Biden weighs the risks of a wartime visit to Israel

President Biden debated Monday whether to travel to Israel in the coming days to show solidarity with America’s closest ally in the Middle East, but also to call for an end to what appears set to be a deadly ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Biden met with top intelligence officials and his closest advisers in the Oval Office to discuss the invitation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made over the weekend. If Mr. Biden decides to fly to Jerusalem, officials said, he will likely do so later this week.

It would be a journey fraught with risks, both political and physical.

While Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who is in Jerusalem on his second visit in a week, supported the ouster of Hamas, they also stressed to Mr. Netanyahu’s government that when Israel is seen blowing up buildings and causing Palestinian casualties, the narrative will change. It will focus less on the October 7 terrorist attack, with scenes of burned bodies and massacred children, and more on the brutality of the response.

Two administration officials, noting pro-Palestinian marches in Europe, New York and on some American college campuses, said in interviews that they can already sense public sentiment shifting. They spoke on the condition of anonymity about the administration’s internal assessments.

Mr. Biden’s visit would be an extraordinary show of support for Israel amid the war, similar to Mr. Biden’s brief trip to Ukraine in February to shore up international support for President Volodymyr Zelensky. And just as Mr. Biden’s trip to Kiev came as Ukraine was on the brink of a major military operation, the visit to Jerusalem would come as hundreds of thousands of Israeli troops were poised to push their way through Gaza’s congested urban landscape to fulfill Netanyahu’s vow to eliminate Hamas.

The physical risk of such a trip was clear on Monday when sirens warning of incoming rockets or missiles sounded as Mr. Blinken met at the military base with Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet. Mr. Blinken and his hosts were taken to a bunker and kept there for five minutes before continuing their conversation. (There was a similar warning when Mr. Biden toured several blocks of Kiev with Mr. Zelensky in February.)

Mr. Biden has often said he feels very comfortable in Israel, which was evident during his one visit as president, in July 2022. Mr. Netanyahu was out of power at the time, which was fine with the Biden team. The administration has been at odds with the Israeli leader over his efforts at judicial reforms that would bolster his power and his far-right coalition’s efforts to expand settlements in disputed lands.

Now, however, Mr. Netanyahu heads a unity government assembled specifically to prosecute the war, combined with former defense minister Benny Gantz and his centrist party. Biden’s aides hope that the central role of Mr. Gantz, a former general who served in the Israel Defense Forces for 38 years, will change the dynamics of their talks. But Mr. Gantz campaigned against Mr Netanyahu in 2019 portraying himself as a hardliner, boasting that when he was chief of the general staff, the top military service, “parts of Gaza were returned to the Stone Age”. He was also accused of unnecessary civilian casualties.

The political risks for Mr. Biden are hard to gauge. In his first major public effort to encourage caution in Israel, Mr. Biden warned on Sunday’s “60 Minutes” that “I think it would be a huge mistake” for Israel to reoccupy Gaza, a step Israeli officials say they have no intention of taking. But they did not explain who would govern the Gaza Strip in the absence of Hamas, or how they could prevent a similar group from rising from the ashes of Gaza City.

He also warned that “there should be a Palestinian Authority. There must be a path to a Palestinian state.” He and others in the administration have been repeating, with increasing frequency, that most Palestinians in Gaza do not support Hamas, which has now controlled part of the country for more than 16 years.

Israeli officials offer assurances that they will work to limit the number of civilian deaths. They blame Hamas for telling Gazans to stay put instead of heeding Israeli warnings to evacuate to the south – where Israel is already firing missiles. However, several U.S. officials noted that reservists returned to service by Israel generally have little training in urban warfare and are likely to shoot at anything that moves.

The visits by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Mr. Blinken, and now perhaps Mr. Biden, are designed in part to get Israeli officials thinking about how to get into Gaza without getting stuck there — and not be seen as indifferent to Palestinian civilians. So far, according to one official involved in the talks, Israeli officials have said it is too early to think about the future of Gaza because Hamas must be eliminated first.

“Biden believes he has the moral authority here,” said Thomas R. Nides, who served as Mr. Biden’s ambassador to Israel until he resigned over the summer. “He stood up for the state of Israel. He believes they are right to dismantle Hamas. But he wants to show that he stands up for humanity.”

The result is that Mr. Biden’s aides have been trying to buy some time. Keeping American officials in Jerusalem, they note, forces Israeli officials to continue discussing their plans. Assuming the White House makes delaying the invasion a condition of his arrival, the presidential trip could give the Israelis more time to prepare for any operation and allow more Gazans to evacuate.

As Mr. Biden’s administration works to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, it has so far not criticized Israel’s moves to cut off electricity and food there. But Arab leaders protested to US officials that the blockade constituted collective punishment and was illegal under the laws of war.

Blinken’s attempt to create an escape hatch for Palestinians — or even Americans trapped in Gaza — has so far been unsuccessful. In a long meeting on Sunday, Mr Blinken failed to convince Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to open the only gate in southern Gaza and allow Palestinians to flee into the Egyptian desert, away from the fighting. The public parts of Mr. Blinken’s meeting with the Egyptian leader were tense, with Mr. Sisi accusing the United States and its allies of being more shocked by the killing of Israelis than a decade and a half of Palestinian captivity in Gaza.

“Yes, it is true that what happened in the past nine days was very difficult and too much, and we condemn it unequivocally,” Mr Sisi told Mr Blinken on Sunday. “But we must understand that this is the result of accumulated anger and hatred over four decades, where the Palestinians had no hope of finding a solution. Many are asking: is this the right time to talk about it or should we just try to find a way out of the current crisis?”

Unlike other presidents who have called for Israeli restraint during past conflicts, Mr. Biden stressed that Israel has every right to defend itself. The visit, said Richard Fontaine, head of the Center for a New American Security, “would be a further embrace and reaffirmation that regime change in Gaza is the right choice.”

As in Ukraine, Mr. Biden said he would support the effort on anything but sending Americans with Israeli forces.

Mr. Biden has sent U.S. warships and aircraft to the region to deter Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, from expanding the war. Two carrier groups, one named after President Gerald R. Ford and the other after Dwight D. Eisenhower, are positioned to hit Hezbollah missile sites in Lebanon or elsewhere if another front opens. A senior official said Mr. Biden would have to issue specific orders for the carrier groups to use their firepower, but reportedly indicated he was willing to do so.

Meanwhile, U.S. military officers with vivid memories of the 2004 battle for Fallujah — a six-week battle against Iraqi insurgents that was one of the most intense urban battles of modern times — have been imparting the lessons of that battle, and those of Mosul, to their Israeli counterparts.

In terms of domestic policy, the trip would provide a pretty clear counterpoint to former President Donald J. Trump. Mr Trump described himself as Israel’s staunchest supporter while in office but criticized Mr Netanyahu in the days after the Hamas attack, apparently because the prime minister conceded Mr Biden’s election when it became clear Mr Trump had lost.

Mr Trump initially praised Hezbollah as “very smart” after the massacre. Mr Trump condemned the terror group only after he was later criticized.

The Lebanese militant group clashed with Israeli forces in the days following the Hamas attack, raising concerns that the country could be drawn into the conflict on another front.

Trump’s “very smart” comments were similar to the line he used about Vladimir V. Putin after the invasion of Ukraine.

“This is a way to play down the question of whether you support Israel, which Republicans used to criticize Obama and then became a talking point for Trump,” said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University. “This, politically, is at odds with Trump’s criticism of Netanyahu.”

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.

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