U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East got complicated even before the plane had taken off. Moments before leaving for Israel, the White House announced the cancellation of the second part of the visit, to Jordan. There, a few minutes earlier, King Abdullah had cancelled the summit planned for Wednesday in Amman with Biden and the leaders of Egypt, Abdulfatah Al Sisi, and of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, following the bombing of a hospital in Gaza in which hundreds of people were killed. Israel and the radical Palestinian militia Hamas are blaming each other for the blast.
Biden’s mission was already difficult in itself: to prevent an escalation of the crisis in the region, and to convince Israel to exercise restraint in its military campaign in Gaza in response to the Hamas attacks of October 7, in which nearly 1,400 people were killed. But the carnage at Al-Ahli hospital has made the task Herculean, with Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Arab public opinion accusing Israeli forces, the IDF, of firing a missile at the medical center, where thousands of people were sheltering. Israel, in turn, claims that the disaster is the result of a rocket fired by Hamas. The event has already sparked protest demonstrations in Arab cities.
From his airplane, Air Force One, which was taking him to Tel Aviv, Biden has expressed his outrage to the bombing of the hospital and his deep sadness for “the terrible loss of life that resulted”. “The United States stands unequivocally for the protection of civilian life during conflict”, he added, before stressing that “we mourn the patients, medical staff and other innocents killed or wounded in this tragedy”. Biden has spoken to Netanyahu and the Jordanian king about the catastrophe and has ordered his national security team “to continue gathering information about what exactly happened”.
Hours earlier, Defense Department spokeswoman Sabrina Singh had avoided commenting on the bombing at a press conference at the Pentagon, stating that she did not know who was responsible and that the details of the incident had not been clarified.
The decision to cancel the Jordanian leg was taken “by mutual agreement” after talks with King Abdullah, and after Abbas had announced that he was leaving Amman and returning to the West Bank to lead three days of mourning, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who is accompanying the US president on his trip. Biden will speak with the leaders of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority on his way back to Washington, the senior official said.
The White House has framed the decision as a practical matter: “After consulting with King Abdullah II of Jordan and in light of the days of mourning announced by President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, President Biden will postpone his travel to Jordan and the planned meeting with these two leaders and President Sisi of Egypt”, a White House staff member said on condition of annonymity. “The President sent his deepest condolences for the innocent lives lost in the hospital explosion in Gaza, and wished a speedy recovery to the wounded. He looks forward to consulting in person with these leaders soon, and agreed to remain regularly and directly engaged with each of them over the coming days”, the same source added.
The White House had announced the president’s trip just 24 hours earlier, after an internal debate to decide whether to accept the invitation to Biden from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The head of the Israeli government had raised that possibility in a telephone conversation between the two leaders last Saturday. Finally, the green light was given for a visit that would include meetings with both Israeli authorities and Arab leaders.
The cancellation complicates the delicate balance and mediating role that Biden was seeking to maintain. On the one hand, he had intended to convey to the Israeli side a message of support and solidarity in the face of the Hamas attacks. And, at the same time, to press for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza to show restraint and not inflict suffering on civilians. On the other hand, in his meeting with Arab leaders he planned to stress that the radical militia does not represent the Palestinian people, nor their right “to dignity and self-determination,” according to the White House. In Amman he was also to address the humanitarian needs of civilians in Gaza.
According to Kirby, despite the elimination of the one-day stop, these plans are still going ahead. In Tel Aviv, Biden will meet with Netanyahu and Israeli President Herzog to learn about the situation on the ground and Israeli plans in the coming days. The president plans to ask tough questions to his interlocutors, to whom he will make it clear “the absolute need to protect civilian life”. Respect for innocent lives is what separates the United States, Israel, from Hamas, he stressed. He will also insist on the need for the conflict “must not expand and must not deepen”.
At the beginning of the crisis, Biden had been strongly on Israel’s side. But as the days passed, and the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli air strikes and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza increased, the U.S. president subtly shifted his position.
In an interview aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday, Biden declared himself opposed to an Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, in his clearest attempt to contain Israel since the beginning of the crisis. The President spoke in favor of the need to defeat Hamas. But he also argued that it must be achieved with “a path to a Palestinian state,” the position the United States has officially advocated for decades.
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