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Trip to Israel ties Biden, United States to any Gaza offensive

WASHINGTON — He came to bolster Israel’s fight against Hamas and to offer aid to Palestinians suffering under an Israeli siege, but by flying into Tel Aviv when he did, US President Joseph R. Biden inextricably linked himself to any fight to come.

Mr. Biden’s eight-hour visit took place a day after a hospital bombing in Gaza City that killed hundreds of Palestinians quickly became a lightning rod in the Arab world.

“From a risk perspective, Biden is now tied to whatever the Israelis decide to do in Gaza,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Biden is wagering that consoling, negotiating with and aiding Israel give him the most influence shaping their actions, he said.

His plans to quickly push billions of dollars more in aid for Israel through Congress is likely to fuel debates on US taxpayer funds. Meanwhile, the US veto of a U.N. resolution calling for a ceasefire has angered allies.

Mr. Biden said the US would provide $100 million in new funding for humanitarian aid in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. The United States has urged Israel to allow humanitarian aid to help Palestinians.

Already, the White House acknowledges it needs to better explain Mr. Biden’s Israel policy at home.

Mr. Biden will give a prime-time White House address on Thursday, to “discuss our response to Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel and Russia’s ongoing brutal war against Ukraine,” the White House said on Wednesday.

After departing Tel Aviv, Mr. Biden gave his first on-the-record press cabin briefing on Air Force One as president to tell reporters he had worked with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Maintaining credibility may only grow harder for Mr. Biden when a ground invasion increases civilian casualties, said Ezra Cohen, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and former US undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

“You have ground troops on the ground, going house to house, battles in the street, with Hamas, with civilians still trapped there because Hamas won’t let them leave,” Mr. Cohen said.

He said Mr. Biden “is going to have to be very concerned about explaining to the American people that Israel follows the law of armed conflict.”

Several vocal critics assert that Israel is not.

Some 78% of Americans, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, support US diplomatic efforts to allow Gaza residents fleeing the fighting to move to a safe country, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Less than half, 41%, said they agreed with a statement that “the US should support Israel” in its conflict with Hamas; just 2% said the US should support the Palestinians.

The situation threatens to unravel years of diplomatic work courting partners in the Arab and Muslim world from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Qatar amid hopes that deeper ties would make Israel safer, counter US foes from Tehran to Moscow and Beijing, and keep US gas prices in check. 

Diplomacy to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel is now on ice as Biden tries to contain a spiraling crisis from engulfing the Middle East and sparking a direct confrontation with Iran.

“Being a president means making bets, and Biden has made one,” Alterman said. “We’ll see how this turns out.” — Reuters

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