Biden delivers tough love to Israeli leaders in State of the Union

The president defended Israel’s right to go after Hamas, but said Israel must do more to defend civilians in Gaza

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol on March 07, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden delivered a pointed message to Israel’s leaders in his annual State of the Union address, saying before a joint session of Congress on Thursday that Israel “must do its part” alongside the United States to greatly increase the amount of humanitarian assistance entering Gaza — a message that he said he could offer as a “lifelong supporter of Israel.”

Biden’s note of caution to Israel’s leaders stood in contrast to his message to Ukraine, an embattled ally that, like Israel, is waiting on U.S. military assistance that remains in limbo in Congress. Early in his address, he called directly on Congress to pass the stalled legislation to support Ukraine, arguing that standing by Ukraine means standing up for democracy.

“Assistance to Ukraine is being blocked by those who want to walk away from our world leadership. It wasn’t long ago when a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, thundered, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’” Biden said. “I say this to Congress: We must stand up to Putin. Send me the bipartisan national security bill. History is watching.” House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), who has held up the funding bill, did not applaud Biden’s comments on Ukraine.

Biden’s speech laid out a vision for the country that was meant to offer a direct contrast to former President Donald Trump, whom Biden did not mention by name. But he referred often to his “predecessor,” setting up the speech as a powerful kick-off to his reelection campaign.

At the start of his address, he laid out the stakes, arguing that not since the Civil War has democracy been at greater risk in this country. 

“What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack, both at home and overseas, at the very same time,” said Biden, who focused heavily on the Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war. 

Speaking five months to the day after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, Biden lamented “the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.” He acknowledged the presence in the House gallery of more than a dozen family members of American hostages in Gaza, and promised that he “will not rest until we bring your loved ones home.”

Further, Biden pledged that “Israel has a right to go after Hamas.” It is Hamas, he continued, who has the power to end the war immediately, “by releasing the hostages, laying down arms and surrendering those responsible for October 7th.” His call for the release of the hostages earned an almost unanimous bipartisan standing ovation. Only Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Cori Bush (D-MO) remained seated. 

The national security supplemental bill that Biden hailed in the Ukraine portion of his speech also includes more than $14 billion in military assistance to Israel, which has been a key priority for the White House since October. But he did not mention the military assistance to Israel in his speech when he turned to the Middle East toward the end of his remarks.

Biden touted the work he has done to try to protect civilians in Gaza, including “working nonstop to establish an immediate ceasefire that would last for six weeks” in exchange for the release of hostages. He reiterated that Israel has a responsibility to do more to protect civilians in Gaza. 

“Israel has an added burden because Hamas hides and operates among the civilian population like cowards, under hospitals, day care centers and all the like,” said Biden, adding to his prepared remarks to castigate Hamas as “cowards.” 

But, he added, “Israel also has a fundamental responsibility, though, to protect innocent civilians in Gaza,” said Biden, earning applause from Democrats. “Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority.”

Biden called the death toll in Gaza — an estimated 30,000 people, according to figures from the Hamas-run health ministry — “heartbreaking.” He added that “most” of the casualties were “not Hamas.” The Israel Defense Forces have estimated about 12,000 Hamas gunmen have been killed since the beginning of the war.

Biden announced plans, previewed earlier in the day by senior administration officials, for the U.S. military to create a “temporary pier” on the coast of Gaza to “receive large shipments carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters.” The effort will be conducted in coordination with Israeli officials. 

Speaking directly to Israel’s leaders, Biden offered his continued support for a two-state solution, which he called “the only real solution,” explaining that it offers a path toward regional stability — and, ultimately, countering Iran. Israeli leaders have vowed not to consider the creation of a Palestinian state while Israel is still at war. 

“I say this as a lifelong supporter of Israel. My entire career, no one has a stronger record with Israel than I do, I challenge any of you here. I’m the only American president to visit Israel in wartime,” Biden said. “But there is no other path that guarantees Israel’s security and democracy. There is no other path that guarantees Palestinians can live with peace and dignity.” The only Democrats who stayed seated after Biden called for a two-state solution were Tlaib, Bush and Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA).

A two-state solution, he argued, is also the only path “that guarantees peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, with whom I’m talking,” said Biden. “Creating stability in the Middle East also means containing the threat posed by Iran.”

Before the speech began, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) passed out stickers with “153” written on them, representing the number of days the hostages have been in captivity in Gaza. Around 60 lawmakers on the Democratic side donned the stickers, including a handful of senators as they entered.

At least a dozen on both the Republican and Democratic sides also donned yellow ribbon pins, another symbol for the hostages. Hostage families distributed a pin and a “bring them home now” dog tag to every congressional office and asked the members to wear them, or a sticker.

A few members of the left-wing “Squad” — Tlaib, Bush, Lee and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — wore keffiyehs, the scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Tlaib wore Palestinian flag pins.

Throughout the speech, Biden received a tepid reception from most members of the Squad, who often seemed reluctant to applaud or stand for Biden with their fellow Democrats, or declined to do so entirely, even outside of the Israel-related portions of his remarks.

As Biden spoke about the Hamas attack on Israel and the situation in Gaza, Tlaib, Bush, Lee, Pressley and Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-IL) brandished paddles calling for a “lasting ceasefire now,” while Omar displayed one reading “stop sending bombs.”

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