President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel was a gamble. With it, he became the first U.S. president to travel to that country while it was at war.
Missiles rain down on Israel daily. The situation on the country’s borders with Gaza in the South and Lebanon in the north is volatile. And yet, physical danger, while a very real consideration on Biden’s trip, was not the greatest risk he was undertaking.
Biden was traveling to a country in which the leader and the coalition surrounding that leader have derided the U.S. president and actively embraced his opponents. Those Israeli leaders have been unreliable allies—failing to support America’s Ukraine initiatives and critical of America’s stance with Iran.
Further, Israel was still reeling from the shock of the vicious terrorist attacks of Oct. 7. The country was emotionally raw. There were no guarantees that Biden’s trip would prove productive, advance U.S. interests or not be undermined by events during his stay.
The degree of the risk involved was made apparent when, as Biden was preparing to depart, reports began to appear of a massive explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Hundreds of people were reportedly killed. But questions swirled about who was responsible for the disaster. Was it the Israelis or Hamas or one of their extremist allies in Gaza?
If it was the Israelis, it would undermine one of the key purposes of Biden’s trip, which was to take steps to reduce the possible civilian toll of the seemingly imminent invasion of Gaza. If it was the Palestinians, who was behind it and why? Within hours, a planned summit that Biden intended to participate in with the heads of neighboring Arab states and a meeting with the head of the Palestinian Authority were cancelled.
Meanwhile, Israel’s National Security Advisor Itamar Ben Gvir, who had himself been convicted of being a terrorist by an Israeli court, made the kind of blood-curdling statement that suggested that some in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition would seek to upstage Biden’s trip and make the U.S. president look like he had miscalculated by coming. Ben Gvir wrote, “As long as Hamas does not release the hostages in its hands—the only thing that needs to enter Gaza are hundreds of tons of explosives from the Air Force, not an ounce of humanitarian aid.”
The response of the Biden team in the wake of the explosion and fire at the hospital was calm, compassionate and resolute.
They determined to proceed with the trip. The White House announced the summit with regional leaders would be postponed. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose extraordinary shuttle diplomacy following the Hamas attack on Israel has been a diplomatic master class stated, “All civilians, Israeli and Palestinian, must be protected. Deeply saddened by the explosion at the Al Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza. As @POTUS said, “The United States stands unequivocally for the protection of civilian life.”
The tenor of the Blinken statement illustrated yet another challenging aspect of the Biden mission. He sought to both show support for Israel, and to seek to temper the Israeli response to the terrorists’ atrocities to ensure it was consistent with international law and that humanitarian concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians would be given priority.
That would surely put him at odds with some in Netanyahu’s cabinet (like Ben Gvir but also Netanyahu himself). It was a delicate balancing act. There were many factors suggesting it could fail.
But Biden, Blinken, and their team had been clear about their objectives from the start. They saw no contradiction between standing foursquare behind Israel’s right to self-defense, while at the same time calling for respect for the rules of war and for the innocent lives on both sides who might be put at risk in the conflict.
Biden’s trip was preceded by a marathon negotiation between Blinken and the Israelis in which the secretary of state sought assurances from the Israelis that humanitarian aid would be allowed into Gaza and civilians protected. Biden’s trip was not agreed to until the commitment was made. In that respect, Biden and Blinken not only carefully laid the groundwork for the trip but they scored a victory even before it began.
Biden’s gamble paid immediate dividends when he landed in Israel on Wednesday. Netanyahu immediately tweeted out the first photo of him and Biden hugging, a sign of how much he valued the support of the U.S. president—support that has eluded him for months due to the Israel’s efforts to undercut democracy in his own country. Netanyahu has been under siege since the terror attacks and there is no doubt he saw the Biden visit as a lifeline.
In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Biden trip was the degree to which it marked a turnabout in the relationship between the two leaders. Netanyahu has for years chosen to bypass the U.S. government when it suited him and to take his case to his supporters in the United States directly—be they members of the GOP, right-wing Jewish voters, evangelical groups or, recently, that noted empowerer of antisemites, Elon Musk. He clearly felt he had his own political equities in the U.S. that he could use to his advantage.
But on Wednesday, an isolated and weakened Netanyahu welcomed a U.S. president to Israel who was clearly one of the country’s most beloved politicians. Billboards had been erected throughout Israel—even before Biden’s trip—thanking him for his immediate support for Israel.
The support was due in part to Biden’s instant response in support of Israel. It was also due to the fact that he backed that up with action, sending not one but two carrier battle groups into the region. Biden connected quickly with Netanyahu and remained in touch. In addition, there was the active diplomatic engagement of Blinken and outreach directly from the president to victims of the Hamas attacks.
Biden also delivered a very effective speech outlining the reasons for his support for Israel that was extremely well-received in Israel. The president, during his visit, built upon these steps that had worked, largely by repeating some of the best of them.
He met with the Israeli prime minister and his war cabinet and he was direct. He would offer support and he expected Israel to prioritize protection of civilians and humanitarian concerns. In both cases, the meeting was apparently successful—with Biden formally announcing the deal to allow humanitarian assistance to move into Gaza from Egypt, and $100 million in new aid for those in need among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. He also announced that later this week he would go to the Congress with a military support package for Israel of unprecedented size. He even became the most important voice in efforts to resolve the question regarding the origins of the hospital explosion. He said U.S. Defense Department analysis determined the explosion was caused by a Palestinian missile gone awry.
Biden also met directly with survivors of the terror attack and his authentic compassion made a deep impression on those in attendance and watching on television. Further, he delivered another set of remarks, underscoring America’s commitment to stand by Israel.
He said, “As long as the United States stands—and we will stand forever—you will not be alone.” The president then went further, however, and made the case for the values-based approach to managing this conflict for which he and his administration have been advocating all along. Biden said, “What sets us apart from the terrorists is we believe in the fundamental dignity of every life—Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Jew, Muslim, Christian, everyone.”
Perhaps most striking was he did something that not only conveyed his message brilliantly, but that also showed a degree of self-awareness and even humility in U.S. leaders that has seldom been displayed. He said, “But I caution you, 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.”
It took a special kind of courage and was profoundly effective. Indeed, the entire speech was extraordinarily well-received. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote, “A simply magnificent, gut-wrenching and inspiring Biden speech in Israel. As an American, a Jew, a human being, I could not be more touched.”
In the wake of the trip, the response from observers in the U.S. and Israel was equally enthusiastic. The gamble had paid off—in large part for all the reasons that successful gambles often do: preparation, experience, and being on the right side of the issues.
We are in the early phases of the Israel-Hamas war. It is always possible that Biden’s bet on supporting Israel and counting on our strong ties to help influence its behavior may be undone by Netanyahu or those around him.
But at one of those critical moments that test and reveal the true character of a president, Biden has again shown that he is not only experienced, empathetic, principled, and effective—but that he has one of the rarest qualities we find in our leaders. He has guts. He has the courage of his convictions. He is willing to undertake risk to get the return he believes is essential to the interests of the U.S. And once again, with this trip, he has delivered.