President Biden is considering whether to travel to Israel in the coming days to show solidarity with America’s closest ally in the Middle East after the devastating Hamas attack that has prompted a new war, a decision fraught with domestic and international ramifications.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended the invitation to Mr. Biden over the weekend, but the White House has not announced whether the president would accept. Mr. Biden at the last minute canceled a trip to Colorado scheduled for Monday to deliver a clean energy speech in order to stay at the White House and meet with his national security advisers, officials said.
A presidential trip to Israel at such a critical moment would pose enormous challenges for the White House, in terms of both politics and security. Many international carriers have canceled flights to Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport, which is outside Tel Aviv just about 40 miles from Gaza and within range of Hamas rockets. The United States has begun flying charter planes out of the airport to evacuate American citizens who wish to leave.
The extent of the uncertain security situation in Israel was evident on Monday when air raid sirens went off during a meeting in Tel Aviv between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Mr. Netanyahu, indicating rockets or missiles. Mr. Blinken and Mr. Netanyahu along with the rest of the Israeli war cabinet were rushed to a bunker and sheltered there for five minutes before moving to a military command center to continue their discussions. The secretary was in Israel for the second time since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
But the question of whether the president should go at this time is politically dicey as well. Mr. Biden presumably would not want to be on the ground at the same time Israel begins a widely expected ground invasion of Gaza, analysts said, since he could easily be blamed for the civilian casualties that will inevitably result. Assuming that the White House makes a delay of the invasion a condition of coming, a presidential trip could give the Israelis some breathing space to take more time to prepare for any operation and allow more Gazans to evacuate.
Mr. Biden has stressed his unflinching support of Israel after the Hamas massacre of more than 1,300 people, including at least 29 Americans, offering what some diplomatic veterans have called one of the strongest presidential statements in favor of Israel in any of its many crises over the years.
Unlike other presidents who have urged restraint on Israel during past conflicts, Mr. Biden has emphasized that Israel has every right to defend itself and has endorsed its goal of eradicating Hamas. He has sent more munitions to Israel and dispatched American warships and aircraft to the region to deter Iran and its proxy Hezbollah from widening the war.
While Mr. Biden’s administration is working to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as Israel lays siege to the coastal enclave controlled by Hamas and blocks food and other supplies from being delivered, the president has not faulted Israel.
“Israel has to respond,” Mr. Biden said in an interview aired on “60 Minutes” on CBS on Sunday night. “They have to go after Hamas. Hamas is a bunch of cowards. They’re hiding behind the civilians. They put their headquarters where civilians are and buildings and the like.” But he said he was convinced that “the Israelis are going to do everything in their power to avoid the killing of innocent civilians.”
In his first significant public effort to urge caution on Israel, Mr. Biden in the same interview did advise against trying to occupy Gaza again. “I think it’d be a big mistake,” he said, noting that Hamas does not represent all Palestinians in Gaza. But he did not oppose a temporary ground invasion and said that “taking out the extremists” would be “a necessary requirement.”
Mr. Biden has long positioned himself as a strong supporter of Israel and visited most recently in July 2022. He has journeyed into a war zone already once this year during a secret trip to Ukraine that was not announced until after he had arrived. He marched through the streets of Kyiv alongside President Volodymyr Zelensky even as air raid sirens sounded, producing an image that was seen as a strong symbol of American support for Ukraine in its war against Russian invaders.
In domestic politics, it would provide a counterpoint to former President Donald J. Trump, who described himself as Israel’s strongest supporter while in office but has criticized Mr. Netanyahu in the days since the Hamas attack and praised Hezbollah as “very smart.” A Biden trip would allow him to outflank his potential 2024 challenger.
“This is a way of defanging the do-you-support-Israel issue, which Republicans used to criticize Obama and then became a Trump talking point,” said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University. “This, politically, stands in contrast with Trump’s criticism of Netanyahu.”
Edward Wong contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.