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Biden in Tel Aviv pledges U.S. support for Israel, humanitarian aid for Gaza

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Biden in Tel Aviv pledges U.S. support for Israel, humanitarian aid for Gaza

Oct 18, 2023 | 4:38 pm ET
By Ashley Murray Jacob Fischler
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Biden in Tel Aviv pledges U.S. support for Israel, humanitarian aid for Gaza
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Protesters from the progressive organization Jewish Voice for Peace chant “cease-fire now” and “free Palestine” inside the U.S. House Cannon Office Building rotunda Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. U.S. Capitol Police arrested and led protesters away through the New Jersey Avenue exit. The demonstration occurred the same day that President Joe Biden visited Tel Aviv, Israel to announce defense aid as well as humanitarian assistance for Palestinians displaced in the Gaze Strip. (Ashley Murray/States Newsroom)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden assured Israel that the U.S. will replenish defense stockpiles and also announced new humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza during his historic visit Wednesday to the war-torn region where thousands have died in just a dozen days, including 31 Americans.

Biden plans to ask Congress later this week for an “unprecedented support package” for Israel as it fights its latest war against Hamas militants, he said.

The death toll continues to mount on both sides, and Biden’s visit occurred just one day after an explosion killed hundreds at a hospital sheltering patients and evacuees in Gaza City, which Israel and the U.S. attribute to misfired rockets from another Palestinian militant group. Palestinian officials maintain Israel caused the explosion.

Both Democratic and Republican senators are poised to support an aid package for Israel’s counteroffensive that also includes Ukraine assistance, even as the U.S. House remains at a standstill during an ongoing messy fight to fill the speakership.

Senate Republicans said Tuesday they also want to see funds dedicated to securing the U.S. Southern border included in the package.

“For decades, we’ve ensured Israel’s qualitative military edge,” Biden said from Tel Aviv.

“We’re going to keep Iron Dome fully supplied, so we can continue standing sentinel over Israeli skies saving Israeli lives,” Biden said, referring to Israel’s air defense system established in 2011 to intercept incoming rockets.

Meeting with war cabinet

Biden met Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the nation’s president, Issac Herzog, as well as Israel’s newly established war cabinet. He also attended a community engagement event with first responders and victims’ families, according to reporters traveling with the president.

In remarks delivered from The David Kempinksi, a hotel in Tel Aviv, Biden again condemned the Hamas attacks as evil. The initial surprise ground and air incursion left more than 1,000 dead, including hundreds at a music festival.

“There’s no rationalizing it, no excusing it, period. The brutality we saw would have cut deep anywhere in the world, but it cuts deeper here in Israel. October 7, which was a sacred Jewish holiday, became the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Biden said.

The Israeli government estimates that Hamas is holding 199 hostages. The U.S. says 13 Americans are unaccounted for.

Palestinian officials estimated Tuesday that nearly 3,000 have been killed and 10,000 injured since Israel’s counterstrikes on the Gaza Strip began, according to the territory’s Ministry of Health website.

A previously scheduled Wednesday summit between Biden and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II was called off after hundreds died in the al-Ahli Arab Hospital explosion in Gaza City Tuesday night.

“Based on the information we see today it appears the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza. The United States unequivocally stands for the protection of civilian life during conflict,” Biden said.

Biden plans to speak by phone with Abbas and Sisi during the flight back to the United States on Wednesday night, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Biden announced $100 million in new U.S. humanitarian assistance for Gaza and the West Bank, specifically targeting the 1 million displaced in the Gaza Strip since the conflict began as well as other emergency needs.

“What sets us apart from the terrorists is we believe in the fundamental dignity of every human life, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Jew, Muslim, Christian, everyone,” Biden said. “You can’t give up what makes you who you are. If you give that up then the terrorists win.”

Israel agreed Wednesday to allow limited relief — only food, water and medicine — to cross into Gaza, but only through Egypt.

Ambassador nominee vetted at U.S. Senate hearing

The administration and many members of Congress have sought a bipartisan U.S. position in support of Israel, and that consensus has largely stood since the Oct. 7 attacks.

But cracks in it showed Wednesday at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of Jacob J. Lew to be U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Most Republicans on the panel said they had major reservations about Lew’s work as Treasury secretary under former President Barack Obama to enforce that administration’s Iran nuclear deal. Iran is a major sponsor of Hamas. Republicans said the deal allowed Iran access to more global financial resources.

“The United States needs a confirmed U.S. ambassador in Jerusalem,” committee Chairman Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, told Lew. “We need someone there to reinforce the message that the United States stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the State of Israel as a response to the unprecedented terrorist attack … I am committed to getting you in place in Israel as soon as possible.”

Ranking Republican Jim Risch, of Idaho, agreed that it was urgent to confirm an  ambassador for Israel, but said he had “reservations” about Biden’s selection of Lew for the post.

Risch said relations with Iran, one of Israel’s chief regional antagonists, were the most important issue facing Israel.

He said he was disappointed with Lew’s record on Iran, especially the Treasury Department issuing a license to an Omani bank in 2016 to allow Iranian assets of about $5.7 billion to flow through the U.S. financial system. The department didn’t disclose the license to the committee, Risch said.

“To me this whole thing is about Iran,” he said. “And holding hands with Iran under the table doesn’t work for me.”

Lew, who was wearing a suit with a blue and white tie — the national colors of Israel — responded that releasing those assets was an explicit condition of the nuclear deal and that specific licenses are not usually disclosed. Under Lew, the Treasury Department enforced the letter of the agreement but did not further open financial markets to Iran’s government, whose leaders were frustrated, he said.

“They complained that my actions were what kept them from getting full access to the world financial system,” he said. “We did the letter of the agreement, gave them what was agreed to in (the agreement) and nothing more.”

The committee has scheduled a vote next week to advance Lew’s nomination to the Senate floor, Cardin said. Utah Republican Mitt Romney noted in the hearing that Lew needed only Democratic votes to win confirmation and was “likely to be confirmed on that basis.”

Still seeking a two-state solution

The latest conflict is the fifth Israel-Hamas war in the 75-year history of regional tension. The others were in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021.

Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. in the late 1990s, seized control of the Palestinian territory of Gaza in 2007.

The armed group’s current leader Mohammed Deif said the surprise Oct. 7 attack was in response to Israel’s 16-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, increased attacks in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank and expansion of Israeli-built settlements into territory that Palestinians claim for a future state.

Biden said Wednesday that his administration will keep advocating for a peaceful two-state solution.

“These attacks only strengthened my commitment and determination and my will to get that done,” Biden said.

On Capitol Hill, Lew also said he supported a two-state solution after Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen urged him to address “Palestinian issues, legitimate Palestinian questions … giving them equal measures of justice and dignity.”

“I have long believed that the path towards a long-term, stable Middle East and a democratic and Jewish Israel is a two-state solution,” Lew said. “One has to deal with this issue if one is going to be on that path.”

Lew added, though, that negotiations for a long-term peace couldn’t happen while the conflict remains active.

“We’re at a moment now where, in the midst of a war, with a country that is torn apart by grief, it’s probably not the right time to start that conversation again,” he said. “But after this war is over, it has to be part of the conversation.”

Biden’s visit to Israel was his second this year to a war zone. He visited Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in February.