SINGAPORE — United States President Joe Biden made a whistlestop visit to Israel on Wednesday (Oct 18) in a bid to de-escalate the Middle Eastern country’s dangerous conflict with Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Mr Biden’s chances of achieving any positive results suffered a setback before he arrived after the bombing of a hospital in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday killed hundreds.
Both Israel and Hamas blamed the other side for the incident. In comments, Mr Biden appeared to back Israel’s claim that it was caused by a misfired missile from Hamas.
The hospital tragedy resulted in the cancellation of a scheduled four-way meeting between Mr Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egypt President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
The meeting in the Jordanian capital of Amman was expected to discuss how to get humanitarian assistance to Gaza to prevent a catastrophe and tamp down the conflict with Israel.
The Gaza Strip is a section of land, about half the size of Singapore, wedged between Israel and Egypt and controlled by Hamas — which beat Mr Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections in the last polls to be held in Gaza.
However, Hamas has been described by both the US and European Union as a terrorist organisation and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist as a state.
Fatah controls the other area that makes up the Palestinian territories, the West Bank.
The long-running Israel-Hamas conflict was reignited after Hamas launched a highly coordinated attack on various parts of Israel on Oct 7, leaving more than 1,000 Israeli civilians dead in the worst loss of life in the 75-year history of the state of Israel.
Hamas also took Israeli hostages.
A day later, Israel declared war against Hamas group and launched an unprecedented heavy bombardment of the tiny territory, killing many hundreds of Palestinians.
Today, the crisis in Gaza has been described as “spiralling out of control” by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) after the retaliatory attacks from both sides over the past two weeks resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that the four-way meeting would be held “when the decision to stop the war and put an end to these massacres has been taken”.
After departing Tel Aviv, Mr Biden gave his first on-the-record press cabin briefing on Air Force One as President to tell reporters he had worked with Egypt’s Mr Abdel to open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian aid to Gaza.
TODAY spoke to experts about why Mr Biden decided to visit the conflict zone, and whether the US would achieve its objectives despite the cancellation of the four-way meeting.
WHY DID BIDEN VISIT ISRAEL, AND WHAT DID HE WANT TO ACHIEVE?
The Biden administration, according to Dr Jean-Loup Samaan, has been focusing on two priorities in recent days: Demonstrating its solidarity with Israel and deterring external actors such as Hezbollah and Iran from intervening.
Hezbollah is a militant group and political party based in Lebanon; a significant part of its ideology being the rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a state.
“In this sense, Biden’s visit to the region is about preventing regional escalation,” said the senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute under the National University of Singapore (NUS).
It is, however, also underpinned by a traditionally strong economic and historical relationship between both countries.
The US, which has advocated for the establishment of the Jewish state since World War II, is Israel’s primary trade partner with an annual exchange of goods and services amounting to more than US$50 billion (S$68.6 billion) in 2022.
The state of Israel was created in 1948 following the second World War, when the United Nations proposed partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.
While the Jewish leadership accepted the plan, the Arab leaders did not — in large part due to disputes on who the land belonged to.
Nonetheless, Israel declared independence the following year, resulting in a war which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, which forms some of the basis of the Palestinians’ ongoing grievances against Israel.
Efforts to create a so-called “two-state solution” where both sides coexist have stalled repeatedly over the decades.
“Biden’s visit to Israel is a strong reminder of the importance of US-Israel relations,” said Dr Samaan.
Furthermore, political factors back in the US might also have culminated in Mr Biden’s decision, with analysts in agreement that there are “political points” to be earned with the country’s upcoming presidential and congressional elections in 2024.
“At a time of major dispute between the White House and Congress on US military aid to Ukraine, there is a big contrast here — polls in the US indicate clearly a bipartisan support for Israel in the conflict,” said Dr Samaan.
Agreeing, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) Oh Ei Sun said that the US has “a substantial Jewish voter base”, and that the Jewish donor lobbies “are simply too significant for Biden to sweep aside”.
Political considerations aside, Mr Biden’s trip is also intended to help facilitate humanitarian assistance for the Gaza Strip.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday ahead of Mr Biden’s visit that the US and Israel had agreed to “develop a plan” to get humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Gaza.
This included “the possibility of creating areas to help keep civilians out of harm’s way” at Washington’s request.
“It is critical that aid begin flowing into Gaza as soon as possible,” he added.
The Gaza Strip, described by some as an “open air prison camp”, has been blockaded by Israel, resulting in a critical shortage of essential supplies.
WHAT WILL THE IMPACT OF BIDEN’S VISIT BE?
As far as regional stability goes, analysts told TODAY that the US would likely succeed in deterring Iranian and Hezbollah forces from directly intervening in the conflict.
Some claim that Hamas is supported by Iran, which is allegedly unhappy at increasingly close ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Mr Muhammad Faizal Bin Abdul Rahman, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that the “significant US presence” in the Middle East could thus limit the conflict to the fight between Israel and Hamas.
He also cited the fact that the US Navy has deployed two aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean since the start of the conflict, one of which includes a nuclear reactor and the capacity to hold upwards of 75 military aircraft.
However, Mr Biden’s visit is not expected to make a significant difference to the conflict.
“It’s hard to see yet how it could really lead to peace efforts,” said Dr Samaan of NUS.
“For the moment, Israel will focus on the military intervention against Hamas inside the Gaza Strip, and there is no sign of ceasefire on both sides.”
Agreeing, Mr Muhammad Faizal said that the talks are “unlikely to result in lasting peace as it does not make the US look like an impartial or influential interlocutor between the Israelis and Palestinians”.
The cancellation of the four-way summit between Mr Biden and the leaders of the other Arab countries also means that the US President will now be calling on only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This has thrown a spanner in the works in what was supposed to be a regional balancing act.
Dr Oh of SIIA said that the visit would also have diplomatic and geopolitical implications.
“As most Arab and Muslim countries — including many with formal ties with Israel — are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, they would not look too kindly upon Biden’s visit to Israel and the associated US support for Israel,” he said.
“So their relations with the US, if any, would also be mostly on a needs basis only, and no further, at least in the near term.”
Mr Muhammad Faizal, who previously worked in the Ministry of Home Affairs, added that the current “conflagration” in the Middle East may serve as an indicator of “whether the US influence in the region is intact or starting to wane”.
“The fact that Arab leaders are not meeting Biden opens an opportunity for China and Russia to promote alternative visions of regional security to the Arab states in relation to Israel and Palestine,” he said.
He added that the US might find it harder to sustain or seek support from countries that may have reservations about its steadfast support for Israel — affecting its “strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific” as well as the war in Ukraine. WITH AGENCIES