President Joe Biden used a rare Oval Office address Thursday night to forcefully advocate for aiding both Israel and Ukraine.
And he laid out a dark vision of what would happen should that aid, along with America’s larger commitment to defending democracy, not be delivered.
“History has taught us, when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction. They keep going, and the cost and the threats to America and the world keep rising,” Biden said.
Biden’s speech came a day after he returned from a whirlwind trip to Israel to stand in solidarity with its longtime ally. Ahead of what could be an escalation of violence in the Middle East, Biden laid out the stakes in clear terms, saying that while Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hamas “represent different threats,” they both want to “completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.”
The president spoke quickly at first, reading from a teleprompter, before slowing his rhetoric as his address drifted toward more somber points. He coughed at times, and pointed his finger down on the desk at others. More generally, he offered a tone of sobriety, describing a world with a number of serious fires in desperate need of being put out.
Biden linked the fresh fight in Israel to the invasion of Ukraine, trying to revive fading support for a war that has dragged on for more than a year and a half.
He used the primetime moment to make the broad case to the public as to why a pair of conflicts on the other side of the globe were so vital to American national security. And he did so by stressing the need to combat the rise of authoritarianism. Biden is poised to make a massive $100 billion spending request on Friday, which would include assistance for Ukraine and Israel.
He called it “an urgent budget request” that would provide “an unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security.”
“It’s a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations. Help us keep American troops out of harm’s way. Help us build a world that is safer, more peaceful, more prosperous for our children and grandchildren,” Biden said.
The president will have to navigate a series of ideological differences if he seeks all of the aid in a single congressional vote. While there is wide support for funding Israel, a small number of vocal Republicans have begun balking at sending more aid to Ukraine. All funding could end up being complicated by the political paralysis that has gripped Congress.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has been without a speaker now for weeks, making it impossible to pass any legislation, including the aid that Israel has said it urgently needs. Republicans on Thursday ditched a plan to temporarily empower Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) as interim speaker amid ongoing divides in the caucus, once again placing the House at an impasse.
Biden on Thursday also mourned the lost Palestinian lives, two days after a rocket exploded at a hospital in Gaza, reportedly killing hundreds of civilians. He stated, definitively, that Israel was not responsible for the explosion. But he also noted that people in Gaza were in desperate need of food, water and medicine.
His recognition of the magnitude of tragedy also striking Palestinians — among the strongest since the beginning of the conflict — comes amid criticism from top Arab American and Muslim leaders about the White House’s posture during the crisis.
The president also named Wadea Al-Fayoume, the 6-year-old Palestinian American boy who authorities say was stabbed to death because he was Muslim.
“We can’t stand by and stand silent when this happens,” Biden said. “We must without equivocation denounce antisemitism. We must also without equivocation denounce Islamophobia. And to all you hurting, I want you to know I see you. You belong. And I want to say this to you: You’re all American.”
Underscoring the importance of the moment, the address was only the second time Biden has delivered formal remarks from the Oval Office since becoming president. In June, he spoke from behind the Resolute Desk about a bipartisan agreement to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debt.
Biden has earned kudos among Israel’s defenders for standing firmly with the country. But his trip to the country was marred by conflict in the region. A summit scheduled for Amman featuring Jordanian, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders was canceled after the explosion at a hospital in Gaza. And while Biden was still on the ground in Tel Aviv, protests across the region dramatically escalated, including demonstrations at the American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. U.S. officials have expressed deep private concert that the unrest in the region could explode once Israel begins its seemingly imminent ground operation into Gaza.
In many ways, Biden’s overarching message Thursday night was an illustration of the lofty themes he has hit throughout his presidency: reframing the century ahead as a battle between democracies and autocracies.