Biden’s visit to Israel yields no quick fixes: ANALYSIS

Regional tension continues following the president’s trip to the Middle East.

October 18, 2023, 7:46 PM

After more than a week of secretive security preparations and days of anticipation following the announcement that President Joe Biden would make a wartime visit to Israel, he spent little more than eight hours on the ground on Wednesday.

Although he argued that time was packed with valuable face-to-face meetings, his engagements had limited success in advancing the administration's priorities surrounding the conflict, including moving humanitarian aid into Gaza -- and getting Americans out -- at least initially.

President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media during his flight returning from Israel aboard Air Force One, Oct. 18, 2023.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One Wednesday as he returned, Biden announced that Israel had agreed to allow humanitarian assistance to flow into Gaza for Palestinian civilians, saying, "I got it done."

But as he headed back to Washington, the convoys of aid remained lined up outside the Rafah gate -- the only border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

After speaking with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Biden said El-Sisi had agreed to allow 20 trucks to pass through the border, and predicted could happen on Friday.

But he was vague on whether U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals trapped in Gaza might be able to exit, saying only, "I'm hopeful we can get some Americans out as well."

President Joe Biden meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he arrives in Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct 18, 2023.

According to a source familiar with negotiations, all parties involved in the talks were working through the details of implementing the system through which they'll move aid into Gaza and potentially bring foreign nationals out.

While it appears they were making some progress, there's ample potential for disagreements to emerge, including Israel's requirement that aid shipments pass inspection and disagreements over what supplies can be admitted into Gaza.

Israel regulates the import of "dual-use" items -- goods that have both civilian and military applications -- a long list which includes some medical supplies, construction materials and certain fabrics.

But even though these humanitarian efforts could run off the rails, opening a border into Gaza may be among the most straightforward of the many pressing issues now facing the Biden administration.

PHOTO: Palestinians check the place of the explosion at Al Ahli hospital, in Gaza City, Oct. 18, 2023.
Palestinians check the place of the explosion at Al Ahli hospital, in Gaza City, Oct. 18, 2023. The Hamas-run Health Ministry says an Israeli airstrike caused the explosion that killed hundreds at the hospital, but the Israeli military says it was a misfired Palestinian rocket.
Abed Khaled/AP

Biden originally intended to make a second stop in Jordan where he would consult with key Middle Eastern partners -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah, but that summit was scrapped after Hamas accused Israel of conducting an airstrike on a hospital packed with Palestinian civilians on Tuesday.

The Israeli Defense Forces denied the allegations and released intelligence supporting the claim that the deadly inferno at the hospital was caused by misfired rockets launched by militants in Gaza.

Later, the White House National Security Council said the U.S. assessed that "based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open-source information" Israel was "not responsible for the explosion."

"Intelligence indicates that some Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip believed that the explosion was likely caused by an errant rocket or missile launch carried out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)," NSC spokesperson Watson said in a statement Wednesday. "The militants were still investigating what had happened."

However, in the wake of these assertions from the U.S. and Israel, Arab leaders in the region that quickly condemned the Israeli military for carrying out was some described as a "massacre" don't appear to have shifted their positions, and in many countries across the Middle East, outraged demonstrators continue to surround Israeli embassies as well as those of its allies.

The State Department did not respond to an inquiry from ABC News asking whether it would share details of its assessment with other governments that quickly determined Israel was responsible for the blast based on assertions from Hamas.

Palestinians use slingshots to throw stones towards Israeli soldiers during a demonstration in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, October 18, 2023.
Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

The willingness to believe the Hamas narrative illustrates the lack of impact from Secretary of State Antony Blinken's grueling trek through the Middle East, visiting seven countries in five days.

He had urged Middle Eastern leaders to use their clout to prevent the conflict from spreading and espoused the administration's stance that Israel has every right to restore its national security if it minimizes harm to civilians.

As Blinken's trip progressed, he heard more direct opposition to his argument, including assertions from the Egyptian president that Israel's "reaction has gone beyond the right to self-defense."

This runs directly counter to the stance some countries have taken in recent years, including Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom's foreign minister stressed to Blinken that alleviating civilian suffering in Gaza should be the priority, but when Saudi oil fields were targeted by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Saudi-led coalition unleashed a fury of airstrikes on Yemen -- killing scores of bystanders in the process in the name of shoring up national security.

American diplomats where never under the illusion that they could generate strong support for Israel's war on Hamas among its neighbors, but as Israel appears to move toward launching a ground incursion into Gaza, persuading other countries to see the conflict from Israel's perspective may prevent misgivings in the Middle East from erupting into a regional war.

U.S. officials remain especially wary of Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group backed by Iran. Already there have been small clashes across Israel's border with Lebanon. If those skirmishes escalate, they could draw in other forces across the Middle East.

Iran's foreign minister also warned on Monday that preemptive strikes against Israel "may be conceivable" in the coming days.

A Palestinian is helped across the rubble following an Israeli airstrike on buildings in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Oct. 17, 2023.
Afp Contributor#afp/AFP via Getty Images

But Michael Young, senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center, argues there could still be diplomatic off-ramps.

"If Israel advances in a piecemeal fashion in Gaza, negotiating as it does so, the interplay of negotiations and gradual military gains may make it more difficult for Iran to undermine the process by ordering Hezbollah into a war," he said. "Or, Hezbollah can wait to see how Hamas is faring in Gaza, and if it determines that the organization is holding its own, it could decide to limit its response to Israeli actions and avoid the worst."

And if not?

"This might be the calm before the storm," Young said.

On Wednesday, the administration rolled out sanctions targeting Hamas and measures aimed at limiting Iran's missile and drone programs—the latter done in unison with other allies as an attempt to replace expiring sanctions levied by the United Nations against Tehran under the Obama-era nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

But some analysts, like Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, say Iran could still benefit from the termination of the restrictions unless the administration cracks down and more closely coordinates its sanctions with those implemented by European powers.

"Now is the time to bridge the transatlantic gap and build a new architecture together," he said.