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Top One Magazine

Biden admin doesn’t want Israel-Hamas to suck U.S. back into the Middle East

President Joe Biden heads to Israel tomorrow not just to show support for a country during one of its darkest hours but to prevent the administration from getting bogged down in a larger Middle East conflict — one that could derail its agenda.

Biden has been privately adamant that the administration needs to demonstrate it has Israel’s back, said five U.S. officials, all granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. The decision to make a one-day visit to the country was crafted with that in mind.

But those officials also said there was a subtler objective inside the administration. No one, in the Oval Office or elsewhere in the West Wing, has an appetite to make Israel’s fight against Hamas the top foreign policy priority — and especially with mounting domestic concerns and a growing struggle to sustain support for Kyiv in its war with Russia.

“We’re going to keep helping the Israelis wage this fight,” said one of the officials, adding that “there’s no interest in seeing the war widen.”

The administration has repeatedly signaled it won’t overstep in reaction to the conflict that has already killed 1,400 people in Israel, around 3,000 Palestinians, and resulted in 30 dead Americans plus a handful believed to be held hostage.

In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday, Biden ruled out sending U.S. troops into the war and warned Israel against occupying Gaza, the Hamas-run enclave. Those messages are paired with repeated warnings to Iran and its proxy forces, namely Hezbollah, to keep out of the conflict. Their entry not only would force Israel to fight on two fronts, imperiling its defense, but also increase the likelihood that Biden would have to send more military support, potentially putting American boots on the ground.

The president will also carry with him to Israel an urgent message: Israel must abide by the rules of war and spare civilians. That edict, already delivered by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in their own trips to the region, will be voiced again by Biden directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to two of the U.S. officials. That push, aides said, was not just going to be made on humanitarian grounds, but also to reduce the chances of the war expanding and requiring additional American involvement.

That danger was underscored Tuesday when a rocket hit a hospital in Gaza, killing 500, an explosion that the Gaza Health Ministry said was caused by an Israeli air strike. The Israeli military asserted that Palestine Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that operates in Gaza, was responsible. The incident, nevertheless, had immediate repercussions.

A scheduled summit in Jordan’s capital, which was set to come after the Israel swing, was quickly scuttled. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, first announced he was canceling his trip there to meet with Biden. Shortly thereafter, the Jordanian foreign minister announced that the summit was off all together.

“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,” said a White House official. “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.”

Biden entered office focused on extracting the U.S. from wars in the greater Middle East, prioritizing competition with China, domestic renewal and, later, the defense of Ukraine. But Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel, and Israel’s massive retaliation, threatens to suck him into one of the world’s most intractable crises.

The difficult balancing act now facing the administration was evident in the decision to make the trip itself.

Biden advisers debated the wisdom of having the president travel to Israel, with some aides believing the security risks were too great. Others felt it would be a gift to Netanyahu, who is under immense scrutiny for the intelligence failures that precipitated Hamas’ attacks.

Biden has made plain to aides that he has no love for Netanyahu, with whom he has had a frosty relationship for decades and believes was making an undemocratic push to weaken the Israeli judiciary, according to advisers. But the president felt that he needed to show solidarity with a fellow democracy as well as push its Arab neighbors to assist with the Palestinians, the officials said.

Aides then raced to hastily put together the president’s visit before Israel moved on Gaza.

That battle, some aides warn, would be a highly problematic backdrop for any visit. The fight could be bloody and brutal, with urban warfare stretching from block to block. It could also endanger the hostages being held in Gaza and could draw other actors into a widening conflict.

With those forces in mind, Biden has already ordered assets to the region, including two carrier strike groups, fighter jets and other Navy ships carrying thousands of Marines. Their main objectives are to support fleeing American citizens and deter adversaries from escalating the conflict.

It’s unclear if the deterrent message is working. Iran’s foreign minister on Monday warned that Hezbollah could take a “preemptive action” against Israel before it launches the expected ground invasion. The militant group, which has around 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel, already started destroying surveillance cameras along the Lebanese border with Israel. Their forces have exchanged sporadic fire and rocket attacks, leading to about 13 killed in total since last Saturday.

Some experts say that the threat is growing, making the administration’s desire to keep some distance from the fighting that much harder.

Iran and its aligned groups are showing there is movement toward mobilization, rhetoric about future conflicts and that a deployment could happen, said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Iranian proxy groups. These are some of the specific steps that these groups take ahead of an operation, “and all of those steps are now occurring.”

Even if Hezbollah and Iran don’t wade deeper into the fight, questions are already swirling in Washington about how the conflict could distract the U.S. from Ukraine or sap the nation’s own security capabilities. Biden has rejected any insinuation that the country he leads can’t handle it all.

“We’re the United States of America, for God’s sake, the most powerful nation in the history of the world,” the president said during the “60 Minutes” interview. “We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defense.”

But the battle in the Middle East is also politically perilous for the president, who stands for reelection in just more than a year’s time. Biden has put a lot of stock in brokering normalization deals between Israel and its Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. The administration is still working on that deal, but there’s little confidence that it’ll be finalized in the near future.

Polls also show that voters aren’t fully behind Biden’s strategy. Forty-nine percent of Americans said the U.S. is providing the right amount of support to Israel, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, while only 16 percent of respondents told CNN that they trust Biden to make the right decisions. A majority, 54 percent, said they had not much trust or no trust at all in the president’s handling of the conflict.

The White House isn’t getting much help from Congress. The administration wants enough funding for Israel and Ukraine to last them a full year, a person familiar said in a brief interview following reports that the request could be as high as $100 billion. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would push to get something passed in the upper chamber, political chaos in the speakerless House might stop a measure from reaching Biden’s desk.

All of this — the conflict, movements by Iran, a fractured polity and roiling Congress — have the real potential to distract Biden from other domestic and global concerns, some advisers fear, though they expect him to keep clear of the quagmire.

Biden’s main governing goal has been to show that democracies, regardless of how messy they are internally, can deliver for Americans and allies. And even as the administration grapples with the Middle East, new American long-range missiles were used by Ukraine against Russia and White House aides continue to plan for a possible summit next month between Biden and China’s Xi Jinping in San Francisco.

“History shows U.S. presidents are judged as much by how they respond to unforeseen foreign policy crises as they are implementing their public agenda,” said Jonathan Lord, who directs the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East work.

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