WASHINGTON/TEL AVIV: U.S. President Joe Biden’s White House is wrestling with a host of thorny security and political challenges as officials plot a potential trip to Israel that may hold longer-term diplomatic advantages for Biden.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Biden, who has been outspoken in his support for Israel, Washington’s closest Middle East ally, still reeling after a devastating cross-border assault by Palestinian Hamas on Oct. 7.
The White House declined to comment on any planning for the trip. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement that “we have no new travel to announce.”
Biden’s trip could be interpreted as support for Netanyahu’s political and military choices, but it could also give Biden fresh leverage to influence events on the ground.
Biden and Netanyahu, uncomfortable allies in the best of times, have joined forces despite being at odds over the path forward in the Middle East with Biden frequently stressing support for independent Israeli and Palestinian states.
A meeting in person would allow Biden to privately discuss concerns and possible red lines in a looming Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.
Air sirens went off in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Monday, highlighting the security dangers in the two cities where presidents have visited dating back to Richard Nixon in 1974. The armed wing of Hamas said it fired a “barrage of missiles,” including toward Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s main international gateway.
Israel is planning a ground offensive in Gaza expected to intensify the humanitarian crisis there, missiles have been exchanged between Lebanon and Israel, and Israelis throughout the country continue to take shelter from Hamas-fired missiles.
A potential trip to the region presents the White House with more complex questions than even Biden’s February trek to wartime Ukraine, which was debated and planned with far more lead time.
Other Western leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and lawmakers are planning similar Israel visits, as are members of Congress. U.S. presidents rarely visit allies shortly after the outbreak of conflict, typically leaving the job to a senior diplomat or defense official.
“Presidential visits try to be tightly choreographed and wars are never tightly choreographed,” said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In recent days, the Democratic president has tried to thread a needle by publicly lending unconditional support for Israel’s response to Hamas attacks while showing humanitarian concern for Palestinians in Israeli-bombarded Gaza.
Biden “ultimately thinks all politics is personal and believes that if you’re going to have any influence over Israeli decision making over the next several months they have to feel you are in it with them and understand their anger and pain,” Alterman said.
Biden could pair the visit with a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, as he did on the sidelines of his one prior visit to Israel as president last year, said Alon Pinkas, a longtime foreign policy adviser in Israel who served former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.
“It’s very, very sensitive and the White House is working through very sensitive areas,” Pinkas said.
Biden has visited Israel 10 times, first as a senator in 1973, before the Yom Kippur War involving Israel, Egypt and Syria.