Joe Biden shows presidential courage in Israel
Whether the matter is of formidable geopolitical import or merely a kid’s choir concert, showing up is one of the best ways to convey support.
So the mere physical presence of President Joe Biden in Israel Wednesday conveyed far more than most statements or speeches. Moreover, it came with such a level of political risk that we don’t doubt for a moment that some White House advisers urged him to stay home.
Those who are paid to worry about risk no doubt saw myriad red lights flashing. A full-throated defense of Israel and its right to defend itself hardly is the incontrovertible creed of the Democratic Party, especially given the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
Those who put together presidential visits like to control the circumstances to show off their principal at his best. But when an explosion rocked a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday night, the intended balance of Biden’s trip was thrown off.
Biden had been scheduled to travel to Amman, Jordan, to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — crucial sessions given that a stated reason of the trip was to prevent escalation of the conflict.
But all of that got axed after the explosion as the anguish of the residents of Gaza was thrown into sharp relief on the world’s TV screens. The result: Biden was pictured only with Israeli officials. These were not images of an honest broker in a crisis with a long and complicated history, the preferred stance of some Democrats. They were pictures of someone coming to a grieving nation with a message that they are not alone. And that clear statement of support was tacitly backed up by a U.S. military force hovering in the Mediterranean Sea.
Biden cleared up the issue of who had bombed the Gaza hospital, citing U.S. intelligence reports that it was not an Israeli attack. European media had reported that same evidence, including wiretaps of a Hamas conversation, on Tuesday night, even as The New York Times was changing its headlines on its reports and CNN was speculating that the truth may not ever be known.
That was nonsense. There was an explosion causing grievous loss of life, and there is a forensic ability to figure out what sort of projectile was the cause. Biden has access to the best intelligence in the world and he was right to put the matter to rest.
Like many Americans, we’ve been worried not so much about Biden’s age, per se, but about his mental fitness for a second term. No doubt that same concern exists within the White House, where his loyalists are bound and determined to prevent situations where there is a high risk of a stumble, be it mental or physical. This was a visit carrying just such risks: long-distance travel involves jet lag, body aches and potential mental fog, even for much younger people. Biden took that risk. And, at the time of writing, he has looked entirely up to his task in Israel.
We’ve often lamented the lack of authenticity in our local and national leaders, many of whom hide behind subordinates and refuse to defend their own decisions. In days following the Hamas attacks on Israel, we’ve similarly lamented the rise of spineless positions, written from overly cautious postures and specifically designed to appease, not to stand up for the truth. Academic leaders have been particularly unimpressive in that regard, and many have failed to lead the students who trust them.
But there was no mistaking Biden’s physical body standing in Tel Aviv.
Of course, only a naive person sees global diplomacy as painted entirely on a moral canvas. There will be political benefits to Biden’s trip; Jewish voters will surely remember the support for Israel from the White House, as well as many Republicans. Campaign strategists no doubt are biding their time until it can be mentioned.
We hope Biden pressed the Israelis hard on allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, permitting safe civilian passage away from missiles, and on facilitating the exit from Gaza of U.S. citizens, whether by land or sea. The U.S. has an obligation to aid its citizens at risk and there are many Americans who were visiting family in Gaza and then found themselves trapped. Biden should use every means at his disposal to get them out and home to safety.
We were heartened when he noted that the U.S., in its pain, made mistakes after the Sept. 11 attacks and that he urged the Israelis to learn from that history. Exacting vengeance is not the same thing as neutralizing terrorists and ensuring security. Assigning collective guilt on an entire population, especially one with such a high percentage of children, is a crime against humanity.
But by showing such clear support, by traveling and being present himself, Biden showed his backbone and gave himself fresh currency.
Americans admire leaders who stand on principle.
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