President Biden Heads to Israel

As a Delaware politician, Senator Joe Biden spent decades talking to every person who wanted to talk with him and tried to connect with them on a personal level, in joy and in grief. It’s no surprise that President Joe Biden feels a need to travel to Israel and meet the leadership. He will join them in mourning their losses, and he will offer his support. It is the only way he thinks he can have any influence over them, for their own sake, as well as for his own.

Biden has worked with Netanyahu for almost 40 years. There is no world leader he has engaged with for longer. Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel for 50 years, and his connection to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is long and deep. The shock and pain he feels at the events of October 7 are genuine. He began his remarks on October 10 noting, “There are moments in this life . . . when pure, unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world.” In response, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren tweeted, “President Biden’s speech was the most passionately pro-Israel in history.”

Yet Biden brings his own painful experience to his engagement with the Israelis. During the Obama administration, he held the Iraq file. He saw the limits to shaping the post-conflict environment even with an overwhelming military victory. He saw the way an extended occupation not only cost lives and money, but also had a way of distorting both the occupied and the occupier. He carries the wounds of the fight against the Islamic State, as well as the post-conflict successes that can come from separating terrorists from the civilians they hide among.

Israeli leadership is in no mood for an intellectual exercise. They are deeply shaken, and they want retribution. They feel a deep and urgent need to reassert their deterrence, and a necessity to wipe Hamas from the face of the earth.

Biden understands that in order to talk, especially in moments like this, he will need to listen first. He will grieve and communicate resolve. He will reiterate to Israelis that he is completely with them, and he will recite a long list of things the United States is doing—directly with Israel, in the Middle East more generally, and around the world—to ensure that the Israelis feel they have a strong partner at their side.

And then, he will ask hard questions. What comes next? How will a new leadership emerge? How will the United States ensure that Israel’s enemies cannot spring all of the traps they have set in Gaza, ensnaring it in a long-running conflict that drains Israel of blood and treasure and reverses the diplomatic progress Israel has made in the region and around the world?

In Biden’s mind, the way Israel fights in the coming weeks and months will have a profound effect on Israel’s fortunes, as well as American ones. While Israel’s first thought is not on humanitarian principles or the rules of war, they need to be an important element of Israeli conduct.

Biden does not think he can dictate to Israelis right now, nor can he pressure them. But he can talk to them as a steadfast friend. That’s what he’s going to do, even if he doesn’t know the result. But as a politician whose career has spanned three generations, this trip encapsulates precisely the way he thinks he has influence. It is not by presenting the most exquisitely elaborate plan. It is by sitting down, face-to-face, listening, and connecting. It got him elected senator six times in Delaware, and it served him through eight years as vice president. At the moment of Israel’s greatest peril in a half-century or more, it’s hard to imagine Biden would do it any other way.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program