Joe Biden has drawn a direct, provocative link between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’s attack on Israel as he urged Americans not to walk away from their role as “a beacon to the world”.
In only the second Oval Office address of his presidency, Biden said he would ask Congress to provide aid for both Israel and Ukraine and denounced the scourge of antisemitism and Islamophobia at home.
The president’s 15-minute address sought to weave the Ukraine and Middle East conflicts together to convince war-weary voters and hardline Republicans of America’s obligations. It is a conflation that will make some uneasy, especially as Israel, with vastly superior military power, prepares for a ground invasion of Gaza.
“Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: they both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy,” said Biden, sitting at the Resolute desk with flags, family photos, gold curtains and a darkened window behind him.
The duelling crises are providing a daunting diplomatic test for the former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee who, at 80, is older than the state of Israel itself. That did not prevent him making a whirlwind trip to the country on Wednesday.
In Tel Aviv, Biden backed Israel as it gears up for a ground invasion of Gaza after the 7 October attacks by the Palestinian militant group Hamas that killed more than 1,400 people. But he also brokered a deal to get some aid through Egypt into the Gaza Strip and, he said, urged Israel to “operate by the laws of war”. More than 3,000 Palestinians have already died in the enclave from the past 12 days of aerial bombardment.
The president said Hamas had unleashed “pure unadulterated evil in the world” and he met Israelis in “deep, deep pain”. He also spoke with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and reiterated the US commitment to a two-state solution.
Biden’s planned summit in Jordan was cancelled after a Gaza hospital explosion that triggered angry protests across the Middle East. He described himself as “heartbroken” by the loss of life but reiterated the US position that it was “not done by the Israelis”.
The president then turned to Ukraine, a cause that has seen ebbing support from the US public and Republicans in Congress. Having spoken to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, hours earlier, Biden said: “I know these conflicts can seem far away. It’s natural to ask, why does this matter to America? Let me share with you why making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America’s national security.
“History has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction. They keep going and the costs and the threats to America and the world keep rising.”
Although commentators are likely to question whether the Ukraine and Middle East conflicts are comparable, for Biden it was a way of entreating Congress not to walk away from either.
He said: “American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with. To put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, we turn our backs on Israel, it’s just not worth it.”
The president added that on Friday he would send an urgent budget request to Congress to fund support for partners including Israel and Ukraine. “It’s a smart investment that is going to pay dividends for American security for generations.”
The sweeping emergency funding request is reportedly likely to total around $100bn, including $60bn for Ukraine and $10bn for Israel. But it comes at a moment when the House of Representatives is paralysed, with Republicans, who hold a narrow majority, unable to elect a new Speaker.
Biden said that helping the two US allies was “a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations”, as he sought to rally support for the new aid packages.
A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said that the president’s description of support as an “investment” showed that Washington benefits from proxy wars rather than fights for ideas.
“Wars have traditionally been ‘smart investments’ for the United States as they did not take place on the American soil and they do not care about costs borne by others,” Zakharova said.
The conflict in Israel has heightened tensions further in the US with protests and counter-protests across the nation. Biden has faced criticism from activists and some in his own Democratic party for tying America’s fortunes to those of Israel while underplaying humanitarian concerns for the more than 2 million people in Gaza.
He devoted part of his Oval Office address to denouncing both antisemitism and Islamophobia at home. “To all of you hurting … I want you to know, I see you. You belong. And I want to say this to you: you’re all America.
“And I know many of you in the Muslim American community, the Arab American community, the Palestinian American community, and so many others are outraged and hurting, saying to yourself, here we go again, with Islamophobia and distrust we saw after 9/11.”
Biden cited the killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old boy from a Palestinian American family, outside Chicago. After the address, Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, spoke with Wadea’s father and uncle to express their condolences, the White House said.
The US has moved two aircraft carriers into the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both allies of Hamas, from getting involved in the conflict. Biden concluded his remarks with a rallying call aimed at both a dysfunctional Congress and a public where the “America first” isolationism espoused by Donald Trump still has significant traction.
“America is a beacon to the world still,” the president said. “But time is of the essence. I know we have our divisions at home. We have to get past them. We can’t let petty partisan angry politics get in the way of our responsibilities as a great nation. We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants Putin win.”
Trump, the most likely challenger to Biden in next year’s election, poured scorn on his efforts. His campaign said in a statement: “As America stumbles ever closer to World War III, Joe Biden is Neville Chamberlain trying to pose as Winston Churchill.
“He is an arsonist promising to rescue us from the world he set on fire. Europe and the Middle East are ablaze because of Crooked Joe Biden’s failed presidency. His credibility is shot, and our enemies and allies alike regard him as a pathetic joke.”
Democrats welcomed the address, however. Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said: “While President Biden has unequivocally stood with Israel and Ukraine, House Republicans have shown their complete incompetence and thrown the House of Representatives into chaos – potentially putting critical aid to support our allies and protect our national security at risk.”
Source : TheGuardian