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1. Biden’s Hands-On Approach
President Biden was supposed to be on vacation, but when you’re the leader of the free world, with a major war going on in the Middle East, there’s no such thing as time off.
Biden and family spent Thanksgiving in Nantucket at a home— actually a luxurious compound—owned by friend and billionaire David Rubenstein. The president received briefings on Israel on a daily, and at times hourly, basis, following every twist and turn of efforts to implement the hostage release agreement that he personally helped broker.
After the first batch of Israelis arrived home, Biden gathered the press that had traveled with him to Massachusetts, to welcome the release and state that he remains “in personal contact with the leaders of Qatar, Egypt and Israel to make sure this stays on track and every aspect of the deal is implemented.”
These were not empty words. On Saturday, when the second cycle of the hostage releases hit a snag, Biden sat down at his desk and got to work, personally calling the Emir of Qatar to discuss the issue with him. (Qatar has been serving as the go-between for Hamas in these negotiations.) By the end of the call, things began to work out. Biden’s staff spent the next couple of hours ironing out final details with Israel, Qatar and Egypt, and by sundown in Nantucket, day two of the hostage release deal was completed successfully.
Sunday brought with it a more celebratory atmosphere to Biden’s vacation escape, as word came of the release of 4-year-old Abigail Edan, an American-Israeli citizen, from the hands of Hamas. Biden once again gathered the press to make an emotional statement expressing his joy at her return and acknowledging the difficulties she will face as she learns that both her parents were murdered by Hamas during the October 7 attack. “Thank God she’s home,” Biden said. “I wish I were there to hold her.”
In his remarks to the press, Biden made it clear that he is already at work on extending the hostages-for-ceasefire deal in order to allow the release of more captives.
The president has taken a hands-on approach ever since the Gaza war broke out, communicating regularly with Israel’s Netanyahu and other regional leaders, dispatching his team to the region and traveling to Israel in the midst of the war, a move rarely taken by presidents.
The hostage deal, reached after lengthy discussions with Israel and Qatar, only deepened Biden’s involvement, in part because he believes that this deal is the only way to achieve both the release of hostages and a major increase in humanitarian aid assistance to civilians in Gaza.
But taking on the daily negotiations, and personally monitoring every detail of the implementation process, comes with a price and could be risky. If things go wrong, the failure will carry Biden’s name. The more he gets involved, the more ownership he has over the process, for better or worse.
2. Biden’s Working Hard But Getting No Love
A good deed never goes unpunished, something Biden experienced firsthand this weekend. While strolling the streets of Nantucket, greeting passersby and entering local shops for some early Christmas shopping (just one of those things presidents have to do, especially in an election year) Biden got heckled time and again by protestors calling “Free Palestine!” and accusing him of supporting “Israel’s genocide” in Gaza. Some even tried to disrupt the local Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at which Biden was the guest of honor.
These incidents took place on the margins, but they were a reminder that Biden’s intense involvement in working out the hostage deal, and in managing the conflict in general, have some vocal opponents within his own political camp. Growing numbers of Democrats on Biden’s left flank are threatening to disavow the president at a critical time in American politics.
Biden thus far seems unfazed by the criticism and is sticking to the policy he set out on day one: full support for Israel as it goes after Hamas, active pursuit of ways to release the hostages, and constant attention to the humanitarian costs along with pressure on Israel to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza and maximize access to aid.
3. Endgame Games
The criticism, coupled with Biden’s own beliefs, is now driving the administration to focus on the endgame: How does this war conclude? What happens after the hostage release pause is over and Israel goes back on the attack?
Biden and his team remain cautious, at least in their public comments, making sure that Israel does not feel under pressure to wrap up the operation before Hamas is defeated.
But their attention is shifting to the major crossroads ahead.
In the short term, this means an attempt to extend the current pause for as long as possible, which will require Hamas to keep on releasing hostages and Israel agreeing to provide extra cease-fire days in accordance with the formula of one day of military pause for every 10 hostages set free.
Looking at the medium term, the Biden administration is trying to figure out what the transition process will look like, once active fighting in Gaza is over. The United States has already begun checking out different possibilities for “the day after” on the assumption that Hamas will no longer be in power. These include an Egyptian-led Arab League force, a UN contingent, and a new structure involving international forces alongside elements of the Palestinian Authority.
They are also increasingly looking into the long-term need to move ahead with a peace process after Gaza is stabilized under a new regime. “A two-state solution is the only way to guarantee the long-term security of both Israelis and Palestinian people and Hamas is completely—how can I say it—no longer in control of any portion of Gaza,” Biden said Sunday.
If he can pull that off, criticism from the left will evaporate. In fact, success in advancing a two-state solution would instantly make Biden the progressive pro-peace Democrats’ hero. But there’s a big “if” here. Almost all his predecessors have tried and failed, and Biden will be starting with significantly worse conditions on the ground in the region.
4. How John Kirby Became Israel’s Best Friend
Wars create all types of heroes: some on the battlefield, some in the corridors of diplomacy and power and some behind the lectern on the White House press room podium.
John Kirby comes from the last category. A veteran government spokesperson and a retired Navy admiral, Kirby has won over the hearts of Israelis and Jewish Americans with his unapologetic defense of Biden’s pro-Israel policy and his generous show of empathy at a time Israelis needed it most.
A few days after the October 7 attack, Kirby was caught on camera overwhelmed with emotions when discussing Hamas’s atrocities on a live CNN interview from the White House. He struggled to hold back his tears in a rare TV moment that went viral. A day later, Kirby told me that it was a moment in which— after a couple of days of around-the-clock work—the horrors of Hamas’s attack caught up with him.
Ever since, Kirby has stood up almost daily in defense of the U.S. policy, never ducking questions from reporters and always providing detailed and contextualized explanations.
On November 20, another White House briefing moment starring Kirby took over the pro-Israel social media feed. In just over a minute, Kirby destroyed the claim that “genocide” is being carried out by Israel. “Israel is not trying to wipe the Palestinian people off the map. Israel is not trying to wipe Gaza off the map. Israel is trying to defend itself against a genocidal terrorist threat,” he said. “If we’re going to start using that word, fine. Let’s use it appropriately.”
The pro-Israel Twittersphere loved it.
5. Kirby’s Catholic Judaism
Just before Washington shut down for Thanksgiving, John Kirby hopped on the line for a zoom briefing with Jewish communal leaders and activists.
The call, organized by the White House liaison to the Jewish community Shelley Greenspan, was part policy briefing, part love-fest for the community’s new-found hero.
Trying to explain his supportive views of Israel, Kirby stressed that he was simply conveying the feelings of his boss, President Biden, whom he quoted as saying, “you don’t have to be Jewish to be Zionist.”
On a more personal level, Kirby agreed to share a bit about his own background.
“I grew up Catholic, but I had many Jewish friends, and one of my Little League baseball coaches was in the Jewish community and one of my favorite mentors as a young kid,” Kirby told the audience, shedding for a moment the policy-focused persona they usually meet in his official White House briefings. “So, it’s just been a part of my life.”
He also spoke about his first visit to Israel as a young sailor on an aircraft carrier. Kirby was deeply impressed with the port city of Haifa and with Jerusalem, where he felt a thick sense of history. “I just fell in love,” Kirby said of Israel. Many Israelis and Jewish Americans believe that this love is still showing.
Top Image: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) / TownDown (CC BY-SA 3.0)