Biden embraces Netanyahu, says Israel must again be 'safe place' for Jewish people

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TEL AVIV, Israel – Pledging unwavering support, President Joe Biden assured Israel on Wednesday that the United States would stand by the Jewish state and provide whatever it needs to defend itself in its war with Hamas.

“Israel must be a safe place again for the Jewish people,” he said.

Biden’s remarks came at the end of a hastily planned trip to Tel Aviv in which he sought not only to demonstrate U.S. support for its closest ally in the Middle East but also to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from expanding into a larger conflict.

Arriving Wednesday at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Biden embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a show of solidarity with Israel just a week and half after the militant group Hamas staged an assault that killed more than 1,400 Israeli civilians and soldiers. Thirty-one Americans have been killed, and 13 others are missing. Hamas also is holding at least 199 hostages.

Biden arrived as tensions were mounting after an explosion Tuesday at a Gaza City hospital that had been treating wounded Palestinians and sheltering many more who were seeking a refuge from the fighting.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza blamed an Israeli airstrike. The Israeli military said the destruction was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket.

The hospital blast prompted worldwide outrage as protesters took to the streets of major West Bank cities, including Ramallah. Other protests erupted in Beirut, Lebanon, and Amman, Jordan, where an angry crowd gathered outside the Israeli Embassy.

Biden, however, said it didn't appear Israel was to blame.

“Based on what I've seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you," he said at the start of a meeting with Netanyahu.

Biden stressed that "a lot of people out there" aren't sure of who caused the explosion and added, "We've got to overcome a lot of things." He later said his assessment that Israel was not responsible for the hospital attack was based on “the data I was shown by my defense department."

Biden said he would ask Congress later this week to approve an "unprecedented support package" to help shore up Israel's defense.

At the same time, he pledged $100 million in U.S. funding for humanitarian assistance for Gaza and the West Bank. The money would be used to support more than 1 million Palestinians displaced by the conflict, he said.

Biden said securing the safe release of the hostages held by Hamas remains a priority – "there's no higher priority," he said – and he called on the global community to demand that the International Red Cross be able to visit them.

Netanyahu thanked Biden for coming to Israel and "for the unequivocal support you have given Israel during these trying times.” He noted that Biden is the first U.S. president to visit Israel during a time of war and said it speaks to "the depth of your personal commitment" to the future of the Jewish state and its people.

"It is deeply, deeply moving," Netanyahu said.

Biden's trip included meetings with first responders and with families whose loved ones have been killed, are missing or being held hostage. It was unclear whether that would include family members of the Americans who have been killed or are unaccounted for.

"God love ya,” he told one survivor of the Hamas attacks.

He hugged a young woman after hearing through a translator how she saved people on her kibbutz.

In remarks to the news media after those meetings, Biden compared the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 to the brutality of the Holocaust. "The world watched then and knew. And the world did nothing," he said. "We will not stand by and do nothing again. Not today. Not tomorrow, not ever."

Backing an ally: Biden lands in Israel in hopes of de-escalating conflict, but already facing major setbacks

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport.
President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport.

After Israel, Biden had planned to travel to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the humanitarian needs of civilians in Gaza. But the four-way summit was scrapped Tuesday after the hospital blast.

Biden, in a statement issued as he flew to Israel, said he asked his national security team to determine what happened.

Biden also met with Israel's war cabinet to ask what help was needed and to discuss Israel's larger strategy. He also planned to ask "some tough questions," John Kirby, a White House spokesman for national security, told reporters traveling with Biden.

"He'll be asking them as a friend, as a true friend of Israel, but he will be asking some questions of them," Kirby said.

Biden can bring to that discussion his own painful experience after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, according to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

“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,” Alterman wrote. “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.”

Kirby said Biden is optimistic that humanitarian aid will start flowing to civilians in Gaza.

"It's really, really important that that assistance gets in as soon as possible," he said, "and that it can be sustained."

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President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, on Oct. 17, 2023, enroute to Israel.
President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, on Oct. 17, 2023, enroute to Israel.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden visits Israel, vows staunch support in meeting with Netanyahu