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Joe Biden’s Israel trip is risky but worth it

ByAndreas Kluth

US President Joe Biden has decided to visit Israel this week. Thetrip won’t be without risk —for him, for his Israeli hostsand even for the emerging US strategy to manage the global fallout of the war against Hamas. But Biden is right to go.

Other allied leaders are already doing so. Olaf Scholz, who has repeated his predecessor’s vow that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s“raison d’etat,” is slated to arrive in the region right about now. But there’s still a difference between a German chancellor and a US president.

In this fraught moment, when the world is increasingly split over not only the Russian waragainst Ukraine butalso the conflict between Zionists and Palestinians, it’s important to show where allegiances must lie. In the first case, it’s with the Ukrainians, not the Russians; in the second, it’s with the Israelis, not Hamas or their backers in Tehran.

Even so, the current situation —and therefore also the president’s itinerary —requires special finesse. That’s because Biden and his team are trying to do at least four things at once.

First, they want to give succor to Israel in its hour of need. Second, they’re trying to get the hostages held by Hamas out alive —and not just the US citizens among them. Third, they’re working to protect innocent Palestinian livesin the Gaza Strip. Not least, they’re also laboring to keep this war from drawing in other countries and becoming conflated with adjacent conflicts, possibly even kindling aglobal conflagration.

So far, Biden is sending all the right signals. He’s struck deeply personal notes both in hiscondolencesfor the Jewish victims and in his principled and compassionate rejection of any hatred, including that directed at Muslims, inGaza just asat home.

To deter Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere from piling on Israel, Biden has also dispatched aformidable armadato the waters off the Levant. He’s sent his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to hop between regional capitals so frenetically, one wonders how Blinken finds time to nap. The second and third rows of US policymakers are also pounding the pavement —a bipartisan Senate delegationjust visited Tel Aviv, and at one point had to shelter against incoming Hamas missiles.

That kind of enemy shelling is only onerisk Biden may face when he showsup. Lots of US presidents have visited American troops in wartime, from World War II to Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. But only one —Abraham Lincoln in 1864 —is known to have come under fire. (“Get down, you damn fool!,” a well-meaning Unionist allegedlyyelledat the towering figure.)

For his part, Biden already made history earlier this year by going to Ukraine,the first time a president visited a war zone in which no US troops are fighting. The planning was iffy. The US warned Russia at the last moment to ease off, and the Ukrainians then ferried Biden to Kyiv in adiscreettrain. Russian President Vladimir Putin had reasons not to bombthe leader of the only power with a nuclear arsenal to rival his own; Hamas, for its part, would probably love nothing more than to take a shotat the Great Satan.

That said, the Israelis have regained enough control over their skies and territory to keep Biden reasonably safe. The bigger challenge is to manage the visit’s choreography, and to ensure that neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noranybody else spoils it.

The whole point of a physical appearance by an incumbent US president on the frontline of a major conflict is to get the visuals and the message aligned for effect. In 1963, John F. Kennedy’s seven-hour trip to West Berlin, an island of the free world the Soviets had by then walled off, fortified its citizens and others elsewhere to brave the communist menace. Twenty-four years later, Ronald Reagan followed in JFK’s footsteps and told the Kremlin to “tear down this wall.” Torn down it would soon be.

Alas, the wall surrounding the Gaza Strip cannot serve upa backdrop that is asgeopolitically and photogenically compelling. It was built by Israel to keep Hamas in, then breached by the terrorists as they set out on their murderous rampage. It’s now being crossed again in the other direction by the Israeli army as it enters Gaza to root out Hamas.

Biden, moreover, will have to use the symbolism of his presence to address multiple audiences, each with a subtly different message. The Israelis must viscerally feel his support. The Palestinians and their sympathizers worldwide must grasp that Biden genuinely cares about the livesof innocents in the Gaza Strip. The mullahs in Iran and the fighters of Hezbollah must sense his resolve to stop them from escalating.

The Egyptiansmust see Biden’s visit as an exhortation to open their border with Gaza to let in refugees. The Saudis, Qataris, Turks and others in the region must understand his trip as a signal to align their own diplomacy with Washington’s, in orderto stabilize rather thaninflame the region.

And far away in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping should be cringing as he watches Biden in Israel. This week Xi is hosting a gaggle of world leaders he’d like to enlist in his own quest to make China globally preeminent.Among his guestsis Putin, tormentor of Ukraine, buyer of Iranian drones and North Korean ammoand regular interlocutor of Hamas.

If Biden uses his visit to Israel well, he’ll not only reassure Jews and well-meaning Muslims alike. He could also demonstrate to countries across the Global South that Washington, not Beijing or Moscow, is the closest thing to awarden of global ordertoday. With luck, Biden might even shame Xi back toward cooperation for the sake of international stability —perhaps when the two men meet in San Francisconext month. The stakes of this trip are far too high not to go.

(Published 17 October 2023, 04:33 IST)

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