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New Atlanticist October 18, 2023

Experts react: What did Biden achieve in his visit to Israel?

By Atlantic Council experts

“You are not alone.” In Tel Aviv on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden shared this message of solidarity with Israel, a country at war with Hamas following harrowing attacks by the terrorist group on October 7. He had the US ally’s back in several ways: Biden pledged to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge and to ask Congress for additional funds for Israel’s defense. He also said that US intelligence backs Israel’s contention that Israel was not responsible for the explosion at a hospital in Gaza City that has caused mass protests over the past day—and the cancellation of the Jordan leg of Biden’s trip. At the same time, Biden also announced one hundred million dollars in aid for Gaza, which Israel agreed to allow into the territory. And he urged caution as Israel appears poised to launch a ground invasion in the coming days. 

Below, Atlantic Council experts share their insights on the implications of Biden’s visit for Israel and the wider region. This post will be updated as more reactions come in.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

Carmiel Arbit: Amid strong show of support, Biden delivers a tough but necessary message to Israel

Alia Brahimi: 9/11 is the right analogy—for the wrong reasons

William F. Wechsler: The Israel visit was just the start. Here’s what Biden needs to do next.

Ariel Ezrahi: Thank god for the United States

Emadeddin Badi: Biden should change his tune on Israel if he wants to play a constructive role in the conflict

Richard LeBaron: Showing up was half the battle. Now the hard work of diplomacy begins.

Amjad Ahmad: Biden is falling short on moral clarity and leadership in this conflict

Shalom Lipner: Biden’s unprecedented visit tries to reassert the US as a player in the Middle East

Alissa Pavia: Biden gives a subtle warning about an invasion of Gaza

Nadereh Chamlou: Biden may have bought Muslim and Arab governments some time

Amid strong show of support, Biden delivers a tough but necessary message to Israel

Biden delivered yet another passionate, personal speech in Israel on Wednesday reaffirming his continued unwavering support for Israel and its grieving population as it confronts Hamas in Gaza. But he also showed that he can stand firmly behind Israel while simultaneously delivering difficult messages calling for caution and humanitarian support.  

Among an ambitious list of priorities—from deterrence to American hostages—Biden used the trip to secure an agreement for humanitarian measures that Israel must take as it wages war in Gaza, announcing a surprise one hundred million dollar assistance package to Gaza and the West Bank—small but symbolic in the context of the wider aid that will go to assisting Israel in its war with Hamas. Biden reminded Israel in no uncertain terms that it is both Jewish and a democracy and it must meet its responsibilities as such. Israel, he reminded the country, believes in fundamental human rights and must act accordingly.

Biden is uniquely positioned to pressure Israel on these issues. Through his incredible embrace of the country, Biden has secured the leverage and good will to deliver tough if necessary messages to Israel that it must act according to Western standards as it engages in war. And in so doing, no one in Israel can ever accuse the United States of abandoning the country or its security needs. To the contrary, Biden was met in Israel with a hero’s welcome: At a moment when Netanyahu faces abysmal approval ratings in Israel, Biden, the first US president to travel to Israel during a war, was welcomed by posters that read “Thank You, Mr. President.” Both the public and Israeli press has been overwhelmed—“verklempt”—with his support for the nation in what is arguably its darkest hour.  This is in direct contrast to his Democratic Party predecessor Barack Obama, whose cool and detached response to Israel during wartime was met with an equally chilly response from Israelis. Biden’s firm messages in Tel Aviv today about Israel’s rights and responsibilities may be a tougher pill to swallow than the message he delivered to the American people last week when the war broke out, but there is no better leader to deliver them credibly to the Israeli people.  

Carmiel Arbit is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

9/11 is the right analogy—for the wrong reasons 

At this morning’s joint news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Hamas’s October massacre as “twenty 9/11s” relative to the population of Israel and the United States. He also spoke of a battle between “the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism,” echoing the diagnosis made by the George W. Bush administration after the September 11 attacks. 

There are of course close parallels between the two traumas, not least the element of strategic surprise, the asymmetric balance of power, the deliberate mass murder of civilians, and the shattering of prevailing myths about dominance and omniscience.  

Unfortunately, the analogy risks running deeper than Netanyahu intends. The United States pursued a maximalist response after 9/11, invading Afghanistan and occupying Iraq, without a clear exit strategy or an (achievable) definition of success. This violence unleashed a tsunami of radicalization across the Middle East that continued to drive the threat, bringing the fringe ideology of the perpetrators into the mainstream of a newly destabilized region and inadvertently confirming some of its canons. The elements of dehumanization in the United States’ response to 9/11, both systematic and spontaneous, unraveled global faith in the US-led rules-based order, precipitated a moral crisis at home, and helped to reshape domestic politics in profound and unexpected ways.  

The Israeli armed forces have promised “hell” in Gaza, already dropping six thousand bombs in five days on the small territory, cutting off food, water, medicine, and electricity to the population, and amassing three hundred thousand Israeli troops for a probable ground invasion—with, seemingly, no plan for the day after it is all over. Its airstrikes have killed 3,300 Palestinians, one third of whom were children, a reality which will both devastate and radicalize, and perhaps fuel further savage attacks. Dehumanization is also at work in Israel’s response and is deeply ensconced within official narratives, with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant observing that “we are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly,” a former prime minister protesting “are you seriously asking me about Palestinian civilians… we’re fighting Nazis,” and members of parliament calling for a second Nakba and the use of nuclear weapons against Gaza. This all may portend a moral crisis for Israel, as well as a deepening of international skepticism about the intentions of the West.   

Using a slightly smaller figure than Netanyahu, Biden agreed in his afternoon remarks that the Hamas attack was “like fifteen 9/11s,” but he also recognized that “we made mistakes after 9/11” and cautioned Israel not to be consumed by rage in its own decision making. Whether this much-needed corrective has come in time will be seen in the coming hours and days. But what is certain is that, for millions of people across the Middle East and beyond, 9/11 and its aftermath serve as a deeply troubling—and triggering—precedent.  

Alia Brahimi is a nonresident senior fellow within the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. 

The Israel visit was just the start. Here’s what Biden needs to do next.

Biden arrived in Tel Aviv far more popular among Israelis than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over whom he has significant leverage as a result. In the days following this visit, Biden should not hesitate to use this leverage, though he must do so wisely.

Given this context, the United States has core objectives that are public, military, political, and diplomatic. By his very presence, Biden clearly demonstrated US resolve and friendship to Israelis. His words reinforced this core message. He was willing to put the credibility of the United States on the line to support the Israeli narrative on the recent deadly explosion at the hospital in Gaza City, a critical action given the lack of Israeli credibility among many global audiences. Given the trend lines in the region and in Europe, this in and of itself made the trip worthwhile. But if this is all that emerges from the trip in the end, then it will have been largely a missed opportunity.

Outside observers don’t know the details of the military matters that were discussed when Biden met privately with the Israeli war cabinet—and let’s hope secrets can actually be kept on this subject. But here’s what I would have advised Biden to put on the table. First, in the weeks and months ahead, there must be no daylight between the United States and Israel when it comes to the specifics of the requests for US military assistance. It would be a mistake if the United States were to give Israel a proverbial blank check only for a narrative to develop, as has been the case with Ukraine, that the administration is reluctant to provide what is desired. And differences on this subject should be resolved behind closed doors.

Read more from William F. Wechsler, senior director of Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism.

New Atlanticist

Oct 18, 2023

The Israel visit was just the start. Here’s what Biden needs to do next. 

By William F. Wechsler

The US and Israel should develop and publicly issue a joint set of common principles that will guide the future of Gaza, once Israel’s full military objectives against Hamas are reached.

Conflict Israel

Thank god for the United States

The importance of Biden’s visit to Israel in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas massacre of children, women, and men in Israel cannot be overstated.

The US president found himself in a challenging situation. The Netanyahu government has been intent on undermining Israeli democracy to satisfy the zealots in his government to help him evade prison. This has caused an unprecedented fracture within Israeli society and, dangerously, in the army as well. In addition, the Netanyahu government’s policies alienated Israel’s traditional democratic allies around the world, including its closest friends. Moreover, his policy of “divide and conquer,” namely his unwritten pact with Hamas and weakening of the Palestinian Authority, has clearly failed to ensure security let alone provide peace. What is now also becoming abundantly clear is that prior to the attack, the Netanyahu government shifted critical weapons and military personnel away from the Gaza border, leaving it dangerously exposed in favor of safeguarding settlements in the West Bank. Moreover, the Netanyahu government’s intelligence failure has been reverberating as a shock throughout Israel and the world.

Biden’s statement that the devastating explosion in the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital, which reportedly killed hundreds of Gazan people, was not caused by Israel but rather by “the other team” due to a failed Palestinian militant rocket, was especially important at this time as a message to the Arab street.

But there is another reason for his visit. As has been clear in US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s direct supervision of the Israeli cabinet’s plan for humanitarian aid to Gaza and in the entrance of Benny Gantz and General Gadi Eisenkot into Israel’s wartime unity government, neither the Israeli public nor the US administration trust that Netanyahu and his coalition will make the right decisions alone in this war and beyond. For Israel, this is an existential question and for the United States, it is about its interests in the region and beyond.  

Therefore, the visit will ultimately be judged as successful if it succeeds in:

  • Demonstrating the United States’ unwavering military support for Israel’s defense and the eradication of Hamas military and government officials and institutions from the Gaza Strip.
  • Providing the necessary deterrence against other terrorist actors supported by Iran from entering the war.
  • Securing the release of the Israeli hostages from Gaza.
  • Ensuring agreements are in place so Gazan civilians will be protected during the conflict.
  • Aligning with the United States’ allies in the region and beyond to bring stability to the region.
  • Setting in motion with Israeli, regional, and international leaders a plan for the “day after” on securing long-term Israeli borders, establishing a Palestinian Authority or international protectorate regime governing Gaza, launching reconstruction of southern Israel and Gaza that can be the basis for an eventual peaceful settlement, and ensuring Israel remains a democracy both in times of peace and in terms of the standards of its conduct in combat.

Time will tell whether the visit will succeed in all of the above (and some of the details will remain classified for now) but certainly the visit itself is a step in that direction.

Ariel Ezrahi is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Biden should change his tune on Israel if he wants to play a constructive role in the conflict

The deadly explosion from the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza has sent ripples across Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa. From Rabat to Baghdad, thousands of anti-Israeli protesters mobilized, galvanized by solidarity with Palestinians and outrage over the horrific scenes of the tragedy’s aftermath. Even Arab leaders, whose political maneuvering tends to disregard public sentiment, were forced to heed the regional groundswell of frustration. More out of self-preservation than sincere indignation, the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all attributed responsibility to Israel and publicly condemned the purported strike. The Israel Defense Forces said the rocket came from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, and both Biden and the Pentagon said Wednesday that their evidence showed Israel was not responsible.

The explosion of the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital could not have happened at a more critical time. First, it comes after Egypt categorically refused to facilitate what the United Nations special rapporteur for Palestine called the “ethnic cleansing” of Gaza’s residents into Sinai by opening its border. The Israeli military has also amassed troops and is threatening to move forward with an ill-conceived ground invasion of Gaza, which would increase the risk of regional escalation, as Iran and Hezbollah would likely openly join the conflict. Lastly, the explosion has derailed Biden’s planned summit with Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian leaders, which was canceled by his counterparts. Biden only visited Israel on his trip. 

Biden’s messaging is defining the conflict’s trajectory and the tone he strikes is shaping the global zeitgeist. In the Middle East and North Africa region and beyond, the US administration’s stance is viewed as objectionable and tone-deaf. Biden’s one-sided solidarity with Israel and his emphasis on Israel’s right to self-defense ad nauseam are fast becoming counterproductive public postures. By blindly doubling down on these mantras, Biden is making a strategic mistake that is damaging the United States’ global image. He is also rendering US diplomacy incapable of playing a mediating role in this conflict for the foreseeable future. Biden would do well to “read the region” and, at least privately, push the need for a durable ceasefire to give Israel an off-ramp. In so doing, he would preserve US interests by saving Israel from its worst impulses and gain the goodwill of Arab audiences and his many other interlocutors in the region. More importantly, he would also usher in a much-needed de-escalation that would save both Palestinian and Israeli lives.

Emadeddin Badi is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

Showing up was half the battle. Now the hard work of diplomacy begins.

Biden knows that “showing up is half the battle.” It is the message his brief visit to Israel has sent around the world and it is the message that his senior officials have sent by their consultations in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East over the days since the October 7 attack. 

But now the showing up chapter turns into the “long slog” phase. This will include continued intense diplomatic efforts to enlist other leaders in the region to help de-escalate the situation. This phase will include behind the scenes efforts to extricate hostages from Hamas and its allies. It will call for the negotiation of temporary ceasefires to allow for humanitarian movement of people and goods. It will require others in the region to exert influence on Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups in order to establish some hope for Israeli acquiescence to a path forward that minimizes further human catastrophes. 

The full resources of US diplomacy will be called upon to make sure there is no situation that requires nearby US forces to move from deterrence to active intervention, with the risk of war with Iran. A big part of that job will include helping the Israeli leadership choose options that have some chance of achieving reasonable objectives without making the situation worse.

Biden is fortunate to be surrounded by a capable team of senior officials. We are all depending on their skill and tenacity in the coming weeks and months. 

Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs focusing on the Gulf and on broad social change in the MENA region.

Biden is falling short on moral clarity and leadership in this conflict

Biden’s trip to Israel is fraught with challenges at this delicate time in the Middle East. But it also presents a unique opportunity. While he expectedly reiterated his unwavering support for Israel and denounced Hamas, messaging that speaks directly to domestic interests and audiences ahead of a challenging 2024 US presidential campaign, he should also provide the moral clarity and leadership required of the United States by acknowledging the plight of the Palestinian people and supporting a clearer path to a just solution.

In the case of Ukraine, Biden has been rightly unambiguous in condemning Russia and using economic and political influence to mobilize the world to end its aggression. But he has been unwilling to compel Israel, arguably the closest US ally and one of its largest financial beneficiaries, to end its decades of occupation of the Palestinian people. This hypocrisy has tarnished the reputation of the United States across the world, especially in the Global South and among young people. Moreover, it has given ammunition to competitors, such as China, to make the case worldwide that the United States only stands up for human rights when it suits its interests.

Rather than seeking justice for the Palestinians and lasting regional peace, successive US administrations pursued the Abraham Accords, a shallow strategy built on transactional deals with Arab nations to strengthen Israel’s regional position and create a security architecture to counter Iran. A just solution for the Palestinian people was put aside for political expediency and to subjugate them to accept whatever was on offer, no matter how little. Until the United States and Israel realize that real peace is predicated on getting the buy-in of the people of the region rather than just that of their leaders, the Palestinian issue will continue to erode the United States’ standing in the Middle East and beyond. And it will continue to contribute to a cycle of violence that destabilizes the broader region and prevents the full economic and social development that its people deserve and desire.

 Amjad Ahmad is chairman of the empowerME Initiative at the Atlantic Council and managing partner and emerging market advisor at 500 Global.

Biden’s unprecedented visit tries to reassert the US as a player in the Middle East

Biden’s unprecedented mission to Israel—no US president has ever paid a wartime visit to the country—took place against the inauspicious backdrop of the tragic explosion of Gaza’s al-Ahli Baptist Hospital on Tuesday. The initial recriminations of Hamas, together with subsequently released Israeli footage which appears to substantiate claims that the facility was struck by an errant rocket launched from within Gaza—a narrative that Biden endorsed on Wednesday, based on data provided by the Pentagon—are illustrative of the dense fog of war that greeted Biden as he arrived in the region.

With the originally planned Amman leg of Biden’s trip canceled after the rulers of Jordan and Egypt, as well as the Palestinian Authority, called off a summit meeting, all eyes were trained on Tel Aviv, where Biden convened with Israeli principals. He arrived at a critical time, with the Israel Defense Forces poised to embark on expanded ground operations in the Gaza Strip and also deployed on Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon, where cross-border exchanges with Hezbollah are intensifying. Biden—whose overwhelming support for the Netanyahu government’s campaign to eradicate Hamas has made him more popular in Israel than the country’s own leaders—came looking to contain an already explosive situation.

The deployment of two US Navy carrier strike groups in the Eastern Mediterranean aims to deter Hezbollah, Iran’s local proxy, from being tempted to widen the conflict by opening a second front against Israel. (Administration officials have reportedly been discussing the possibility of employing genuine force if that more subtle message is ignored.) Additionally, Biden sought to facilitate the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, in the hope of relieving the suffering of noncombatants and mitigating criticism of Israel’s US-backed offensive against Hamas and other terrorist factions; Israel’s war cabinet has promised to oblige.

More broadly, the White House is hoping to boost its credentials as an engaged player in the Middle East theater, at a time when several of its ostensible partners have questioned the United States’ commitment to their welfare and been courted simultaneously by Chinese and Russian suitors. But with regional powers—including Turkey and Saudi Arabia—now expressing vociferous condemnation of Israel’s response to the brutal October 7 raid, and with Israel promising that “what was in Gaza will no longer be,” the immediate horizon for any US pursuit of Israel’s greater integration into the region seems bleak.                             

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. He previously served seven consecutive Israeli premiers over a quarter-century at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Biden gives a subtle warning about an invasion of Gaza

Biden, in characterizing Israel as a “democracy” much like the United States, underscored his view that Israel operates under the “rule of law” rather than adhering to the tactics of terrorists. This depiction creates a narrative that pits the West against entities like Hamas, framing it as a battle between democratic values and extremism. The president’s intention was likely to emphasize Israel’s right to self-defense and convey that the fight against Hamas is not just Israel’s, but a cause supported by the entire Western world; that this is not solely about US interests but is also about the broader human interest in countering terrorism.

Biden also expressed words of regret for some aspects of US policy after 9/11, when he reiterated that “While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes,” likely in reference to the US invasion of Iraq. These are strong words that hint he advises against an invasion of Gaza, as such a move could hinder the path to Palestinian statehood. It will also place Israel in a position of responsibility for the well-being of Palestinians in Gaza under occupation, which Israel has historically neglected time and time again. Occupying Gaza will draw harsh criticism toward Israel, which in turn will reflect on the United States, as its main ally in the region, and make future US commitments to Israel harder to justify to Congress as well as the US public at large.

Alissa Pavia is the associate director of the Atlantic Council’s North Africa Program.

Biden may have bought Muslim and Arab governments some time

The loudest sound around the world Wednesday morning must have been the sigh of relief of Arab and other Muslim leaders that the initial evidence indicates that the explosions at the el-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza were the work of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and not Israel. Otherwise, the pressure on such governments would be immeasurable in how to balance the sentiments of their people as expressed by the rage of pro-Palestinian protesters, generally young men, with the need to contain the conflict. There is great hope that this early finding and Israel’s denials will be confirmed in the long run and not reversed as were Israel’s earlier denials about the 2022 killing of Al-Jazeera journalist Shirin Ab-Akleh or the 1982 massacre in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. These were also initially refuted, but later confirmed by the Israeli government itself. At least for the moment, and with Biden putting his credibility on the line, there is room for doubt as to who to blame. Perhaps the president is more careful this time about confirming Israeli claims than he was about having seen pictures of beheaded children, a statement the White House had to reverse. Nonetheless, the strong message he sent that the United States would jump in should the conflict metastasize heralds potential unimaginable carnage on a region that the Economist saw as highly promising a few weeks ago. It may help Muslim and Arab governments to buy some time—though the anger in Arab streets persists.    

This said, all fingers in this fight continue to be pointed to the Islamic Republic of Iran as the mastermind of the current crisis. While its direct role has still yet to be demonstrated, the regime ordered its supporters into pro-Hamas demonstrations, and it is noteworthy that the Iranian people inside and outside the country have voiced their opposition to Hamas. From slogans at soccer games and expressions of sympathy for Israeli victims to anti-Hamas demonstrations abroad—they have been clear that Israel, as the nemesis of the regime they oppose, is not their enemy. 

Among the signs of the Iranian public’s sentiment vis-à-vis the Hamas-Israeli conflict was Wednesday’s memorial for the world-renowned Iranian film director Darioush Mehrjoui and his wife, Vahideh Mohammadifar, who were bludgeoned to death in their home a few days ago. Mehrjoui had recently raised his voice in favor of the opposition to the regime. Though some ten people seem to have been arrested in the meantime, there is widespread belief that it was a government-ordered assassination, as there are many similarities to the 1990s serial killings of intellectuals. The memorial attracted a who’s-who of the Iranian art world, with many women openly defying the compulsory hijab. 

When a prominent actress uttered a few words in support of the regime’s fight against Israel and Zionism, the audience booed extensively and instead chanted “No Gaza, no Lebanon—my life is for Iran.” In response to the flood of fierce criticism, she has since walked back her statement. So strong is the pressure of public opinion. Hence, while the regime may be cheering from afar and grandstanding to incite more Arab resistance, the leaders of the Islamic Republic know well that should the conflict come to Iran’s shore, they can no longer count on people’s sacrifice as they did during the Iran-Iraq war. They themselves may be among the first casualties.  

Nadereh Chamlou is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s empowerME initiative and an international development advisor.

Further reading

Related Experts: Carmiel Arbit, Alia Brahimi, Ariel Ezrahi, Emadeddin Badi, Richard LeBaron, Amjad Ahmad, Shalom Lipner, and Alissa Pavia

Image: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein