In an emotional speech carried live across Israel and around the world, President Biden sought to embody America’s ties to the Jewish state with his own presence, channeling empathy, anger, profound loss and bracing optimism.
He reached deep into history, recounting the timelessness of Moses and lessons from the Torah, and he referenced more recent events, noting how the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks triggered “shock, pain, rage — an all-consuming rage” among Americans.
It was an extraordinary moment in Biden’s tenure, as the 80-year-old president landed in the midst of a region torn by violence and chaos in an effort to showcase America’s loyalties, warn hostile actors and, perhaps, underline his own fitness as commander-in-chief.
He even reached into his own lengthy biography.
Fifty years ago, the young Sen. Biden was meeting with Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, and they were posing for pictures after she had shown him maps intended to demonstrate Israel’s vulnerability on the precipice of the Yom Kippur War.
“She said to me … ‘Why do you look so worried, Senator Biden?’ ” Biden recalled in a story he’s repeated often. “And I said, ‘Worried? Like, of course I’m worried.’ And she looked at me … she said, ‘We don’t worry, senator. We Israelis have a secret weapon: We have nowhere else to go.’ ”
Biden turned back to the present.
“Today, I say to all of Israel, the United States isn’t going anywhere either. We’re going to stand with you. We’ll walk beside you in those dark days. We’ll walk beside you in the good days to come — and they will come.”
It was a remarkable moment at a remarkable time. Biden is the first American president to visit Israel at time of war. There were unusual security challenges, with reporters asked not to disclose real-time locations and with air-raid sirens blaring over Tel Aviv minutes after Biden’s plane departed Wednesday evening.
He was originally supposed to fly to Jordan and meet with Arab leaders, but that leg of the trip was canceled after a blast rocked the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, prompting angry protests in the Arab world.
Biden’s aides saw the trip in part as a rebuttal to questions about his age — he was born about six years before the country of Israel and recounts events from five decades ago — and as a way to showcase the strengths of a president who prides himself on his foreign policy know-how.
The president’s trip also provided a split screen that Biden’s supporters hope plays in his favor. On Wednesday, House Republicans again devolved into chaos after failing to elect a House speaker, and Biden’s leading 2024 opponent, Donald Trump, was in a trial over fraud allegations.
Biden, after an overnight 10-hour flight, was in the country for less than eight hours before a long flight back to Washington.
The whirlwind visit had some of the hallmarks of his surprise trip to Kiev earlier this year, when he sneaked into the war-torn country in the middle of the night and was in the city when an air-raid siren went off.
It was also reminiscent of his trip last month to India and Vietnam, when he circumnavigated the globe in four days.
Such trips can test the stamina of aides and reporters half his age, and Biden, too, sometimes appears to feel the impact. On Wednesday, his memory seemed to lapse as he recalled one of his most frequently cited quotes, which he attributes to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“He wrote a line that I think is appropriate,” Biden said. “He said, ‘It’s not — we lead not just …’ Well, I won’t go into it. I’ll wait until later. I’m taking too much time.” Shortly after, he found the phrase: “It’s just not the example of our power, it’s the power of our example.”
The Israel trip allowed Biden to showcase the power of the American presidency in dramatic fashion. He announced, for example, that his military had ordered two aircraft carriers, the USS Gerald R. Ford and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, into the region.
He sought to speak with authority. “I’ve made wartime decisions. I know the choices are never clear or easy for the leadership,” he said. “There’s always costs. … But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.”
Other portions of the trip were quintessential Biden.
He quoted an Irish poet (William Butler Yeats). He referenced a Hebrew saying, though not in the original (“I’m not going to attempt to do [it] because I’m such a terrible linguist”). He spoke of the difficulty of losing a loved one, as he often does, but with added context for a Jewish audience.
“I know you feel like there’s that black hole in the middle of your chest. You feel like you’re being sucked into it,” Biden said. “The survivor’s remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul. Staring at that empty chair, sitting Shiva. The first Sabbath without them.”
He met Israeli first responders and families affected by the Hamas attack, something that Netanyahu has faced criticism for being slow to do. “God love ya,” he told one survivor.
He also met a young woman who had saved people in her kibbutz and hugged her after hearing her story through an interpreter.
At one point, Biden could be heard recounting the story of when his wife and children were injured in a car accident. He whispered throughout.
He met with Inbal Lieberman, a 25-year-old woman who, as head of security, helped to organize the successful defense of her kibbutz. He met a retired general, Noam Tibon, who drove south to save his son, Amir, and many others in their community.
Netanyahu effusively welcomed Biden, greeting him at the airport and embracing him on the tarmac.
“I want to thank you for coming here today and for the unequivocal support you’ve giving Israel over these trying times,” said Netanyahu, whose relations with Biden have not always been friendly. “We see your support and your steadfast commitment to provide us with the tools we need to defend ourselves.”
Biden sought to use his presence — and America’s prestige — to urge Israel to minimize civilian casualties.
During a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, he made a rare trip back to the press cabin and told reporters that he had made progress on a 30-minute call with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi. Egypt, he said, was going to help facilitate sending 20 trucks with humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Biden cast the news as a capstone to the trip, recounting that there had been a lengthy debate about whether he should make the visit in the first place, with fears of potential failure.
“Not many people thought we could get this done. And not many people want to be associated with failure,” he said. “Had we gone and this failed — then, you know, the United States failed, the Biden presidency fails, et cetera. Which would be a legitimate criticism.
“I thought it was worth taking the chance to get it done,” he said. “I came to get something done. I got it done.”
Tyler Pager contributed to this report.