Biden visit to Israel poses both political and physical risks and challenges

More than a dozen progressives in his Democratic Party have already tabled a resolution in Congress seeking a ceasefire

Israel is the closest ally of the United States in the Middle East, and going back to Richard Nixon virtually all presidents have visited during their period in office. However few, if any, have made the trip during a time of war.

Joe Biden has strongly backed Israel following the attack by Hamas forces, but he has warned it to observe the “rules of war” as it strikes back in Gaza.

His administration is advising the government of Binyamin Netanyahu that opinion about the conflict could change dramatically if there are mass Palestinian casualties. And that was before Tuesday’s strike on a Gaza hospital in which hundreds were reportedly killed.

Netanyahu invited Biden to Israel last weekend. But confirmation of the trip only came after US secretary of state Antony Blinken spent several hours in talks with the Israeli cabinet. Blinken said Biden would restate that Israel had the right and the duty “to defend its people from Hamas and other terrorists, and to prevent future attacks”. But he suggested he US had insisted that the visit could not just be about Israel’s war plans. He said it was critical that aid started to flow into Gaza and raised the possibility of the establishment of safe areas for civilians.


“At our request the United States and Israel have agreed to develop a plan that will enable humanitarian aid from donor nations and multilateral organisations to reach civilians in Gaza – and them alone – including the possibility of creating areas to help keep civilians our of harm’s way,” Blinken said.

However, the visit presents both political and personal risks and challenges for the US president. Supporting Israel is a popular cause in the United States. But among progressives in Biden’s Democratic Party there is considerable sympathy for the Palestinian cause. More than a dozen have put forward a resolution seeking a ceasefire and the provision of humanitarian assistance.

There will be an expectation that Biden will now be able to deliver on a plan for aid and the establishment of safe zones. If that does not happen or happens in only a limited way his party could start to splinter on how it views the conflict.

Biden on his visit to Israel will also send a strong message to Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon that they should not try to take advantage of the current situation. To back up his position the president has ordered two aircraft carriers with their support ships to the region, while there are also thousands of marines nearby.

The White House will be aware that a misstep on the part of any of various countries or groups with interests in the region could plunge the Middle East into a new war, with the US possibly being dragged into the conflict. The crisis in Israel may also force a rethink of the US strategic focus globally. Over recent years Washington wanted to pivot much more towards the Indo-Pacific region and the challenges posed by China.

And then there is the personal risk that Biden is taking by travelling to a war zone. The president visited Kyiv in February, but this came after the US reportedly warned Russia not to interfere.

The Middle East is arguably as volatile as Ukraine if not more so. On Monday Blinken and Netanyahu had to take shelter in a bunker for several minutes after air raid sirens went off in Tel Aviv during their meeting.

Usually when the US president travels to a dangerous area, a formal announcement is not made until after he has arrived. On this occasion everyone in the region knows the travel plans well in advance.