Biden Says Israel Has Right to Defend Itself, Sends U.S. Official to Meet Israeli, Palestinian Leaders

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asks Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Hady Amr, to go to the region 'immediately' to meet with Israeli, Palestinian leaders

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, the Gaza Strip, today.
Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, the Gaza Strip, today.Credit: Adel Hana,AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Israel has the right to defend itself as tensions between Israel and the Palestinians continue to boil over.

"Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying in your territory," the president said when asked about the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza. "My hope is that we'll see this coming to conclusions sooner than later," he said.

"My national security staff and defense staff has been in constant contact with their counterparts in the Middle East, not just with the Israelis but also with everyone from the Egyptians to the Saudis to the Emiratis," he said, adding that he spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Wednesday.

According to a White House readout of the call, Biden conveyed his "unwavering support for Israel's security and for Israel's legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians."

Biden also conveyed U.S. encouragement of a "pathway toward restoring a sustainable calm," and that Jerusalem must be a place of peace. He also updated Netanyahu on American diplomatic engagement with countries including Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, as well as with Palestinian officials.

Biden and Netanyahu agreed senior officials from each country, as well as each of them personally, will remain in touch in the days ahead.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it will send Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to Israel "immediately" in a bid to deescalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that "images that came out overnight are harrowing and the loss of any civilian life is a tragedy. I've asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Hady Amr, to go to the region immediately to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.”

"I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties even as it is rightfully responding in defense of its people," Blinken added.

Blinken also spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a State Department statement, Blinken expressed his concerns regarding the barrage of rocket attacks on Israel, his condolences for the lives lost as a result, and the United States’ strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself.  

"The secretary and the prime minister discussed the ongoing violence in Jerusalem, and the Secretary reiterated his call on all parties to deescalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence," the statement added.

Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary said that Washington had held "more than 25 high-level calls and meetings by senior U.S. officials with senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and our partners and other stakeholders including with the Qataris, the Tunisians, the Jordanians and the Egyptians who have an important role to play in the region as we work to move toward deescalation."

Psaki noted that senior Washington-based officials held 10 phone calls on Tuesday alone.

She added that the U.S. would nominate a "qualified, experienced ambassador" over the coming weeks. "That's in process and when it's ready we'll announce that but in the meantime, we have great confidence in our team on the ground in Jerusalem who enjoy open and regular access to a range of senior officials," she said, adding that much of the U.S. engagement is happening through private diplomatic channels.

A former U.S. official told Haaretz that upgrading Amr to an envoy-level position, similar to Tim Lenderking with Yemen or Jeffrey Feltman with the Horn of Africa, would be a relatively simple fix to Biden’s approach regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been the target of growing ire amongst former officials and policy experts.

“It doesn’t have to be someone super senior, but somebody who’s empowered to deal with this on a regular basis,” the official says, adding Amr is already playing the default role. “Empower him to have more freedom and give him a higher level of engagement.”

Amr has been widely praised for his entrepreneurial approach throughout his career. Those familiar with his background say he has consistently demonstrated a unique ability to build relationships with both parties throughout his career, placing a premium on improving lives for civilians and not focusing on flashy initiatives.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, meanwhile, called on the Biden administration to step in in a "much more forceful and active way than it has to date," adding that it would be irresponsible to step away from engaging in a meaningful way.

The leader of the pro-Israel, left-wing organization called for the administration to appoint a senior-level point person to direct and coordinate policy due to the lack of clear leadership on this issue within the administration, as well as the expedited appointment of a qualified ambassador.

"This should not go to someone who is a donor. This is not a political perk of a position. This is a vital diplomatic post and lives are at stake, and it's really important that it be someone with meaningful policy experience in the issues that they'll be dealing with," he added.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also spoke with Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday, conveying the Defense Department's "ironclad support for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, and he strongly condemned the launching of rockets by Hamas and other terrorists groups that targeted Israeli civilians." Austin also reiterated the importance of all involved parties to take steps to restore calm.

Austin is the fourth senior-level U.S. official to speak with his Israeli counterpart in recent days, following Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Sullivan also spoke with a representative from the Egyptian government on Tuesday in a bid to strengthen deescalation efforts.

"Blinken spoke today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas", a White House statement said overnight Wednesday. "The Secretary and the President discussed the violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and the Secretary expressed his condolences for the lives lost as a result. The Secretary condemned the rocket attacks and emphasized the need to de-escalate tensions and bring the current violence to an end."

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