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US officials brief American Jewry ahead of Biden Israel visit

The speed of the U.S. response to Israeli needs reflects a “sense of urgency across not just this building, but across the entire U.S. federal government, that's coming from the president on down,” said a Pentagon official.

A large billboard thanking U.S. President Joe Biden for his support for Israel, above the Ayalon Highway in Ramat Gan, Oct. 11, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
A large billboard thanking U.S. President Joe Biden for his support for Israel, above the Ayalon Highway in Ramat Gan, Oct. 11, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

Hours before U.S. President Joe Biden landed in Israel on Wednesday, his administration briefed the American Jewish community on the objectives of the visit.

As part of a 30-minute Zoom call, Sam Sutton, director for Israel and Palestinian affairs for the National Security Council, told those in virtual attendance that the overarching purpose of Biden’s trip “at this critical moment is to stand in solidarity with the people of Israel and show a strong and steadfast support following the most appalling terrorist attacks,” carried out by Hamas. 

Beyond signaling support for Israel, its duty to defend its people and to prevent future attacks, Sutton said Biden will “underscore a message of deterrence—a crystal clear message to any actor, state or non-state, that they should not take advantage” of the current crisis to attack Israel. 

She said Biden will also discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his cabinet and with Israeli President Isaac Herzog the “importance of securing the release of the hostages taken by Hamas, which also includes American citizens.” 

Perhaps most consequentially, Biden will hold consultations with Israeli political and military leaders on their next steps, “particularly as it pertains to Gaza and their strategy… as we work with both the Department of Defense and with Congress, to ensure that Israel’s needs are met.” 

Sutton also pointed to the need for humanitarian assistance to Gazan civilians, in coordination with David Satterfield, Biden’s newly-appointed point man on the issue.

The briefing came just hours before an explosion at a hospital in Gaza City that according to the Israeli military was caused by a stray Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket. According to Hamas sources, several hundred people were killed in the blast. The premature blaming of Israel for the strike has heated regional tensions to the boiling point.

Mara Karlin, handling the duties of deputy under secretary of defense for policy, was joined by Warren Bass, director of speechwriting and senior adviser to the defense secretary, for a briefing on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s travel to the region late last week.

Karlin took note of Austin’s meeting in Brussels with foreign ministers of NATO members and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s remote call into the session.

“He showed a video of some of the truly awful events that we saw last Saturday [in Hamas’ attacks],” said Karlin. “The ministers responded, and I will tell you, it was nothing short of inspiring to hear country after country expressing their solidarity with Israel, and its right to defend itself,” said Karlin.

Austin, in meetings with Israeli political and military leaders, looked “all of his colleagues in the eyes to make sure they understood just how strongly we would support them, how just terribly we feel about these truly awful events. And then it involved a lot of discussions on what the United States was doing to support Israel at this time,” she said. 

According to Karlin, that included racing security assistance and sending various U.S. military assets to signal deterrence “to anyone who may foolishly even consider the notion of trying to escalate the conflict,” along with discussions about support with hostage recovery. 

Bass echoed Austin’s statement, made in a press conference with Gallant at Israeli’s defense headquarters, that “sometimes the most powerful thing that a friend can do is just to show up.” 

Bass said Austin wanted to express personal condolences to the Israeli public and stand in solidarity with families who “are in the waking nightmare of not knowing the fate of their loved ones who are missing or feared to be held hostage in the clutches of Hamas and Gaza.” He added that “there was just a human dimension to the trip. That is always an undercurrent in the work that the department does, but was really in the forefront this time.”

Austin, who previously served as the commander of the counter-Islamic State mission in Iraq and Syria, felt the same things he did then upon seeing Hamas’s atrocities up close, according to Bass. 

“Seeing the scope and the depravity of what Hamas had done to human beings created in the image of God, he described Hamas as bloodthirsty, fanatical, hateful,” said Bass. “He was very conscious that the world had witnessed a great evil on Oct. 7.”

Bass said that the speed by which the Pentagon is moving assets into the area and into the hands of the IDF is indicative of America’s commitment to Israel’s security. That includes munitions, air defense capabilities, Iron Dome interceptors and other equipment and resources, he added.

“Not everything in the federal government moves that swiftly. But this is going fast,” said Bass, citing the first shipment, which arrived three days after Hamas’ attacks. “That speed and commitment and sense of urgency across not just this building, but across the entire U.S. federal government, that’s coming from the president on down.” 

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