President Biden to Visit Israel

A high-stakes move.

President Joe Biden disembarks Air Force One, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina.
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

CNN (“President Joe Biden will visit Israel in high-stakes trip“):

President Joe Biden will make an extraordinary wartime visit to Israel this week as he seeks to demonstrate staunch support for the country as it works to eliminate Hamas while also pressing for ways to ease humanitarian suffering in Gaza.

The dueling objectives, spelled out by his top diplomat Monday evening, bring with them significant risks for the president as he works to prevent the crisis in the Middle East from widening.

Aides said Biden had expressed a strong interest in making the journey after being invited over the weekend by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Biden has known for four decades. He spent Monday deliberating over the trip at the White House with his top national security and intelligence advisers.

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was convening a marathon session with top Israeli officials to discuss opening Gaza to humanitarian aid and preventing civilians from getting caught up in Israel’s response to the terror attacks.

In announcing Biden’s Wednesday trip after more than seven hours of negotiations, Blinken said that the United States and Israel “have agreed to develop a plan that will enable humanitarian aid from donor nations and multilateral organizations to reach civilians in Gaza.”

The US president will also travel to Jordan, where he will meet with King Abdullah II, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The top US diplomat in recent days met separately with the three leaders – all of whom have condemned the situation in Gaza.

The security risks of a diplomatic visit to Israel were starkly illustrated Monday when Blinken, in his meeting with Netanyahu, was forced to shelter in place after air sirens warned of incoming rockets. White House officials said they’d carefully weighed the risks of a presidential visit, and deemed it safe enough both to execute and announce ahead of time.

The president’s visit will build on Blinken’s seven nation, multi-day tour of the Middle East, which comes as the US tries to strike a delicate balance of providing unwavering support for Israel’s military operations while mitigating the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and stopping the war from spreading to further fronts.

Biden will “make it clear that we want to continue to work with all our partners in the region, including Israel, to get humanitarian assistance and again to provide some sort of safe passage for civilians to get out,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday evening.

Georgetown IR scholar Elizabeth Saunders (“Biden will visit Israel during a war. That’s unprecedented.“):

A presidential visit to an active war zone has a recent precedent: Biden went to Ukraine this past February, on a highly secret visit not revealed until he arrived in Kyiv by train. As the New York Times pointed out, it was the closest an American president had gotten to combat since Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.  Many presidents – including George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump – visited conflict zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, but in areas controlled by U.S. forces.  

This trip will be very different – on many, many levels.

Biden will be going at a time of high uncertainty 

Biden will be traveling to Israel at a moment of almost impossible complexity and uncertainty, in military, humanitarian, and political terms.

Although the human suffering is already immense, a principal focus of U.S. and other diplomats is preventing a wider regional war. Biden’s trip to Kyiv reportedly took months of planning, and though it was still very risky, the immediate fears of escalation that arose early in the war had given way to a more grinding conflict. In this case, the conflict is just over a week old and escalation fears are very real. As of this writing, a prime concern is a second front along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where Israel is already engaged in fighting with Iran-backed Hezbollah.  

Biden was one of multiple leaders who had taken the train to Kyiv, and the trip, while undoubtedly important symbolically, produced an aid package that probably could have been announced from Washington. Biden’s visit to Israel, however, could potentially alter the course of escalation, not just through whatever diplomatic breakthrough he or his team may try to achieve, but also as a show of support for Israel. The effects of such a signal on the other outside powers with an interest in this war – especially Iran – are uncertain. 

So much of foreign policy is invisible that it is hard to know what messages are being sent ahead of time through back channels. When Biden went to Kyiv, the United States informed Russia, for “deconfliction purposes,” as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan put it.  Still, sending signals in a major international crisis is no easy task.

A second source of uncertainty is on the human level.  In Israel, Biden will be threading a needle between comforting citizens and families who have just experienced an attack unlike anything in recent memory, while trying to appeal for restraint to mitigate the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza.


A third source of uncertainty is the Israeli government itself – as well as Biden’s relationship to it. Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had a tense relationship, and Israel as a policy issue has been increasingly polarized in the United States. Netanyahu is under domestic political pressure unlike anything he has experienced in his previous political lives. A show of support from the United States during a crisis would normally be a win for a leader in Netanyahu’s position, but some Israelis have already seen Biden and his team as more sympathetic than their own government.

Biden will therefore face a series of high-pressure moments during his appearances in Israel, but those public elements will not be the whole story of his visit. We won’t see most of the real action, but that won’t necessarily mean that no action occurred.  


It is the secretary of state who typically engages in so-called shuttle diplomacy, a term coined when President Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, flew around the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Many have invoked the shocking surprise attack by Israel’s neighbors in the Yom Kippur War as a comparison to the 2023 Hamas attacks, occurring 50 years and one day later.

Presidential time is scarce, even in a major international crisis (leaving aside the fact that Nixon was, in Kissinger’s words, “loaded” during the 1973 war, so much so that Kissinger put off a call for Nixon from the British Prime Minister).  Presidents leave the diplomatic spade work to the diplomats, letting them work out the details so the president can fly in and close the deal with ceremony and symbolism.  A visit can be very valuable to the host country as a show of US support or aid – and this was certainly true in Ukraine’s case. High-level leader visits can also provide a boost in public attitudes toward the visiting leader’s country among host country citizens. 

But though they are the ultimate decision-makers, presidents don’t typically get in the middle – physically – of diplomatic crises.  One of our mental pictures of face-to-face diplomacy is of looking the enemy in the eye, like Neville Chamberlain flying to meet Hitler in Munich before World War II (and we know how the fruits of that visit turned out) or summitry during the Cold War, such as Reagan negotiating directly with Gorbachev in Reykjavik.  The other image is that of a peacemaker, as in Jimmy Carter mediating the peace between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1978.  But most presidential travel is much less dramatic.

It’s a bold move that sends a powerful message of commitment. But it’s also fraught. Presumably, the Secret Service is reasonably confident that they can manage the physical risk. But the diplomatic risk is a another thing altogether. As Saunders rightly notes, Presidents tend not to make these trips until their diplomatic team gets a deal negotiated.

That’s not the case here. Indeed, other than images of an American President in a war zone, it’s not at all clear what the end state is supposed to be. I can’t imagine any of Israeli’s neighbors changing their policies simply because Biden showed up. And, if we’ve got carrots or sticks to wield, it’s not obvious why Blinken can’t wield them behind the scenes.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Middle East, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tony W says:

    One possible explanation – Biden is running for re-election against a coward who pretends to be a tough guy. And he is being portrayed as “old”.

    There’s nothing more badass than traveling into a war zone – twice.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    If Israeli commits significant atrocities, this will be seen as the US signing off on them.

  3. Scott says:

    And, if we’ve got carrots or sticks to wield, it’s not obvious why Blinken can’t wield them behind the scenes.

    In addition, we do supply a lot of arms and money to Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. It is always good to remind them of that.

  4. drj says:

    I can’t imagine any of Israeli’s neighbors changing their policies simply because Biden showed up.

    I suspect Biden’s visit primarily puts pressure on Netanyahu.

    As the article notes:

    Netanyahu is under domestic political pressure unlike anything he has experienced in his previous political lives. A show of support from the United States during a crisis would normally be a win for a leader in Netanyahu’s position, but some Israelis have already seen Biden and his team as more sympathetic than their own government.

    While Netanyahu may be in position to refuse Blinken, he might not get away with doing this to Biden.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t political risk for Biden, but the stakes are also very high. A completely unrestrained response (what Netanyahu seems to want – he is already preparing Israeli minds to give up on the hostages) could easily lead to a regional war.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    The risk to reward calculus is pretty bad. I’m not really seeing the upside to this. The closest I come is what @Tony W: said. It’s a nice contrast – spry Joe Biden in a war zone tryna save the world, while the busted cantaloupe squats in a courtroom tweeting his impotent threats.

  6. Lounsbury says:

    @MarkedMan: Yes. Risky
    @Michael Reynolds: It is if nothing else a high-stakes bet.
    @Scott: For what reason or are you trapped in 1975?

  7. Tony W says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I’m downplaying the risk for two reasons:

    1) The partisans are well-sorted at this point. Nobody is switching sides based on somebody or another’s atrocity of the month.

    2) Nobody is paying attention to what goes on in politics at the moment, so if it goes well Biden can crow about it, and if it doesn’t go well, Biden can posture and claim that he tried to temper Israel’s worst instincts, but that they are rightfully angry.

    As usual The Onion nailed it.

  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    It’s a splashy, bold move from a guy that is famous for not making splashy, bold moves. I have the feeling I that there are things here I don’t see.

  9. charontwo says:

    The Israel Defense Forces seized a large cache of weapons, including what appears to be deadly armor piercing explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs, from Hamas during a recent raid in Gaza. The presence of a large number of EFPs is a clear indication of Iranian support for Hamas.

    Other significant weapons found in the Hamas cache include SA-7 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, RPG-7 and RPG-29 shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets , TC-6 landmines, and “sticky bombs.”

    The IDF released photographs and video of the weapons systems on its website.


    The quantity of EFPs found during the IDF raid in Gaza indicates that Hamas has one or more factories and are producing a large number of the weapons. The manufacturing of EFPs requires a machine shop and technical and explosive expertise.

    EFPs have been used with deadly effect against U.S., British, and Iraqi forces in Iraq. Iraqi Shia militias such as Hezbollah Brigades, Asaib Ahl al Haq, and the Mahdi Army, killed hundreds of American soldiers with EFPs from 2003 to 2011.


    Hamas’ possession of EFPs and the existence of EFP factories is a strong indication of support from both Hezbollah and Iran. EFPs are known as a signature weapon of Iranian proxies and clients. As the IDF prepares for a likely ground offensive to root out Hamas and its allies, EFPs, landmines, rocket-propelled grenades, and other weapons pose a significant threat to Israeli armor and troops.

  10. charontwo says:

    The Deep Roots of the Left’s Deafening Silence on Hamas

    There are serious ideological reasons why parts of the left have gone so badly astray. The implications go far beyond the conflict in the Middle East.


    The actual demographic composition of the country makes claims that Israeli civilians should be seen as settlers who are fair game for terrorist attacks doubly cynical. They are cynical because no political cause, however righteous, justifies the deliberate targeting of babies and grandmothers—neither on the Israeli nor on the Palestinian side. And they are also cynical because the great majority of Mizrahi Jews have, since the end of the Second World War, been violently displaced from the Middle Eastern countries in which their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years, with no country other than the world’s only Jewish state willing to offer them a safe harbor.

    Note: more Israelis now are Mizrahi than Ashkenazi.


    According to many progressives, what determines whether a movement should count as left-wing or right-wing is based on whether it claims to be fighting on behalf of those they believe to be marginalized. Since Hamas is an organization of underprivileged “people of color” fighting against “privileged” “white” Jews, it must be seen as part of a global struggle against oppression. Even though its program—which incidentally includes the violent suppression of sexual minorities within the Gaza strip—is reminiscent of some of the world’s most brutal far-right regimes, those marching in support of Hamas consider them to be part of the global struggle for progressive values. As Judith Butler, a central figure in this intellectual tradition, said in 2006, it is “very important” to classify both Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.”


    The left has the potential to speak powerfully to this moment. To do so, it needs to jettison the ideological jargon that has made so many supposed idealists fall for the ever-present temptation to contrive reasons why the suffering of one side is outrageous while the suffering of the other side is glorious. To retain our moral composure in the ugly days and weeks now on the horizon, we must recover a moral universalism that, even in the darkest hour, reminds us of our shared humanity—and unhesitatingly laments the death of innocents, irrespective of the group to which they belong.

    Above just a few brief selections out of a lengthy piece.

  11. Gustopher says:

    The UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said on Tuesday that Gaza’s last seawater desalination plant had shut down, bringing the risk of further deaths and waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Six water wells, three water pumping stations and one water reservoir – which collectively served more than 1.1million people – are also out of action, it said.

    But don’t worry, under US pressure the Israelis are turning water on for southern Gaza. Surely that will go well…

    An Israeli water pipeline was opened for three hours in Khan Younis on Monday, serving half of the town’s population – which was 100,000 and has swelled to unknown proportions in the wake of the evacuation directive. It appears to have had little effect, however, as a lack of fuel and damaged pipelines have made it difficult to transport and pump.

    If Biden can pressure the Israelis to actually relent on the water situation, then I will mark his trip as a success, making the situation less worse.

    But I’m not sure that’s even on the agenda.

  12. JohnSF says:

    Two other possible angles:
    – To Iran and Hezbollah, along with movements of naval task forces and logistics assets, a overt signal of US support for Israel
    – To Israelis, both reassurance and perhaps a message to the coalition and IDF: do not dump the US President in the dung after this.
    I wonder what private messages are being conveyed to key Israeli’s about the need to restrain Netanyahu from doing something really stupid?

  13. just nutha says:

    @Gustopher: Yes, but Hamas hoards all the aid money, making issues like this one pale in comparison. Relativity in everything.

  14. Kathy says:
  15. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: Each side is claiming the other is responsible, and their believers will cling to their beliefs even if we learn what happened. Meanwhile, there will be misinformation pumped out by nearly everyone involved, because who can afford to wait for evidence?

    It changes nothing for anyone, except for those in the hospital.

    The important thing to remember is that jet fuel doesn’t burn hot enough to melt steel girders, 9/11 was an inside job, etc.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    Given the speed of AI integration distinguishing what’s real and what’s fake is going to be significantly more difficult. This is the first level of threat from AI and of course it won’t be HAL 9000 going rogue, it’ll be humans doing it.

    This is a new arms race, criminals vs. LEOs, propagandists vs. reporters, governments vs the truth. We’re going to need AI to save us from AI.

  17. Modulo Myself says:

    Each side is claiming the other is responsible, and their believers will cling to their beliefs even if we learn what happened. Meanwhile, there will be misinformation pumped out by nearly everyone involved, because who can afford to wait for evidence?

    Israel is currently bombing the hell out of Gaza. Could a rocket fired by Hamas or Islamic Jihad have somehow caused this huge explosion? Sure. But acting as if there’s belief in the normal assumption that this huge bomb-like explosion was caused by the military currently bombing Gaza is a strange way to go about things.

  18. anjin-san says:

    I have a bad feeling that this thing is going exactly as Hamas hoped it would.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @Modulo Myself: terrorists have been known to stockpile weapons and explosives in safe locations, like hospitals. A smaller, failed missile from Hamas or Islamic Jihad could have crashed and ignited it.

    Not saying that this happened, but the pro-Israeli-massive-assault folks will believe that it is what happened.

    Major news organizations are backing away from assigning blame right now. I have no idea whether they are protecting access to Israeli spokesweasels, or if there is evidence that puts things in doubt. I just know that if you were to do a controlled implosion of the WTC, it would look a lot like what happened.

    @Michael Reynolds: A disturbing number of people believe the election was stolen and that Biden eats adrenochrome from children, and that we found WMDs in Iraq. AI is not needed.

    It will make it easier though.

    There was an image of the Pope in a puffy coat that was going around

    If you look closely, you can see clear signs that this isn’t real — the fingers look wrong, he doesn’t have horns, etc. But if you aren’t looking closely, you might just think that the Pope is an old man who gets cold, so they got him a coat.

  20. Gustopher says:

    This x-plative has video of MSNBC’s coverage of the hospital explosion.

    – Israel denies it
    – Israel is not providing evidence, citing classified information that they are not releasing
    – Hamas missiles are less deadly and don’t tend to get this death toll
    – Israeli bombs, particularly the bunker busters used for tunnels, have that force
    – Israeli military has in the past made statements in the immediate aftermath of an incident that turn out not to be true (one example given, involving a journalist that they claimed was shot by Palestinians, and months later admitted they were probably shot by an Israeli soldier)

    Take that as you will, I would be wary of random sources since there is so much propaganda being spewed with made up shit. MSNBC is generally-reliable, but less so in the immediate aftermath of something.

    There are “Open Source Intelligence” folks doing detailed analysis of sounds caught on microphones a kilometer away, etc., where you can clearly hear the incoming projectile saying “Shalom, Schmuck!” or “Ali Ali Ackbar Alinfree” or whatever. Mislabeled video of other missile launches being used as “evidence” one way or the other. Lots of nonsense.

  21. JohnSF says:

    Updated analysis from Bellingcat indicates: no catering etc.
    It really looks like a missile detonation/fuel fire set on cars etc parked in a crowded courtyard.
    It does not mean it’s impossible it was a small Israeli missile, but unlikely.
    Highest probability seems to be a failed launch; second highest an Israeli missile intercept over Gaza; third, a small Israeli missile.

  22. Gustopher says:

    @JohnSF: Bellingcat is one of those places I tend to trust over everyone else, and if they are saying that it was a small missile hitting flammable and explosive things on the ground, I would generally expect that to be born out in the end. 80% confidence in Bellingcat.

    They’re not perfect, and more information may come out that contradicts them, but they’re very good.

    Assuming this bears out, this would bring up questions of whether it was a freak accident, whether the hospital was deliberately targeted (unlikely*), whether Hamas is launching missiles from so close to the hospital** that any accident would lead to this, or whether Israel was targeting that hypothetical Hamas missile site and missed.

    Also, took me a bit to figure out that “no catering” meant there was no crater, rather than a lack of food stands. I should go to bed.

    *: Israel knows the world is watching, and would notice a big explosion at a hospital. They’re professionals, they will just cut off the water since that’s quieter. I would be surprised but not shocked to find out it was a false flag operation by Hamas.

    **: yes, yes, war crimes. There are war crimes everywhere in this.

    ETA: I’m not seeing the reporting on this on either Bellingcat’s website or Twitter feed, and a Google News search on “Bellingcat Gaza hospital” isn’t bringing it up either. Perhaps I am tired, but I will not so silently mark this as unconfirmed.

    It’s like they say: Trust no one other than Bellingcat directly, and them only 80%.

  23. JohnSF says:

    It was the twitter feed of Elliot Higgins, Bellingcat’s founder/director.

    P.S. : Sorry about the “catering/cratering” thing: my usual abysmal typing skills at work 🙁