Summit with Arab leaders called off as Biden heads to Israel for solidarity visit

Cancellation reflects increasingly volatile atmosphere that will test limits of US influence in region

US President Joe Biden walks up the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, as he heads to Israel. (AP/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden walks up the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, as he heads to Israel. (AP/Susan Walsh)

US President Joe Biden’s efforts to tamp down tensions in the escalating war between Israel and Hamas faced massive setbacks even before he departed for the Middle East on Tuesday, as Jordan called off the president’s planned summit with Arab leaders after a deadly explosion at a Gaza hospital killed a large number of Palestinians.

Biden now will visit only Israel and will postpone his travel to Jordan, a White House official said as Biden departed.

The postponement of the Amman summit comes after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas withdrew in protest of the blast at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital, which the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza blamed on an Israeli airstrike.

The Israeli military said it had no involvement and that a misfired rocket launched by Gaza terrorists led to the explosion.

Several videos appear to show the moment a rocket launched from Gaza fell short and exploded inside the Palestinian territory on Tuesday.

“This war and this aggression are pushing the region to the brink,” Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, told al-Mamlaka TV, a state-run network. He said Jordan would only host the summit when all participants agreed on its purpose, which would be to “stop the war, respect the humanity of the Palestinians, and deliver the aid they deserve.”

The cancellation reflects an increasingly volatile situation that will test the limits of American influence in the region as Biden visits Wednesday.

Biden’s decision to put himself in a conflict zone — the same year he made a surprise visit to Ukraine — demonstrates his willingness to take personal and political risks as he becomes heavily invested in another intractable foreign conflict with no clear endgame and plenty of opportunity for things to spiral out of control.

The high-stakes presidential trip is emblematic of Biden’s belief that the United States should not turn back from its central role on the global stage and his faith that personal diplomacy can play a decisive role.

“This is how Joe Biden believes politics works and history is made,” said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while Biden was a member.

There’s been no water, fuel or food delivered to Gaza since Hamas’s brutal shock onslaught on October 7 triggered the unfolding war.

Bodies of Palestinians killed by an explosion at the Ahli Arab hospital are gathered in the front yard of the al-Shifa hospital, in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. Israel said the explosion was caused by a rocket misfire by Palestinian terrorists, denying Hamas claims of an Israeli airstrike (AP/Abed Khaled)

That day, at least 1,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing over 1,300 people and seizing some 200 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men, women, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”

Israel restarted the supply of water to parts of Gaza in recent days as the military warned residents in the northern part of the Palestinian enclave to evacuate amid an expected ground offensive.

Various mediators have been struggling to break a deadlock over providing supplies to desperate civilians, aid groups and hospitals.

As the humanitarian crisis grows, so too does the concern of a spiraling conflict that stretches beyond the borders of Gaza. There have already been skirmishes on Israel’s northern border with Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terror group based in southern Lebanon.

“There’s a lot that can go wrong on this trip,” Alterman said.

Biden’s travels will be rife with security concerns, and visits by other US officials have been disrupted by Palestinian rocket launches into Israel. Additional Israeli airstrikes in Gaza could also prompt more condemnation at a time when Biden is intending to demonstrate solidarity with the United States’ closest ally in the region.

The US has subtly shifted its message over the past week, maintaining full-throated support for Israel while slowly turning up the diplomatic volume on the need for humanitarian assistance in Gaza, as Biden and aides have heard increasingly dire predictions about the potential for images of suffering Palestinians to ignite protests and broader unrest throughout the Middle East.

A children’s swing hangs at a house attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, seen in Kibbutz Be’eri, October 14, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

US officials said it has become clear that already limited Arab tolerance of Israel’s military operations would evaporate entirely if conditions in Gaza worsened.

Their analysis projected that outright condemnation of Israel by Arab leaders would not only be a boon to Hamas but would likely encourage Iran to step up its anti-Israel activity, adding to fears that a regional conflagration might erupt, according to four officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, bouncing back and forth between Arab and Israeli leadership ahead of Biden’s visit, spent seven and a half hours meeting Monday in Tel Aviv in an effort to broker some kind of aid agreement and emerged with a green light to create a plan on how aid can enter Gaza and be distributed to civilians.

It was on the surface a modest accomplishment, but US officials stressed that it represented a significant change in Israel’s position going in — that Gaza would remain cut off from fuel, electricity, water and other essential supplies.

Biden has a long track record of showing public support for Israel while expressing concerns privately.

“He believes the only way to get inside the Israelis’ heads is to demonstrate profound empathy, but also to be there,” Alterman said.

In the US, Biden has won rare praise from Republicans over his leadership on Israel, but prospects for providing additional aid are uncertain. The administration has said it would ask for more than $2 billion in aid for both Israel and Ukraine, though House Republicans remain in disarray.

Still, Biden is committed to both Ukraine and Israel.

US President Joe Biden speaks on October 10, 2023, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, on the war between Israel and Hamas after the terror group launched its shock attack on Israel on Saturday. (AP/Evan Vucci)

“We’re the United States of America, for God’s sake, the most powerful nation in the history of the world,” he said this week on CBS’ “60 Minutes” when asked whether the wars in Israel and Ukraine were more than the US can take on at once. “We have the capacity to do this and we have an obligation to… And if we don’t, who does?”

In Israel, Biden was expected to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. His plans to then meet in Jordan with King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were scrapped.

A White House official said in a statement that the decision to scrap the Amman summit was made after Biden consulted with Jordan’s Abdullah “and in light of the days of mourning announced by” Abbas following the hospital blast.

Biden sent Abdullah “his deepest condolences for the innocent lives lost in the hospital explosion in Gaza, and wished a speedy recovery to the wounded,” the White House official said, being careful not to place blame on a particular party.

“Biden looks forward to consulting in person with these leaders soon, and agreed to remain regularly and directly engaged with each of them over the coming days,” the White House official added.

It’s important for these leaders to avoid a prolonged and engulfing regional escalation, particularly as Egypt and Jordan face growing economic tumult.

In September, the International Monetary Fund issued a report saying that Egypt and Jordan are among the countries in the region that “stand at the brink of a debt crisis.” Egypt in particular is struggling with high inflation.

Neither nation wants to absorb refugees. Jordan already has a large Palestinian population, and the country is coping with hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

With tens of thousands of troops massed along the Israel-Gaza border, Israel has been expected to launch a ground invasion — but plans remain uncertain. US officials have refused to say whether the Israelis were holding off in order for Biden to visit.

“We are preparing for the next stages of war,” Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said. “We haven’t said what they will be. Everybody’s talking about a ground offensive. It might be something different.”

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