Domestic Political Pressures Widen Divide Between Biden and Netanyahu


Relations between President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel appear to have sunk to a new low, with both men pressed hard by domestic politics and looming elections.

Mr. Biden is facing outrage from global allies and his own supporters about the toll of civilian deaths in the war against Hamas and Israel’s restrictions on allowing food and medicine into Gaza amid critical shortages. On Monday, Mr. Biden allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, as the U.S. ambassador abstained rather than vetoing the measure, as the United States had done in the past.

In response, Mr. Netanyahu, who is trying to keep his own far-right coalition government in power, called off a planned high-level delegation to Washington for meetings with U.S. officials to discuss alternatives to a planned Israeli offensive into Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than a million people have sought refuge.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, allowed his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, to remain in Washington for talks with top Biden administration officials.

Those are “the talks that matter,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. He said Mr. Netanyahu’s cancellation of the other meetings, a public poke in the eye of the American president who requested them, “is strictly performative.”

Mr. Netanyahu is facing sharp criticism from his far-right coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, over any indication that he is hesitating in the war against Hamas or in the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. His wartime government is also deeply divided over proposed legislation that could end up drafting more ultra-Orthodox Israelis, known as Haredim, into the military — a vote that was suddenly postponed on Tuesday morning.

For now, at least, Mr. Netanyahu’s political survival depends on keeping Mr. Ben-Gvir and Mr. Smotrich in his coalition. If they leave the government, it would force early Israeli elections that Mr. Netanyahu would most likely lose to his centrist rival, Benny Gantz.

New elections are precisely what Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, called for in a recent speech, in which he said Mr. Netanyahu was an impediment to peace. Mr. Biden called it “a good speech” without endorsing the call for elections.

Nadav Shtrauchler, a political strategist who previously worked with Mr. Netanyahu, said the prime minister was seeking to embody a central narrative: “We must stand strong, even against the United States, and I am the man with the backbone to do that.”

Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right partners have made increasingly harsh remarks criticizing the Biden administration. In a recent interview, Mr. Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, accused Mr. Biden of tacitly supporting Israel’s enemies like Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, and Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic congresswoman of Palestinian descent who represents a Michigan district.

“Presently, Biden prefers the line of Rashida Tlaib and Sinwar to the line of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir,” Mr. Ben-Gvir said in an interview.

“I would have expected the president of the United States not to take their line, but rather to take ours,” he added.

By seeking to pressure Israel, President Biden was “enormously mistaken,” Mr. Ben-Gvir said, adding that Mr. Biden “constantly sought to impose restrictions on Israel and talks about the rights of the other side, who include, I remind you, many terrorists who want to destroy us.”

Mr. Biden’s action on the Security Council resolution appears to be more political than substantive, and his own officials insist that American policy has not changed.

The U.S. government remains committed to supporting Israel, and there has been no hint that it might reduce the supply of American weapons going to Israel. The U.N. abstention does not amount to an American veto of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Rafah, though it does underscore American and allied desire that Israel first come up with a detailed plan to spare the civilians hunkering down there.

But Mr. Biden is also conscious of the souring attitudes toward Israel in his own Democratic Party, undercutting his support in battleground states as he runs for re-election.

The administration’s recent actions add up to both serious and substantive signaling of the president’s displeasure with the Israeli prime minister, said Natan Sachs, director of the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy.

The United States imposed sanctions on violent Israeli settlers, multiple administration officials have offered sharp public criticism of Israel’s plans to press its offensive into Rafah

and Mr. Gantz, against Mr. Netanyahu’s wishes, visited Washington, where he was granted meetings with high-level officials, including Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

“There are deep disagreements between Biden and Netanyahu and there is a clear change of policy” in Washington, Mr. Sachs argued. “There are always politics at play, but these differences are not purely politically driven.”

The United States continues to work with Israel and Arab allies in an attempt to broker a temporary cease-fire in Gaza in return for the release by Hamas of Israeli hostages. Washington hopes to turn a temporary truce into a longer-term one that could allow for serious talks on how Gaza can be governed and rebuilt while protecting Israeli security. But that is a battle yet to be fought, especially as talks on a temporary cease-fire drag on.

Unlike previous U.S.-Israeli spats, this one is occurring during a war in which what eventually happens in Gaza — whether Hamas is finally defeated or emerges with operational military units — is a serious issue of Israeli security, said Aaron David Miller, a former American diplomat now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“How does Biden change the picture in Gaza when the Israeli prime minister and much of the Israeli public, including Gantz, are committed to the war aims of defeating Hamas in Gaza and restoring Israeli security?” Mr. Miller asked. “You need the acquiescence and support of the prime minister.”

The risk for Mr. Biden, Mr. Miller said, is that his confrontations with Mr. Netanyahu may make it more difficult to get Israel’s cooperation on the president’s goals — “a de-escalation of the war, a massive increase in humanitarian assistance and a less bloody operation in Rafah,” let alone a workable postwar plan for governing Gaza.

In a deeper way, the present disagreements build on 20 years of increasingly difficult relations over Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine the possibility of a two-state solution.

“There is a building sense that the Israel-U.S. relationship is coming apart,” Mr. Miller said. “Do they really share our values and interests when their policy is annexation in all but name and they defy advice from one of the most pro-Israel presidents in history?”

Mr. Netanyahu has a history of using his arguments with American presidents — including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — to bolster his domestic political standing, seeking to show that he is Israel’s best defense against outside pressure for concessions on relations with the Palestinians or even on a now-faded deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Right now, Mr. Netanyahu is trying to portray himself as standing up to Washington and the world in the name of Israeli security.

“He is setting up a situation where he can blame the U.S. for holding him back in Rafah from finishing the job with Hamas and keeping Israel from obtaining its goals,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel now at Princeton University. “And if he does go in, he can argue that he’s the only Israeli leader who can withstand American pressure.”

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat, said that Mr. Netanyahu would try to blame Mr. Biden for failing to triumph over Hamas.

“Since there won’t be a total elimination or eradication of Hamas, he needs someone to blame,” he said. “And there’s only one person he can blame for it — Biden.”

At the same time, Mr. Kurtzer said, Mr. Biden is far more popular in Israel than Mr. Obama was and a serious break with Washington would deeply undermine Israel’s security, its military capacity and its future. So Mr. Netanyahu has to be careful not to go too far.

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