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What does President Biden hope to accomplish on his trip to Israel?


The White House says President Biden will be asking tough questions of Israeli officials during his meetings in Tel Aviv today. His arrival comes as Israel prepares for a ground offensive in Gaza, and the president's national security spokesman, John Kirby, says Biden will be asking for more information about Israel's objectives. To get a deeper sense of what President Biden hopes to achieve, we've called up Henri Barkey. He's a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and also adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. Professor, what should President Biden's key objective be for this trip?

HENRI BARKEY: Well, initially, his key objective was, A, to show solidarity with Israel at a time when the country is suffering from probably its worst shock in its history. The second was probably to start a process to release the hostages and to look for ways to calm things down and explore prospects for - to stop, maybe, the incursion into Gaza. But all this has now been overplayed, if you want, by the hospital crisis.

So what Biden wants to do now is probably figure out a way to ask the Israelis what it is they have in mind because an incursion into Gaza is - will be extremely messy. After all, this is a - in a place teeming with civilians, and the - and Hamas and Islamic Jihad are all embedded in that civilian population. So how do you deal with it, and how long will you stay? And that's an impossible situation. But the Israelis need something. And so...

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned that maybe part of his objective should be to calm things down. But considering that he has seemingly accepted Israel's version of what happened to that hospital, is that possible now?

BARKEY: Well, I actually think that by accepting Israel's version, he is calming things down on the Israeli side because, look, the Israelis have no reason to bomb a hospital. It doesn't make sense, right? And they also have provided the Americans with necessary intelligence. And they're not going to give false intelligence to their most important allies. So I suspect the story that the Israelis are putting out is correct. That doesn't mean that the Palestinians, the Arab world and their sympathizers will accept this version. But it is important for United States to accept it and for the Europeans, and then that you can put pressure on the Arab leaders to do something.

Look, at the root of this now is - are the hostages. If something happens to the hostages or if the hostage crisis is not settled - right? - the incursion will go on, and it will be very, very bloody. So what Biden was trying to do from the beginning was to focus on the hostages. We'll see how much ability he has at this stage. But we have to really, really focus on the hostages because for the Israelis, the hostages have become the most important thing...


BARKEY: ...Far more than...

MARTÍNEZ: What could he offer, though? What could President Biden offer at this point, or bring to the table, to try and get those hostages or even deescalate what's happening?

BARKEY: Well, look, the United States has a great deal of military force out there. Some of the hostages are Americans, and many of them are also other European nationals. So he has to bring all of the European countries and make it very, very clear that United States will not prevent these areas from going in if something were to happen to the hostages, right? I mean, in other words, he has to use very, very strong language and imply that American power may be used also. I mean, this - you need at this stage to scare the - Hamas and its supporters into action, right? The other thing, of course, is wanting to be...

MARTÍNEZ: How would he be able to frighten them? How would he be able to scare them?

BARKEY: Well, just by saying that, look, United States has sent in a large number of special forces. The British have spent special forces. There's two carrier groups now in the region. This is enormous amount of power which can be used not necessarily for bombing, but can be used for electronic pressure, can try to hamper Hamas. There's many things that United States can do that at this stage we do not know. I mean, the capabilities of those two carrier groups is formidable, right? And I'm sure Biden is going to make sure that both Hamas and the Egyptians...


BARKEY: ...The Palestinians know about this.

MARTÍNEZ: Henri Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. Professor, thank you.

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

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