WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is considering a trip to Israel in the coming days but no travel has been finalized, a senior administration official said Sunday. It would be a powerful symbol of sympathy and support following the brutal attack by Hamas.
A trip would be a chance for Biden to personally affirm to the Israeli people the U.S. is standing firm behind them. But it would come amid growing fears that a looming Israeli move into Gaza could spark a wider war with devastating humanitarian consequences.
And Biden’s presence could be seen as a provocative move by Hamas’ chief sponsor, Iran, or potentially viewed as tone deaf by Arab nations as civilian casualties mount in Gaza. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already been traveling around the Mideast this past week trying to prevent the war with Hamas from igniting a broader regional conflict.
The official could not publicly discuss internal deliberations about the potential presidential travel and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Biden also made his strongest public statements yet to restrain Israel after the Oct. 7 attack that killed more than 1,400 people including at least 30 U.S. citizens, warning in an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes that aired Sunday that Israel should not reoccupy Gaza.
“I think it’d be a big mistake,” Biden said. “Look, what happened in Gaza, in my view, is Hamas, and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people. And I think that it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza again.”
Israel left Gaza in 2005; Hamas won the elections the next year.
Still, Biden said, “taking out the extremists … is a necessary requirement.”
Biden and his administration officials have refused to criticize Israel or its bombing campaign that has killed civilians in Gaza. But they’ve urged Israel, Egypt and other nations to allow for humanitarian aid and supplies into the worsening conflict zone.
“I’m confident that Israel is going to act under the rules of war,” Biden said in the interview. ”There’s standards that democratic institutions and countries go by. And I’m confident that there’s going to be an ability for the innocents in Gaza to be able to have access to medicine and food and water.”
Blinken, meanwhile, heard criticism of Israel’s military operation from Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. After Cairo he traveled on to Jordan and planned to return to Israel on Monday, carrying to Israeli leaders the feedback he received in a rush of meetings with leaders throughout the Arab world.
Egypt’s state-run media said el-Sissi told Blinken that Israel’s Gaza operation has exceeded “the right of self-defense” and turned into “a collective punishment.”
Blinken told reporters before leaving Egypt that “Israel has the right, indeed it has the obligation to defend itself against these attacks from Hamas and to try to do what it can to make sure that this never happens again.” Mindful of the potential human cost in Gaza, Blinken said “the way that Israel does this matters. It needs to do it in a way that affirms the shared values that we have for human life and human dignity, taking every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.’’
Earlier Sunday, the envoy met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, talks that built upon earlier sessions with the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Blinken said that what he heard in every meeting with Arab leaders “was a determination of shared view that we have to do everything possible to make sure this doesn’t spread to other places, a shared view to safeguard innocent lives, a shared view to get assistance to Palestinians in Gaza who need it and we’re working very much on that.”
The White House also appointed David Satterfield, a former ambassador to Lebanon and Turkey, to lead U.S. efforts to get humanitarian assistance to “vulnerable people through the Middle East.” Satterfield was expected to arrive in Israel on Monday.
From Washington, Biden’s national security adviser said the U.S. was not “making requests or demands of Israel with respect to its military operations.” Jake Sullivan, making the rounds of the Sunday TV news shows, said the administration was “simply stating our basic principles — the principles upon which this country is based and all democracies, including Israel, are based. It’s what makes us different from the terrorists, that in fact we respect civilian life.”
He said the U.S. was “not interfering in their military planning or trying to give them instructions or requests specific.” Sullivan said the U.S. is conveying the message in public and in private that “all military operations should be conducted consistent with law of war, that civilians should be protected, that civilians should have a real opportunity to get to safety” and have access to food, water, medicine and shelter.
Those remarks marked a shift in the U.S. administration’s comments in recent days as officials have heard concerns from Arab leaders. Those leaders expressed the consequences of what a humanitarian catastrophe resulting from an Israeli ground offensive would do not only to Palestinians but also in inflaming public opinions in Arab nations and potentially destabilizing relatively friendly countries.
Sullivan also said the U.S. has been unable so far to get American citizens out of Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah crossing with Gaza.
Blinken made clear in Egypt that the U.S. will not waver in supporting Israel, saying, “We will stand with it today, tomorrow and every day and we’re doing that in word and also in deed.’’
In his roughly hourlong meeting with Prince Mohammed at the de facto Saudi leader’s private farm outside Riyadh, Blinken “highlighted the United States’ unwavering focus on halting terrorist attacks by Hamas, securing the release of all hostages, and preventing the conflict from spreading,” the State Department said.
“The two affirmed their shared commitment to protecting civilians and to advancing stability across the Middle East and beyond,” according to a department statement.
The Saudi description of the meeting focused primarily on Palestinian civilians, echoing the sentiments that the other Arab leaders with whom Blinken has met. It said Saudi Arabia would object to the targeting of “civilians in any way or disrupt(ing) infrastructure and vital interests that affect their daily lives.”
The prince “stressed the need to work to discuss ways to stop the military operations that claimed the lives of innocent people,“ the Saudi Press Agency said in a report about the meeting.
Lee reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Sam Magdy in Cairo and Michelle L. Price in New York contributed to this report.