Biden Pressures Israel, Promises Gaza Aid Pier in State of the Union Speech

6 minute read

When President Joe Biden wasn’t making his case for a second term, he was sending a message to Israel: Change your strategy in Gaza.

With the eyes of the world on Biden Thursday night, the President capitalized on his annual State of the Union address to pressure the Israeli government to allow increased humanitarian assistance into the Gaza Strip and to pursue a two-state solution once the war is over.

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That won’t be easy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has prosecuted an aggressive campaign against Hamas, the terrorist group that on Oct. 7 carried out the worst slaughter of Jewish civilians since the Holocaust. The Israeli offensive has produced a humanitarian catastrophe and killed and injured tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians. At the same time, Netanyahu has adamantly resisted entreaties from the Biden Administration and international community to embrace a post-war sovereign Palestinian state.

“The only real solution,” Biden said, "is a two-state solution", as Democrats rose for a standing ovation.

In the short term, the President pressed for a ceasefire and for Israel to provide immediate relief for Palestinians trapped in war-ravaged Gaza. “To the leadership of Israel I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” Biden said. “Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority.” 

To that end, Biden said the U.S. military would construct a floating pier off the Gaza Strip to deliver tons of food and other aid desperately needed in the beleaguered coastal enclave. “A temporary pier will enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day,” he said. “No U.S. boots will be on the ground.”

The announcement comes as the Israeli offensive continues to inflict a grave humanitarian crisis in Gaza: More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, Biden said; an estimated 1.7 million people have been displaced; and there are severe shortages of food, water, and medicine, with at least 15 children dying over the last week of malnutrition and dehydration.

Amid those scenes of suffering, the President has paid a political price. Facing a rebellion from progressives over his support for Israel’s war, Biden’s approval ratings have hit an all-time low. A recent New York Times/Siena poll, found that just 23% of Democratic primary voters said they were excited about him. Over the last five months, since Israel began its bombardment, he’s rarely been able to go anywhere in public without protestors calling for a ceasefire.

Voters have found other ways to express their dissatisfaction. In Michigan, home to the nation’s largest Arab American community, more than 100,000 Democrats cast protest votes for “uncommitted” in last week’s presidential primary. Pundits saw that as a potentially dire warning sign. Biden clinched the critical swing state in 2020 by roughly 150,000 votes.

Some of those disaffected Democrats were in the House chamber Thursday night. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Summer Lee were each wearing a kaffiyeh, the scarf donned by the late Yasser Araffat that has morphed into a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. While Biden was addressing the Israel-Hamas war, Tlaib and Bush held up signs that read “Lasting Ceasefire Now” and “Stop Sending Bombs.”

While Biden has struggled to convince Netanyahu to scale back Israel’s war effort, he has ramped up delivery of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians. In some cases, that has entailed circumventing Israel and Egypt, who maintain security control over Gaza’s borders. Last week, the U.S. began air dropping aid into the Strip. On Thursday, hours before Biden’s address, the United States dropped 38,000 more military meals into Gaza.

To Israel’s critics in Washington, that’s far from enough. They want America to exert its leverage over Israel by threatening to cut off military assistance unless the country halts its hostilities. The U.S. currently allocates $3.8 billion a year to the Jewish state based on a 2016 agreement between the Obama Administration and the Netanyahu government, and the White House recently asked Congress to approve a $14 billion aid package to help its ally defeat Hamas. “It’s time we stop asking Israel to do the right thing and start telling Israel what must happen if they want the support of the United States,” says Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

To Israel and its allies, that would amount to a grievous betrayal. Israel launched the war after Hamas infiltrated the country on Oct 7, killing 1,200 people, including children and the elderly, taking hundreds of hostages, and committing atrocities including rape. The group has since vowed to repeat the attack. For that reason, Israel says, it needs to dismantle Hamas’s military infrastructure and remove the group from power or it’s only a matter of time until the next massacre.

But as the Israel Defense Forces have waged a sustained war against Hamas, the civilian casualties have mounted. Israel has suffered an accelerating loss of global public support, and anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise worldwide. Even some of Israel’s fiercest defenders worry that the death and destruction caused by the Israeli campaign will turn the nation into an international pariah, posing an even deeper threat to its long-term security.

The quagmire has dominated Biden’s Presidency for the last five months. After the Oct. 7 attack, he expressed unequivocal support for Israel’s war effort but warned the allied nation against repeating the same mistakes that the U.S. made after Sept. 11. In November, the Biden Administration collaborated with the Qataris to broker a partial hostage release deal. More recently, Biden has since adopted a more critical tone against Netanyahu and has worked behind the scenes to secure a ceasefire agreement. “I’ve been working non-stop to establish an immediate ceasefire that would last for six weeks to get all the prisoners released,” Biden said Thursday.

Addressing the “gut-wrenching” Middle East conflict, Biden recognized the families of Americans held captive by Hamas. And while he used his bully pulpit to push Israel toward winding down the war, he defended its legitimacy. “Israel has a right to go after Hamas,” he said. Hamas could end the conflict "by releasing the hostages, laying down arms, and surrendering those responsible for Oct. 7.”

Biden’s posture only underscored the challenges as the war marked its fifth month. As Biden sees it, the longer it goes on the more likely it proves self-destructive for Israel. For now, the U.S. president is left upping the rhetorical pressure and trying to limit the humanitarian costs.

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