TEL AVIV, Israel - President Joe Biden swept into wartime Israel for a 7 1/2-hour visit Wednesday that produced a heaping dose of vocal support, a deal to get limited humanitarian aid into Gaza from Egypt, likely by the end of the week, and a plea for Israelis not to allow rage over the deadly Hamas attack to consume them.
"I understand. Many Americans understand," Biden said as he wrapped up his stay in Tel Aviv, likening the Oct. 7 Hamas assault to the attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people. "You can’t look at what has happened here ... and not scream out for justice," he said.
"But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it," he said. "After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes."
Biden urged Israel to step back from the brink, not just to ease growing tensions in the Mideast that threaten to spiral into a broader regional conflict, but also to reassure a world rattled by images of carnage and suffering, in Israel and Gaza alike. One million people have been displaced in roughly 10 days, according to the United Nations.
Biden's mission was to display resolve for Israel and to diminish the likelihood of a wider war, while providing assurances that he was not overlooking the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. Aboard the flight back to Washington Biden made progress when he spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi who agreed to reopen his country’s sealed border crossing with Gaza and allow up to 20 trucks carrying humanitarian aid supplies to cross.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, Biden said roads near the crossing would first need hours of repairs, but that aid could begin rolling into the region by Friday. He suggested the aid could be distributed by international officials "which could take a little time" and added that, "if Hamas confiscates it, it's going to end. We're not going to send any aid to Hamas."
"I wanted to make sure that there was a vehicle, a mechanism where this could happen quickly," Biden said during a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He added that el-Sissi was "very cooperative."
US President Joe Biden (L) speaks as Israels Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens on prior to their meeting in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP v
"He stepped up. As did Bibi," the president said, referring to Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu. But Biden was also in a mood to celebrate his own accomplishment, saying, "I came to get something done. I got it done."
"Not many people thought I could get this done," Biden said. "And not many people wanted me to be associated with failure."
In fact, the president said officials had a discussion "of an hour or more" on "whether to go" before the trip began. "Had we gone and this failed, then the United States failed. The Biden presidency failed, etc., which would be a legitimate criticism," he said.
Aid moving into Gaza will accomplish a key objective for Biden, and the White House announced that the president will address the nation from the Oval Office on Thursday night to "discuss our response to Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel and Russia’s ongoing brutal war against Ukraine."
Less clear is how far the trip would take the president in trying to tamp down volatile Mideast divisions, particularly after his plan collapsed to follow the Israel stop with an Arab leaders summit in Jordan.
His visit was full of signature Biden moments as he walked a careful diplomatic line. He doled out embraces to Netanyahu and to first responders, doctors and victims who witnessed nightmare moments. He spoke quietly of his own history with grief. He told the familiar anecdote about meeting every Israeli prime minister over more than five decades in elected office, starting with Golda Meir in 1973. He quoted an Irish poet.
"I come to Israel with a single message: You're not alone," Biden said. "As long as the United States stands — and we will stand forever — we will not let you ever be alone."
His presence and comments to Israeli leaders held weight. Netanyahu said the president's visit was "deeply, deeply moving" and said Biden had rightly drawn a clear line between the "forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism."
"The civilized world must unite to defeat Hamas," the Israeli leader said.
US President Joe Biden joins Israel's Prime Minister for the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by MIRIAM ALSTER/POOL/AFP via Gett
Biden arrived in Israel as the nations across the Mideast shook with protests triggered by an explosion Monday at a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds.
The blast undid plans for Jordan’s King Abdullah II to host Biden along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and el-Sissi. Abbas withdrew in protest of the hospital attack; the summit was subsequently canceled outright. Yet Biden's presence in Israel prompted fresh outrage.
In Amman, a sign hoisted by one protester labeled Biden and Netanyahu war criminals and called them "Partner in Crime." At the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh in south Lebanon, protesters set fire to a cardboard cutout of Biden’s head with a rope around his neck and blood painted over his mouth.
Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, told a state-run television network that the war is "pushing the region to the brink."
Still, Biden emerged from the day trumpeting food, water and medicine poised to move into Gaza after lengthy deadlock. Israel cut off the flow of aid and fuel to the Gaza Strip after the attack that killed 1,400 civilians by Hamas, which controls the region.
The Biden adminstration plans to ask Congress for more than $2 billion in combined additional aid for Israel and Ukraine. Biden on Wednesday also announced $100 million in aid to Gaza and the West Bank.
"The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas," Biden stressed. "Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people."
The tone of the discussions between Biden and Netanyahu stood in stark contrast to their optimistic meeting just a month ago on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where Netanyahu marveled that a "historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia" seemed within reach.
The possibility of improved relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors has dimmed considerably with the outbreak of the latest Israel-Hamas war. Israel has been preparing for a potential ground invasion of Gaza. There are also fears that a new front could erupt along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah operates. The Iran-backed organization has been skirmishing with Israeli forces.
Allowing aid into the region had been seen by U.S. officials as a critical step toward the cooling of tensions in Arab nations after the blast at the hospital, which had been treating wounded Palestinians and sheltering many more who were seeking a refuge from the fighting.
There were conflicting claims of who was responsible.
Officials in Gaza quickly blamed an Israeli airstrike. Israel denied it was involved and released a flurry of video, audio and other information that it said showed the blast was instead due to a missile misfire by Islamic Jihad, another militant group operating in Gaza. The Islamic Jihad dismissed that claim. The Associated Press has not independently verified any of the claims or evidence released by the parties.
Biden said data from his Defense Department showed that the explosion was not likely caused by an airstrike by the Israeli military. A White House National Security Council spokesperson followed up later with a post on social media that an analysis of "overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information" showed Israel was not behind the attack. But the U.S. continues to collect evidence.
"Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you," Biden told Netanyahu.
The leaders of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in a joint statement said they felt confident the explosion was "the result of a failed rocket launch" by militants and not an Israeli airstrike.
Roughly 2,800 Palestinians have been reported killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza. An additional 1,200 people are believed to be buried under the rubble, alive or dead, health authorities said. Those numbers predate the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital on Tuesday.
Jordan declared three days of mourning, and Jordanian officials said the summit was canceled after speaking with all leaders. Foreign Minister Safadi said they had wanted the meeting to produce an end to the war, which seems unlikely now, and to give Palestinians the respect they deserve.
Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, Darlene Superville and Will Weissert in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.