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Biden says his Tel Aviv trip was a gamble. Tonight, he has another high-stakes moment

President Biden makes a rare appearance in the press cabin on Air Force One during his return from Tel Aviv to talk about a deal to get aid into Gaza through Egypt.
Brendan Smialowski
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden makes a rare appearance in the press cabin on Air Force One during his return from Tel Aviv to talk about a deal to get aid into Gaza through Egypt.

Twenty four hours into a turbulent trip to the Middle East, President Biden made an extremely rare appearance in the press cabin at the back of Air Force One.

He had changed from his dark suit into a light blue casual sweater, and had been working the phones after leaving Tel Aviv. He had news that wouldn't wait until he was back in Washington.

"Look: I came to get something done — I got it done," Biden said, describing a "very blunt negotiation" he had just concluded with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

El-Sisi had agreed to let some humanitarian aid shipments pass into Gaza through the Rafah gate. It would be just 20 trucks at first, starting maybe by Friday, pending some road repairs, Biden said. It wasn't all that he wanted: he had also hoped to be able to secure passage for Palestinians who wanted to flee Gaza, including Americans. But it was a start.

The shadow of Air Force One as seen before President Biden landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The shadow of Air Force One as seen before President Biden landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023.

Biden said his trip was a gamble. There was debate on whether he should go at all

Getting aid into Gaza was one of his chief goals for his high-stakes mission — a trip, he revealed, that his team had debated whether he should make at all.

"Not many people thought I could get this done. And not many people want to be associated with failure," he said.

Failing to deliver any humanitarian aid would have reflected poorly on his presidency, Biden said — and legitimately so.

As the plane hurtled back toward Washington, the White House said Biden would follow up the trip with a second high-stakes moment: a Thursday night prime-time address from the Oval Office.

He will try to make the case to Americans — and Congress — for billions in new spending on Israel, as well as Ukraine and possibly Taiwan: other places where Biden says a failure in U.S. leadership is not an option.

President Biden leaves the room after giving remarks at the end of a visit to Tel Aviv on Oct. 18.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden leaves the room after giving remarks at the end of a visit to Tel Aviv on Oct. 18.

The Middle East could distract Biden from his other international priorities

Since taking office, Biden has pushed to build and strengthen international coalitions, whether to support Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia, or counter China's economic and military might in the Indo-Pacific.

In the Middle East, he had hopes to foster better relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. But that was scrambled after brutal attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7 killed more than 1,300 Israelis. Israel has vowed to root out the terrorist group from Gaza, where Palestinian civilians have struggled to get enough food, water and medicine ahead of what could be a bitter ground offensive.

Biden wanted to show support for Israel while getting an update on military plans from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet in Tel Aviv. But he also planned to meet in person with three key Arab leaders in Amman afterward.

A man walks past destroyed vehicles at the site of the Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza where an explosion killed hundreds of people, sparking global condemnation and angry protests around the Muslim world.
AFP / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A man walks past destroyed vehicles at the site of the Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza where an explosion killed hundreds of people, sparking global condemnation and angry protests around the Muslim world.

In the hours before Biden flew to the region, a deadly explosion at a Gaza hospital sparked anger across the Middle East — anger at Israel, and the United States. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed.

It wasn't until Air Force One began to taxi that a White House official told reporters that the Amman stop was off.

The Palestinians blamed Israel for the explosion — and Israel said it absolutely wasn't them. Biden told his staff to find out more.

A warm embrace for Netanyahu

By the time Biden landed in Tel Aviv, protests were breaking out around the Arab world. There was no red carpet and none of the usual ceremony. This was a time of war.

Netanyahu was there waiting for Biden when he stepped off the plane. Biden greeted him warmly, and went in for a hug.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs President Biden as he arrives in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs President Biden as he arrives in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023.

Sitting beside the prime minister at a hotel in downtown Tel Aviv — in an underground ballroom fortified to do double duty as a bunker — Biden said he agreed with the Israeli assessment of the source of the deadly blast.

"Based on what I've seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, and not you," Biden said.

He had seen U.S. military intelligence convincing him a Palestinian militant group had misfired a rocket.

On other Gaza issues — Biden had some tough love to deliver to Netanyahu and his cabinet. But the prime minister praised him for the message his presence sent to the world.

"For the people of Israel, there's only one thing better than having a true friend like you standing with Israel — and that is having you standing in Israel. Your visit here is the first visit of an American president in Israel at a time of war. It is deeply, deeply moving," Netanyahu said.

President Biden hugs Rachel Edri, who was held hostage by Hamas, during his trip to Tel Aviv. Biden met with people who had witnessed the horrors of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden hugs Rachel Edri, who was held hostage by Hamas, during his trip to Tel Aviv. Biden met with people who had witnessed the horrors of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Biden used 9/11 to warn Israel to follow the rules of war

Being there for Israel, bearing witness to its darkest hour was important to Biden. He met with people who witnessed the brutal violence.

Biden said the pain — the rage — in Israel is justified, after what the nation had gone through.

"But I caution you while you feel that rage, don't be consumed by it. After 9/11 we were at rage in the United States, while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes," he said.

Innocent Palestinians are suffering too, he said. The rules of war must be followed even as Israel aims to destroy the group that wreaked so much terror, Hamas.

"It's what they should do," Biden said. "My point to everyone is, look: if you have an opportunity to alleviate the pain, you should do it, period. And if you don't, you're gonna lose credibility worldwide."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

President Biden steps off Air Force One on Oct. 19 after a 30-hour trip to Israel and back. Biden is set to deliver a primetime address on Thursday evening.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden steps off Air Force One on Oct. 19 after a 30-hour trip to Israel and back. Biden is set to deliver a primetime address on Thursday evening.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.