update deskU.S.-Israel Relations

White House: Biden to ask ‘tough questions’ of Israel ‘as a true friend’

Biden will "make it clear that we continue to want to see this conflict not widen, not expand, not deepen," said a U.S. official.

U.S. President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their delegations meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly at the InterContinental Hotel in New York City on Sept. 20, 2023. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
U.S. President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their delegations meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly at the InterContinental Hotel in New York City on Sept. 20, 2023. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.

On Oct. 16, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated that U.S. President Joe Biden would travel to Israel on Wednesday “to demonstrate his steadfast support for Israel in the face of Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack and to consult on next steps.”

A day later, aboard Air Force One en route to Tel Aviv, John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the U.S. National Security Council, told a press gaggle that Biden intends to ask Israelis “some tough questions.”

“He’ll be asking them as a friend—as a true friend of Israel. But he will be asking some questions of them,” said Kirby.

In Israel, Biden will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog. A trip to Amman, where Biden was to meet with the Jordanian king and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, has been canceled after the latter declared three days of mourning after an explosion at a Gaza hospital overnight Tuesday that according to the Israeli military was hit by an errant Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket. Palestinian sources reported that hundreds were killed in the blast.

Many immediately blamed Israel for the event, in what Herzog has called a modern-day blood libel. Israel says it has and will release evidence backing its claim, including intercepted PIJ communications. Biden has yet to acknowledge that on his social media accounts. On Air Force One, Kirby was asked why Biden is calling for an investigation.

“Israelis have said, ‘We didn’t do this; this was a misdirected rocket or missile.’ Do you guys not believe the Israelis?”

To which Kirby replied, “They have categorically denied that they were involved in that. So, I’ll let them speak to—to their statement on that,” adding, “I wouldn’t characterize this as an investigation.”

Biden “has directed the national security team to gather as much information and context as possible. We all want to know how this could have happened,” he said.

In Israel, Biden will “get a sense from the Israelis about the situation on the ground and, more critically, their objectives, their plans, their intentions in the days and weeks ahead,” Kirby told reporters.

He did not initially specify which “tough questions” the U.S. president would be asking Israel.

In response to a journalist’s question, Kirby said: “By ‘tough questions,’ I don’t mean menacing or—or in any way adversarial, just hard questions that a good friend of Israel would ask about, sort of, where they think they’re—where they think they’re going, what their—what their plans are going forward and, again, all in the spirit of a—of a true, deep friend of Israel.”

Biden is “also going to make it clear that we continue to want to see this conflict not widen, not expand, not deepen. And he’ll make that point very clearly,” said Kirby.

Kirby added that Biden will tell Israel that “we want to see humanitarian assistance flow in, and it’s not just a one-and-done. We want to see it be able to be sustained—food, water, obviously, electrical power, medicine—all the things that the—the people of Gaza are going to continue to need as this conflict continues to go on. So, he’ll make that case very, very clearly.”

Gaza is run by Hamas, which Washington has designated as a terrorist organization since 1997. The United States has acknowledged that Hamas appropriates humanitarian aid and uses it for military purposes, as the United Nations suggested recently before deleting a tweet to that effect.

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