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Here's what Biden's trip to Israel did and didn't achieve

President Joe Biden, center left, during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center right, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday.
Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP
President Joe Biden, center left, during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center right, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday.

Updated October 20, 2023 at 4:31 PM ET

Normally, when a U.S. president visits Israel, there are weeks or months of planning and preparations. But President Biden's trip this week, following the brazen Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, came at a time that was anything but normal.

The high-stakes visit served simultaneously to illustrate the limits and the capability of U.S. influence in the region, and the importance of America's long-standing relationship with Israel.

It also inevitably ties the administration to whatever comes next, analysts say — including more deadly Israeli airstrikes in the densely populated Gaza Strip, targeting Hamas, and the possibility of a bloody ground campaign, where civilian casualties could quickly mount, further inflaming anger among Israel's Arab neighbors. So far, more than 3,400 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.

While Biden's 31-hour visit was largely symbolic, he also managed concrete accomplishments. These included announcing $100 million in aid to the Palestinians, and convincing Israel to agree to allow humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza and persuading Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi to open up a vital land crossing into southern Gaza.

In a 15-minute televised speech Thursday from the Oval Office after returning from Israel, Biden sought to leverage the moment to go directly to average Americans.

Drawing a parallel between U.S. support for Ukraine and Israel, Biden said that while the two conflicts "can seem far away," they are "vital for America's national security."

"History has taught us when terrorists don't pay a price for their terror, when dictators don't pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction," Biden said. "They keep going. And the cost and the threat to America and the world keep rising."

The president on Friday asked Congress for almost $106 billion for Israel, Ukraine, countering China in the Indo-Pacific, and operations on the southern U.S. border.

Biden made an unusual wartime trip

In Israel, Biden sought to make U.S. support crystal clear — but also to warn Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a proportional response to the Hamas attacks means protecting the lives of innocent Palestinians.

The visit almost didn't happen. Biden said his team weighed whether it should even take place. Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid the groundwork in a whirlwind visit to the Middle East last week that included seven hours of talks with Netanyahu and his war cabinet.

The president met with families of victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and with first responders.

"This is ... almost the equivalent of trips to American disaster areas," says Thomas Schwartz, a historian at Vanderbilt University. It was symbolic, he says, and was meant to show "how tightly Israel and concerns about Israel" are embedded in the American political system.

President Joe Biden meets with victims' relatives and first responders who were directly affected by the Hamas attacks, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv.
Evan Vucci / AP
/
AP
President Biden meets with victims' relatives and first responders who were directly affected by the Hamas attacks, Wednesday, in Tel Aviv.

Biden's visit was meant to reassure Israel — and warn Iran and Hezbollah

The trip served to reassure Israel that Biden "prioritizes the need for the U.S. to actually engage in this question, rather than step back from it," says Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute.

That message of engagement was not only directed at Israel, but also to the rest of the Middle East — particularly Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia it backs, Katulis says.

Biden's visit reinforced his earlier warnings, in addition to the hard-power signals sent by U.S. deployment of carrier task groups to the eastern Mediterranean.

"The main threat right now is the prospect of Iran and their proxy in Lebanon joining in," says Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.

He says Biden and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "were very clear in warning Iran and Hezbollah, and this was a major contribution by the Biden administration to consolidating the status quo."

Arab leaders canceled their meeting with Biden

But a planned meeting between Biden and regional leaders fell apart after a catastrophic explosion at a hospital in Gaza killed hundreds of Palestinians just hours before the president landed in Israel.

Biden had planned to stop in Amman, Jordan, where he was scheduled for discussions with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Egypt's El-Sissi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Arab leaders called off the meeting following the hospital explosion.

"I don't think the door is shut between the Biden administration and the key Arab countries just because of the cancellation of the meeting in Amman," Katulis says.

Biden urged Israel to avoid repeating past U.S. "mistakes"

Biden said he also wants to help Israel avoid some of the mistakes the U.S. made in its "war on terror" following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida.

"Justice must be done," the president said in Israel. "But I caution this: 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."

Katulis says "there's genuine concern" among U.S. officials about civilian casualties and "how that can negatively impact the mission itself and achieving the desired goals that Israel has stated."

The U.S., he says, wants "to help Israelis learn from the lessons" the U.S. learned in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Was Netanyahu and his government receptive? It remains uncertain at this time, and time will tell as the Gaza war unfolds," Katulis says.

The fate of U.S. hostages seized by Hamas remains uncertain

Israeli officials estimate Hamas militants took about 200 hostages with them back to Gaza. A White House readout of discussions between Biden and Netanyahu said the two "discussed ongoing efforts to secure the release of hostages taken by Hamas — including Americans."

Days after Biden's return from Israel, Hamas announced the release of two American hostages on Friday. Secretary of State Blinken said 10 U.S. citizens who had been in Israel were still unaccounted for and some are believed to be held hostage by Hamas.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby has said the U.S. is "actively trying to find out exactly where" the American hostages are located and is doing its utmost to gain their release.

"I think there's some hope in the fact that President Biden himself had prioritized this and talked directly to some of the families of the hostages," Katulis says. But he calls the fate of those American captives "a big open question."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.