinnipiac, estimates that 85% of voters are concerned about the possibility of the conflict worsening, while 76% believe that supporting Israel is of benefit to U.S. national security.
But Biden’s plans to ask Congress to approve billions of dollars in military aid to Israel could spark fierce debates among lawmakers; a minority among the Republican opposition already rejects assistance to Ukraine. Biden has announced $100 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza.
Support for the government’s positions could change if the humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to worsen or the number of Palestinian deaths increases as a result of Israeli attacks. Some critics have begun to voice their opposition, including lawmakers from the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Among young people, unconditional support for Israel is lower than among older voters: 51% of the under-34 population are opposed to sending weapons to Israel.
These differences of opinion were evident during protests at several universities, such as Columbia in New York, where there were clashes between the supporters of each side. On Wednesday, 300 people were arrested after breaking into the Capitol in a demonstration called by Jewish groups in favor of the Palestinians.
The U.S. State Department also received a call from Warren David, the president of Arab America, who warned of “the demonization of Palestinians in Gaza and of Arabs in general” that “has really escalated hatred” against that community, according to Politico.
Last weekend, in the state of Illinois, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy was stabbed to death by his landlord, who yelled “you Muslims must die” as he also tried to choke the child’s mother.
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