WASHINGTON — Early Monday morning, as the White House announced that President Joe Biden was postponing planned trip to Colorado, he was huddling with his national security advisers. Pressure was mounting for the U.S. to use its influence with Israel to broker a deal with Egypt that would bring humanitarian relief to Palestinian civilians in Gaza, especially before a ground invasion against Hamas began.
The president’s team was gaming out the idea of traveling to Israel to show solidarity with one America’s closest allies during wartime, but also to meet face-to-face with leaders the U.S. needed to get on board with a plan for Palestinian civilians now and in the future. One of the conditions of a Biden visit: It needed to take place before Israel began its planned ground invasion, according to multiple current and former administration officials. Otherwise, officials said, a trip would have to be put off for a while.
Biden signed off on making this historic trip to Israel on Monday afternoon, after rounds of phone calls with key leaders in the region and days of shuttle diplomacy across the Middle East by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“We saw a window,” one administration official said of the timing.
But Biden’s trip to the Middle East got off to a rocky start even before he left Washington on Tuesday night. His plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman unraveled after Hamas accused Israel of a bombing of a hospital in Gaza that killed hundreds of people, including many children.
Israel denies involvement in the hospital airstrike and says it was caused by a misfired rocket from “terrorists in Gaza.”
White House officials scrambled to put out a statement just as the president was leaving to board Air Force One for the flight to Tel Aviv. Biden had consulted with King Abdullah and decided to postpone his stop in Amman, the statement said, but “looks forward to consulting in person with these leaders soon.”
That initial fallout from the deadly bombing could be just the first of potentially more hurdles for Biden as he embarks on this high-stakes trip to a region full of unpredictability.
Already, the planning of this presidential visit to Israel was unlike others that Biden and his predecessors have made for decades.
The idea of Biden visiting Israel was floated by Israeli officials in the early days after Hamas’ terrorist attack on Oct. 7, administration officials said. At the time, Biden wanted the idea explored as, according to one official, he “felt strongly it was important to continue to stand in solidarity with Israel and the Israeli people in their hour of need.” In a moment of crisis, Biden also prefers a face-to-face meeting over any other form of communication, officials said.
White House officials in coordination with U.S. Secret Service then took a look at the parameters of such a trip, what the security requirements would be to ensure it would be safe. Trips by two Cabinet officials — Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — to Israel helped lay the groundwork for a Biden visit.
The trip, while to a country at war, is a stark contrast from the president’s visit to Ukraine earlier this year, which was shrouded in secrecy. One U.S. official stressed that while there are security challenges in Israel, it’s a different kind of conflict than Ukraine.
Ukraine is “facing a military that has very long-range, advanced, sophisticated capabilities and a degree of mass lethality that Hamas does not possess,” a U.S. official said. “Obviously we’ll take all necessary precautions to keep him safe and obviously we’re working around the clock.”
Discussions inside the White House were taking place against the backdrop of idling Israeli tanks along the Gaza border. Israel’s intensifying bombing of Gaza was raising concerns within the administration that public support for Israel could shift, NBC News has reported.
During a call with Biden on Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned the idea to the president more directly, another administration official said. There was some frustration in the White House that the prime minister’s invitation leaked — U.S. officials presumed from the Israelis — but administration officials were already determining what would be “feasible” for the president to do, as one official put it.
A senior U.S. official called the mood in the Oval Office on Monday morning “sober and serious.”
Seated around the president — in a photo released publicly by the White House — were national security adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA Director Bill Burns, chief of staff Jeff Zients, Counselor to the President Steve Ricchetti, homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall and several others.
At the time the Colorado trip was scrapped, Biden had not yet made a final decision to go to Israel, according to a senior U.S. official.
The president gave the green light Monday afternoon after lengthy discussions with his national security team, including Blinken, who was in Israel.
His decision was well received in Israel, where his response to the Hamas attack has been widely praised.
“The fact that the most powerful person on Earth — the president of the United States — is standing behind us is a big deal,” a policy adviser to Netanyahu said.
Putting together the now-canceled meeting in Amman with the president, Abbas, El-Sissi and King Abdullah II was also a key part of the trip, according to administration officials.
Soon after they announced Biden’s plans to travel to Israel and Jordan, administration officials privately stressed the importance of Biden’s meeting with Abbas, the Palestinian leader, in particular.
“Given the scope of the challenges that this conflict is presenting to us, it would have been irresponsible for the president not to spend time talking to Arab leaders as well — and that includes Mahmoud Abbas,” one U.S. official said earlier Tuesday.
Just hours later, plans changed.