President Joe Biden’s mission to contain Israel’s confrontation with Hamas was overtaken even before he left Washington on Tuesday evening by fast worsening events that threaten to spill over into a regional war.
A devastating blast at a hospital in Gaza believed to have killed hundreds of people prompted Jordan to cancel the second leg of Biden’s trip. After a visit to Israel, he’d been due in Amman to meet key Arab and Palestinian leaders.
The tragedy – blamed by Hamas on Israel and by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on another Palestinian radical group, Islamic Jihad – reflected the stark risks of a presidential trip amid accelerating events and in a war zone.
But while Biden may be putting his personal security and political prestige on the line, he would have taken a bigger risk by staying home.
The president arrived in Israel Wednesday with the Middle East in peril of sliding toward a disastrous wider war following the barbarism of Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians, which killed more than 1,400 people, and the pounding of the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces in response, which has killed more than 3,000 people, according to authorities on both sides. Following the Gaza hospital blast, protests erupted across the region, including in the West Bank, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Tunisia, as anger over Israel’s response to the Hamas attack reached a new level of intensity ahead of Biden’s arrival in the region.
Biden is seeking to apply US power and demonstrate deterrence to Israel’s adversaries in a way that only a presidential visit – twinned with the deployment of two aircraft carrier battlegroups – can convey. He expressed emotional solidarity with the Jewish state in one of its darkest hours but also strived to alleviate the calamitous plight of Palestinians trapped in Gaza amid relentless Israeli strikes against its Hamas rulers.
“Americans are grieving with you, they really are. And Americans are worried,” Biden told Netanyahu as they began a bilateral meeting, acknowledging the complex dynamic. “Because we know this is not an easy field to navigate, what you have to do.”
His mission represents the most intense engagement by a president in Middle East crisis diplomacy in many years after a long period in which US presidents steered clear of a seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It comes with Biden already deeply invested in another boiling global crisis with massive implications – Ukraine’s effort to repel a Russian invasion that threatened to wipe it off the map. And like any major presidential intervention in a troubled world, Biden’s visit carries the possibility of failure that could damage his political standing at home.
Biden needs to fill a vacuum because an absence of a political or diplomatic dialogue means violence. And the tortured region’s history shows that one horror inevitably begets another in a bloody cycle of escalation and retribution that feeds radicalism and future violence. The world cannot afford the Middle East to be consumed by flames yet again, at a time when war and totalitarianism are challenging the Western order and democracy.
The United States is a vital power in a moment of extreme tensions – not least because it is pledged to Israel’s defense, and it has its own vital interests in containing the crisis. A wider war involving the Jewish s