A focus on American hostages held by Hamas is sure to intensify in the days ahead, especially as President Biden heads to Israel on Wednesday.
The fate of hostages is always an emotive issue. But from a political standpoint, the current situation will raise the stakes for Biden as he and his administration try to win the release of Americans.
About 13 Americans remain unaccounted for following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed approximately 1,300 people in all. At least 29 Americans have been killed.
Meanwhile, Israeli counterstrikes have killed more than 2,700 Palestinians. An Israeli ground invasion of Gaza is widely expected soon.
An invasion will, by its nature, run the risk of endangering hostages. Israeli authorities on Monday upped their estimate of the total number of hostages to 199 from 150. U.S. officials have implicitly acknowledged there are some American hostages but have remained tight-lipped on the details.
The delicate politics of the issue were laid bare over the weekend, when national security adviser Jake Sullivan came under pressure from CNN anchor Jake Tapper during an appearance on “State of the Union.”
Tapper suggested to Sullivan that the freeing of hostages “doesn’t seem like” it is a priority “at all,” given the lack of obvious efforts to rescue them and the apparent willingness to let Israel keep “bombing the crap out of Gaza.”
Sullivan insisted that Biden “has no higher priority” than trying to bring Americans home. He added that the president had dispatched experts in the hostage issue to Israel and that the administration was working with third-party nations to “explore avenues for their safe release.”
In other media appearances, Sullivan stressed that he did not want to speak too candidly for fear of disrupting sensitive negotiations.
On Monday, Hamas released its first hostage video. It showed a 21-year-old Israeli woman, Mia Shem, who said that she had received medical treatment for her injuries and pleaded for her release.
Some of the unaccounted-for Americans have not been publicly identified.
But the details of their lives will become more of a media focus, including during the Biden visit, giving their fate even greater potency with the public.
Media outlets have reported that Judith and Natalie Raanan, a mother and daughter from Evanston, Ill., are among the unaccounted-for. They were visiting relatives at a kibbutz and have not been heard from since Oct. 7.
Such stories will ratchet up the pressure on Biden to solve what is a perilous dilemma.
The political parallel that no Democrat wants to see repeated is former President Carter and the Iran hostage crisis.
Carter’s failure to free 52 Americans who were held after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed in late 1979 greatly impeded his reelection chances the following year.
An especially ignominious moment for Carter came in April 1980, when an attempt to free the hostages by force went badly wrong. Eight U.S. service members were killed when a helicopter and plane collided during the refueling process at a secret staging area in the Iranian desert.
“Biden will remember the Iran hostage crisis under Carter, and that was pretty devastating,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It has the potential to make a president look ineffective if you can’t get the hostages released.”
Biden spoke for more than an hour with the families of Americans who are unaccounted for last Friday. In an interview with CBS News’s “60 Minutes” broadcast Sunday, he said it was important to do so because “they have to know that the President of the United States of America cares deeply about what’s happening.”
But the political dangers of negotiation are also sharp right now.
A recent deal by which Biden won the release of five Americans from Iran by agreeing to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds was widely criticized in the aftermath of the Hamas attack.
Iran is a longtime supporter of Hamas, although both the U.S. and Israeli governments have said they have not seen evidence that Tehran had prior knowledge of the Oct. 7 attack. Nevertheless, the funds have now been frozen once again.
Former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said the controversy over the deal had brought an increased “awareness of the stakes” when it comes to such negotiations.
“The fear has always been that, to the extent that we are paying for hostages to be released, are we maybe encouraging more of it?”
Yet Dent, a moderate Republican, also acknowledged the near-impossible moral and ethical questions that are raised in hostage negotiations.
“What’s the price of a hostage? That’s the question that will be asked, and obviously there is no simple answer.”
Carter is not the only president whose reputation was affected by a hostage crisis. Former President Reagan’s second term was besmirched by the revelation of the Iran-Contra scandal. One element of that saga was the U.S. selling arms under the table to Iran in the hopes of expediting the release of hostages held by Hezbollah, an Iranian ally, in Lebanon.
Israel itself made a controversial deal in 2011, when it agreed to the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in order to secure the freedom of Gilad Shalit, a member of the Israel Defense Forces held by Hamas for five years.
Right now, Biden is facing similar questions — but in an overall context that is even more bloody and dire.
One Democratic strategist, who spoke on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, expressed trepidation at the challenges facing the president.
The strategist said that Biden might bolster his standing “if he was able to pull off some kind of negotiated exchange with Hamas.”
But, the source added, “I just don’t see how that is possible. This is not an exchange with the Russians to get Brittney Griner. This is much messier.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.