Biden equates Hamas with Putin, asks Americans to support Israel, Ukraine

President Joe Biden speaks from the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 19, 2023, in Washington, about the war in Israel and Ukraine.[VOA]

President Joe Biden made a direct appeal to the American people to continue funding the war efforts of Ukraine and Israel during an Oval Office address Thursday evening, a day after returning from Tel Aviv to show support for a key Washington ally.

Noting atrocities in both conflicts, Biden said that while Hamas and Russian President Vladimir Putin represented different threats, they had one thing in common.

“They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy,” he said.

Vowing to stop them both, Biden underscored that “history has taught us that when terrorists don't pay a price for their terror, when dictators don't pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction.”

Biden said he would be sending to Congress an urgent budget request in so-called supplemental funding, which finances nontraditional government programs, to pay for “America's national security needs to support our critical partners.”

“It's a smart investment that's going to pay dividends for American security for generations,” he added, without mentioning the amount he would be requesting. Various media reports quoting officials who spoke anonymously suggested it could reach $100 billion.

Biden assured listeners that the U.S. would provide unwavering support for Israel in its military response to the October 7 incursion by the militant group Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis and took about 200 captive.

Israel has hit back with airstrikes that have killed more than 3,000 people and displaced more than a million people in Gaza, mostly Palestinian Arabs.

Biden repeated the message he delivered during his brief visit in Tel Aviv, the first visit by an American president during wartime in Israel: that the United States will ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge as it has done for decades.

“We're going to make sure Iron Dome continues to guard the skies over Israel,” he said, referring to Israel’s air defense system established in 2011 to intercept incoming rockets.

On Ukraine, he recommitted support for the defense of the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future.

“If we walk away and let Putin erase Ukraine's independence, would-be aggressors around the world would be emboldened to try the same,” he asserted. “The risk of conflict and chaos could spread in other parts of the world, in the Indo Pacific, in the Middle East.”

He said he spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier Thursday.

Leaderless House

The funding request has bipartisan support in the Democratic-led Senate. It must also pass the House of Representatives, where some lawmakers are hesitant to send billions of dollars to support foreign wars with no end in sight.

Complicating matters, the Republican-led House has been leaderless for more than two weeks following the ousting of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy by a group of his fellow Republicans. The House must have a speaker to pass legislation, including Biden's war funding requests, but so far, no Republican has been able to secure the 217 votes needed to claim the speaker's gavel.

The funding Biden is seeking will be on top of the more than $3 billion per year that Washington provides to Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has directed more than $75 billion in assistance to that country, which includes humanitarian, financial and military support.

In an interview with CBS's “60 Minutes” earlier this week, Biden argued that funding wars in Europe and the Middle East at the same time was not too much to take on for the United States, “the most powerful nation in the history of the world.”

However, the problem for Washington is not so much financial, said Emma Ashford, senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center. The total assistance to Ukraine, she noted, amounts to a small fraction of the overall defense budget.

The problem has to do with military capabilities, she told VOA, specifically the overlap of certain weapon systems that are needed in Ukraine and for a potential contingency in Taiwan.

“There’s not a huge amount of overlap between Israeli and Ukrainian needs, but certain capabilities like artillery shells will be problematic,” she said.

Strategically, the war in Gaza will be an additional drain on Washington’s attention and prioritization.

“The Biden administration came into office determined to pivot the United States away from the Middle East and to ‘park’ Russia so it could focus on China,” she said. “Yet here we are heavily involved in arming Ukraine against Russia, and potentially stepping back into a Middle Eastern war.”

American support

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Monday showed that when presented a series of options for American involvement in the conflict between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza, more Americans (41%) said the U.S. should support Israel’s position than any other option. Republicans (54%) were more likely to say this than Democrats (37%).

Pro-Palestinian and antiwar demonstrators have marched in several U.S. cities, calling for a cease-fire, in some cases coming head-to-head with those rallying for Israel.

While Biden received bipartisan praise for his October 10 speech condemning the Hamas attack, support may be waning among some progressive Democrats who are demanding that he press Israel for restraint and do more to protect civilian lives in Gaza.

Negotiations by Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken with regional leaders have helped secure the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt to allow a convoy of aid trucks to enter and help Gazans in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The U.S. has also announced an additional $100 million to help Palestinians.

As he pledged that he would not give up on the two state-solution, Biden said the U.S. “remains committed to the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and to self-determination.”

“The actions of Hamas terrorists don't take that right away,” he added.

A wider regional war

"We're going to make sure other hostile actors in the region know that Israel is stronger than ever and prevent this conflict from spreading,” Biden said.

He accused Iran of supporting Russia in Ukraine and supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups in the region, vowing to continue to hold them accountable.

The president has stressed deterrence at every opportunity, deploying two carrier strike groups and additional F-16s to persuade Iran and Hezbollah to stay out of the conflict, said Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank.

“He will need to utilize all of the avenues available to send Tehran a message: The U.S. has no intention of entering the conflict and that it’s in Iran’s best interest to stay out as well,” DePetris told VOA. “Otherwise, U.S. moves meant to deter escalation could be miscalculated.”

But supporting Israel and avoiding being dragged into a much wider regional war will be a tough balancing act for Biden, said Raffaella A. Del Sarto, associate professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

On one hand, he said, Biden must show that the U.S. is backing Israel with enough military firepower to deter Iran and its militant group proxies from broadening the conflict.

However, his unwavering support for Israeli actions in Gaza has inflamed anti-American sentiments with populations in the Arab world, creating political pressure on their governments and increasing instability in the region, Del Sarto told VOA.

Already the militant group Hezbollah has fired rockets from Lebanon at towns in northern Israel, while cruise missiles and drones launched by Houthi forces in Yemen, potentially toward targets in Israel, were intercepted Thursday by the American warship USS Carney in the northern Red Sea.

"The perception of Palestinians, of Middle Easterners, and I would say the Global South more broadly is that the United States is backing Israel. And so, according to this perception, both of them are basically allowing for a humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip,” Del Sarto said.

On Wednesday, the U.S. vetoed a U.N. resolution to condemn all violence against civilians in the Israel-Hamas war and to urge humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, criticizing the measure for failing to underline Israel’s right to self-defense.

Anti-Israel, anti-US

Biden argued that “American leadership is what holds the world together,” and that turning away from Israel and Ukraine in their hour of need would put that at risk.

That argument will be viewed with skepticism in many places around the world.

Massive and in some cases violent anti-Israel and anti-U.S. demonstrations have erupted in various capitals with the outrage over Israeli airstrikes on civilians in Gaza. The Israeli military says Hamas is using them as human shields.

More than 40 nations have condemned Hamas, but regional players, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Iraq, have pinned responsibility on Israel.

Despite Israel’s efforts to convince leaders that Tuesday’s blast at a Gaza hospital was caused by a misfired jihadi missile, countries in the region continue to lay the blame for the explosion on the Israeli government, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which have normalized ties with Israel in the Abraham Accords of 2020. Condemnation also came from the government of Indonesia, home to almost 13% of the world’s Muslims.

Many citizens of the Arab world and the Global South see Israel as an occupying force that continues to annex Palestinian territory, said Brian Finucane, senior adviser for the U.S. Program at the International Crisis Group.

He said Biden’s support for Israel while denouncing Russia's annexation of parts of Ukraine was eroding his credibility in those countries, undermining the moral high ground he claims to be a key tenet of his foreign policy.

"It makes it much more difficult to credibly argue that the U.S. believes in upholding international law, believes in the consistent application of international law, if you treat similar situations very differently," Finucane told VOA. "Smacks of double standards."

The White House has not responded to VOA's queries about why the administration recognizes Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and does not penalize its settlement expansion in the West Bank but rejects Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territory and China's claims on the South China Sea and potential invasion of Taiwan.