October 10, 2023
“[T]here are moments in this life…when the pure, unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world. The people of Israel lived through one such moment this weekend.”
So began President Joe Biden’s speech today about the attacks in Israel at “[t]he bloody hands of the terrorist organization Hamas—a group whose stated purpose for being is to kill Jews.”
“This was an act of sheer evil,” Biden said.
He described the slaughter in Israel in detail, noting that it looked much like “the worst rampages of ISIS,” as its fighters ravaged Iraq and Syria.
“But sadly, for the Jewish people, it’s not new,” he said. “This attack has brought to the surface painful memories and the scars left by…millennia of antisemitism and genocide of the Jewish people.”
“So, in this moment, we must be crystal clear,” he said. “We stand with Israel…. And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack.”
Biden was careful to distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinians. “Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination,” Biden said. “Its stated purpose is the annihilation of the State of Israel and the murder of Jewish people…. Hamas offers nothing but terror and bloodshed with no regard to who pays the price.”
Former ambassador of Israel to the United States Michael Oren wrote on social media: “President Biden’s speech was the most passionately pro-Israel in history. The president stood four square behind the Jewish state and the Jewish people and unequivocally against terror and anti-Semitism, and pledged the power of the US to our defense. Our people will always remember and cherish this speech and the man who delivered it.” Israeli president Isaac Herzog agreed: “On behalf of the entire people of Israel, thank you [President] Joe Biden.”
President of the Arab American Institute James Zogby told Barak Ravid of Axios that the speech "was expected, but it was disappointing…. What I would have hoped for today is a call for restraint and for ceasefire...and a U.S. effort to play a leadership role in bringing about an end to the violence and offering some hope—both to Palestinians and to Israelis—that their security mattered, that their futures mattered," he said.
But Biden’s speech did more than simply express moral support for Israel. It outlined increased U.S. military assistance to Israel, more U.S. intelligence, and more U.S. military force in the region “to strengthen our deterrence.”
That deterrence is undoubtedly a key part of the reason for this strong statement about the U.S. stance in the region, as leaders are eager to stop the crisis from expanding. “Let me say again—to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t,” Biden said. “Don’t. Our hearts may be broken, but our resolve is clear.”
That determination to limit the spread of the fighting by shoring up alliances and partnerships was behind the president’s working of the phones all weekend and was likely part of the more than three dozen meetings he and Vice President Kamala Harris have held with the national security team since the crisis began.
The effort to keep the violence from spreading will be at least part of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s role when he travels tomorrow to Israel and Jordan. The U.S. is talking to Israel and Egypt about establishing a humanitarian corridor between the Gaza Strip and Egypt that will enable Palestinians to evacuate.
The president’s speech was not without notice to Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed fierce retribution against all the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip for the actions of Hamas. Biden said that in a recent phone call the two had discussed “how democracies like Israel and the United States are stronger and more secure when we act according to the rule of law. Terrorists…purposefully target civilians, kill them. We uphold the laws of war,” Biden said, laws that prohibit deliberate targeting of civilians and require proportionate responses. “It matters. There’s a difference.”
Monica Alba, Carol E. Lee, and Peter Nicholas of NBC News reported the conversation was stronger than Biden’s speech indicated, with Biden warning Netanyahu that the U.S. will be watching closely for blowback to excessive force, especially if such force kills civilians.
Biden also suggested that the forces at work in Israel today could threaten us here in the U.S. He noted that the police departments, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are taking steps to increase security around centers of Jewish life. “Let’s be real clear,” Biden said. “There is no place for hate in America—not against Jews, not against Muslims, not against anybody…. [What] we reject is terrorism. We condemn the indiscriminate evil, just as we’ve always done.”
The speech undercut those Republicans who are threatening to withhold funds from Ukraine. The White House is also trying to get the Senate to confirm Jack Lew, Biden’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel. This is a crucially important position in ordinary times, but even more so in such a crisis. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has been holding up his nomination.
Meanwhile, Congress as a whole is in limbo as House Republicans appear to be no closer to uniting behind a speaker. Today, four of the former Ohio State University wrestlers who claim Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) covered for a sexual predator when he was an assistant coach there spoke up against his election as speaker. “Do you really want a guy in that job who chose not to stand up for his guys?” one said. “Is that the kind of character trait you want for a House speaker?”
Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC) entered the Republican candidate forum today wearing a white T-shirt with a red letter “A” on it, saying she was doing so because of the backlash she faced as “a woman up here, and being demonized for my vote and for my voice.” Mace, one of the eight House Republicans who voted to get rid of former speaker Kevin McCarthy, said the A was her “scarlet letter,” an apparent reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel involving a woman forced to wear a scarlet A after giving birth to a child without identifying the father. MSNBC host Katie Phang called the stunt “performative nonsense,” and it does seem to indicate a preoccupation with media hits that appears to have taken over the party.
The Republicans had another setback today when a new indictment against New York Representative George Santos added 10 more charges against him, including lying about donations to jump-start his political career and then stealing money from donors to buy designer goods and pay his own debts.
The Democrats are united behind Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).