President Biden is heading to the Middle East on Wednesday for a high-stakes visit with the hopes that a face-to-face intervention will move the hardened positions of leaders in the region amid the already devastating Israel-Hamas war.
Biden’s unprecedented wartime visit, the second one of his presidency, comes as Israel prepares to launch a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip, part of its efforts to secure the release of nearly 200 hostages held by Hamas. It also comes amid pitched concerns from countries in the region, including Egypt and Jordan, that Palestinian civilian deaths and wide-scale destruction will trigger mass chaos.
The president has firmly stood up for Israel’s right to launch an aggressive response against Hamas in Gaza after an unprecedented assault Oct. 7, massacring civilians at a music festival and targeting them in their communities in the south, with more than 1,400 Israelis killed over the course of nearly three days. And rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip continue on Israel.
Biden will huddle first with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv to show the United States’s unwavering support for Israel’s fight against Hamas. He then heads to Jordan to meet with Jordan King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to focus on the humanitarian situation on the ground.
Egypt and Jordan specifically have emerged as key players in the fast-moving war, with their long history of negotiating between Israel and Hamas in previous rounds of conflict. The countries, bordering each side of Israel, also hold an existential interest in keeping the humanitarian and military situation from spiraling out of control.
“After the Abraham Accords, there’s been a lot of focus on neighboring countries, and almost taking Jordan and Egypt for granted,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former senior Palestinian Authority official and senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“And I think this will reaffirm that no matter what, because of history, because of geography, these two countries hold the key to everything.”
Jordan and Egypt hold cold peace-treaties with Israel, long-standing ties that have allowed productive security cooperation but that have never evolved into bonds between people and cultures, with those populations firmly supportive of Palestinians.
“There have been major demonstrations in Jordanian cities, protesting what Israel is doing. The peace treaty between Jordan and Israel is extremely unpopular in Jordan,” said Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA official and nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Riedel said Jordan’s king, who is also a key ally of the U.S., will come under a lot of pressure by his own people to break relations with Israel if there are significant casualties in Gaza “beyond what we have now.”
“And he knows that would damage his relationship with the United States, but he could find himself in a situation where he has to do something,” Riedel said.
“And an unstable Gaza and an unstable West Bank, which is the situation we face now, can destabilize Jordan and that would be a very big problem for the United States.”
More than 2,600 people in Gaza are believed to have been killed amid Israel’s bombardment of the enclave, with airstrikes targeting what it says are Hamas military infrastructure and leaders — but those deaths also include a significant number of civilians, including children.
Jordan and Egypt’s leaders have come out strongly against moving Palestinians out of Gaza – with Israel warning civilians to flee areas coming under strike, which could lead to a refugee crisis in surrounding countries.
That opposition prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to say that any calls for the relocation of Palestinian civilians is a “nonstarter.”
The White House is balancing addressing the immediate priorities — recovering hostages, preventing a humanitarian catastrophe and protecting the lives of civilians — with longer-term questions surrounding what goals Israel seeks to achieve in its military operations against Hamas and what the fate of the Gaza Strip and its population of more than 2 million Palestinians will be. Netanyahu has said that Hamas can no longer exist — a sentiment Biden has also expressed.
But no one, so far, has detailed much about what that means for Gaza’s political future.
“It’s very hard to talk about the day after when so much remains to be determined,” al-Omari continued.
Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has long been viewed as an irrelevant leader in his control of the West Bank. The 87-year-old was first elected to office in 2005 but has not permitted elections since.
Palestinians are a physically divided population, spread out across pockets in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon and Jordan. Polls among West Bank and Gazan Palestinians show disillusionment with their political leaders.
But a poll conducted in September among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by the Palestinian Center for Policy Research showed more support for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (58 percent) compared to Abbas (37 percent), if they were the only two candidates in a presidential election. The poll, however, noted voter turnout would only be 42 percent.
Of Biden’s upcoming meeting between Abbas and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, al-Omari said “the first thing that came to mind was ‘intervention.’”
“I think Abbas will be there, hearing very difficult things from both the leaders. What he could do, I don’t know, but I think it’s a signal that Abbas would only be handled through dealing with regional leaders who can have leverage on him.”
For the U.S., its next immediate steps are working with Israel and Egypt to set the conditions to allow the operation of a humanitarian corridor through Egypt’s Rafah crossing with Gaza. That would also allow for aid and for Palestinians, hundreds of whom have foreign passports, to exit.
In remarks from Tel Aviv on Monday night, Blinken laid out how Israel agreed to develop a plan with the U.S. to allow humanitarian assistance to reach people in Gaza and “creating areas to help keep civilians out of harm’s way.”
But Blinken also acknowledged that Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, is likely to pilfer supplies meant for civilians.
“We share Israel’s concern that Hamas may seize or destroy aid entering Gaza or otherwise preventing it from reaching the people who need it,” Blinken said in his remarks.
“If Hamas in any way blocks humanitarian assistance from reaching civilians, including by seizing the aid itself, we’ll be the first to condemn it and we will work to prevent it from happening again.”