U.S. President Joe Biden promised an “unprecedented” package of military aid for Israel, during a historic trip to the country in the midst of its war with Hamas.
Mr. Biden landed in Tel Aviv on Wednesday for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet, a visit that put Mr. Biden near the front lines of a war zone for the second time this year, after a February trip to Kyiv.
“I come to Israel with a single message: you are not alone,” he said at the Kempinski Hotel after the meetings. “As long as the United States stands, and we will stand forever, we will not let you ever be alone.”
Mr. Biden also said data from the U.S. Defense Department suggests that Israel was not to blame for a deadly explosion at a Gaza hospital on Tuesday. “It appears to be the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza,” he said.
The Israel Defense Forces have said the explosion was caused by a rocket fired by Islamic Jihad, a violent Islamist group that is active in Gaza. The Palestinian territory’s Hamas-controlled government and Islamic Jihad have blamed an Israeli air strike.
Despite the often distant relationship between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Biden – who has criticized the Israeli Prime Minister’s attempts to weaken Israel’s judiciary – Mr. Netanyahu effusively praised the U.S. leader. “There’s only one thing better than having a true friend like you standing with Israel, and that is having you standing in Israel,” he said. “It is deeply, deeply moving.”
Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack – which the Israeli government says has resulted in more than 1,400 deaths in Israel, and dozens more people abducted – Mr. Biden has unconditionally backed Israel, sending additional ammunition and restocking its Iron Dome missile defence system. He has also dispatched two groups of U.S. warships to the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran or its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, from getting into the war.
For the next tranche of military aid to Israel, Mr. Biden will likely need congressional approval. He did not say how much the package would cost, but it is expected to be part of a large military funding request that will also include weapons for Ukraine and security along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The largest current impediment to marshalling that aid is dysfunction in the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority has spent three weeks fighting over the chamber’s speakership.
Mr. Biden also delivered a warning to Israel, telling the country to find “clarity about the objectives” it is seeking militarily – an apparent reference to the U.S.’s failed military campaigns of the past 20 years.
“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,” he said.
He urged Israel to follow the “law of wars” and take a humanitarian approach to Palestinian civilians. “Hamas does not represent all the Palestinian people and has brought them only suffering,” he said at his sit-down with Mr. Netanyahu.
In the aftermath of the Hamas attack, Israel cut off Gaza’s supplies of food, fuel and water. The blockade on essential supplies has exacerbated the crisis in Gaza, where almost 3,500 Palestinians have died since the start of the war, according to Palestinian officials. Aid trucks are backed up at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt, but they have been unable to get through.
Israel’s cabinet agreed on Wednesday, at Mr. Biden’s urging, to allow aid into Gaza through Egypt “as long as it is only food, water and medicine for the civilian population,” according to a statement from Mr. Netanyahu’s office. The aid must stay in Gaza’s south, to which Israel has told civilians to evacuate, and “not reach Hamas,” the statement said. Israel said it would not allow any aid through the Israeli crossings into Gaza until Hamas releases the hostages it took from Israel during the attack.
“If Hamas diverts or steals the assistance,” Mr. Biden said, the aid “will end.” He promised US$100-million more in U.S. aid for Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, and said he was working with Egypt and the United Nations to get aid into Gaza.
Later, after speaking with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi by phone, Mr. Biden told reporters that Mr. el-Sisi had agreed to allow up to 20 aid trucks across at Rafah. Speaking aboard Air Force One on his way back to Washington, he said the trucks were not expected to move until Friday, because damaged roads needed to be fixed and United Nations workers had to get in place to distribute the aid.
Mr. Biden said he would also secure the evacuation of the estimated 500 U.S. citizens who are stuck in Gaza, but added that he could not say much about it.
He was also mum on efforts to get back Hamas’s hostages, including as many as 13 Americans. He said the U.S. was involved, but that he could not say more for fear of jeopardizing recovery efforts. After his sit-downs with the Israeli government, he met with the families of abductees and survivors of the massacre.
The trip was, in part, a bid by the President to demonstrate a central tenet of his foreign policy: backing U.S. allies.
He often took an emotional tone as he compared Hamas’s killings to the Holocaust. “We will not stand by and do nothing again. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”