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Susan Glasser on whether Biden will maintain his support for Israel


When President Biden arrives in Israel on Wednesday, he will send a message of U.S. solidarity with its key ally in the Middle East - Israel. He'll also be trying to caution Israel on the risks of a ground invasion of Gaza - the civilian casualties, the growing humanitarian crisis and how a ground invasion could massively shift public opinion against Israel. All those risks were put into stark relief today after an explosion at a Gaza hospital killed hundreds of people. Immense challenges face President Biden now, as they have with every U.S. president engaging in diplomacy with Israel. And to talk about those challenges, we're joined now by Susan Glasser of The New Yorker. She's covered Washington and foreign affairs for many, many years and joins us now. Welcome.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So as you've been listening, Susan, to Biden speak publicly since the attacks by Hamas a week and a half ago, can you just talk about what has struck you about his words and his tone?

GLASSER: Well, first of all, it is very clear that for President Biden, this has hit him in a very, very visceral way, in a very personal way. There is a kind of reflexive, automatic and deeply, I think, heartfelt sympathy for Israel that he has been expressing in unequivocal terms. And as a result of that, you've seen a lot of gratitude from many Israelis, including many who have been critical of Biden and critical of Democrats in recent years.

CHANG: And have you noticed any shift in recent days in terms of his tone and the words he's using to describe what's happening on the ground in Gaza?

GLASSER: Well, one thing that's notable is - I think this fits with President Biden's theory of international politics and his dealings with other leaders, which is the bear hug approach, you might say - that he wants to keep Israel close, in part to maintain his ability to offer, inside that bear hug, criticism, concerns, potential constraints. And right now, for Biden and his administration, they are looking to press Israel to follow the laws of war, as Biden himself put it, to do things like open up a possibility for humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza, open up humanitarian corridors for those who are fleeing, at Israel's request, from the northern part of Gaza. So what success they'll have is not yet clear, but I do think that's Biden's approach.

CHANG: Well, as we've mentioned, a lot of other U.S. presidents have had to deal with some form of escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Are the challenges facing Biden now substantively different from what you've seen previous presidents face?

GLASSER: Well, the fear that you hear articulated from those who closely watch the region is not only of the prospect of a potentially escalating regional conflict, but that the U.S. could be drawn more directly into it than ever before. And that scenario - that is the reason for not one, but two different U.S. aircraft carriers that have already been sent to the region. The fear is that if Israel is embroiled in a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, essentially pinned down there, what happens if you then see the West Bank explode? What happens if in the north, you have Hezbollah from Lebanon or Syria attacking Israel - that that's a scenario where you could even see the United States drawn into the conflict in a more direct way.

CHANG: Right. Do you think the U.S. president has become less relevant when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian relations, at least during recent administrations?

GLASSER: Well, I think that, you know, the failure of the great dream of so many American presidents, this idea that there was a viable two-state solution to be negotiated and that the U.S. president would become the broker of that - you know, because that foundered and really is - has sort of no longer even really flickering as a as a dream of U.S. presidents, there was a sense that perhaps the U.S. was pulling back from even the business of Middle East peacemaking. And, you know, Biden, like his two predecessors, both Donald Trump and Barack Obama, essentially was very clear in saying, as far as foreign policy goes, he was pivoting away from the Middle East and trying to pivot toward Asia. But, you know, there's famous comment from a long ago British prime minister, Harold Macmillan. Asked about his foreign policy, he said events, dear boy, events. And once again, events are...

CHANG: Once again.

GLASSER: ...Pulling the U.S. back in.

CHANG: Susan Glasser, staff writer at The New Yorker and longtime Washington correspondent, thank you so much.

GLASSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.