Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Listening to U.S. President Joe Biden’s remarks to campaign supporters last week, one might be forgiven for believing that he had finally had it with his “good friend” Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli ground campaign that, according to many, is charging through the Gaza Strip like an out-of-control freight train leaving death and destruction in its wake. The president said Israel was losing support; referred to its “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza; and concluded in a somewhat awkward and muddled phrasing that Netanyahu “has to change and … this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move.” Biden left listeners wondering whether he was calling for Netanyahu or his coalition to go—or both. There are no doubt differences between the Biden administration and Israel on its ground campaign and on what should follow—especially on what role the Palestinian Authority should play in Gaza and what Israel should do to advance a two-state solution. But anyone expecting a major blow-up in U.S.-Israeli relations now or in the coming days should lay down and wait patiently until the feeling passes. All one has to do is read the entire text of the president’s remarks—a veritable love letter to Israel—to see that, tensions notwithstanding, the frame Biden set on Oct. 10 in one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency has remained largely intact. Sure, the discourse has evolved in the face of the exponential rise in Palestinian deaths and the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. But several factors virtually guarantee that instead of accentuating those differences, let alone imposing conditions on Israel, the Biden administration strongly prefers to manage them. Driving that management strategy are the president’s persona, his politics, and some very tough policy choices he faces regarding the Israel-Hamas war. Should a major rift result, it won’t come from Washington; more likely, it would come from Netanyahu. If, at some point soon, he faces a reelection campaign, Netanyahu will portray himself as the one man who can prevent the United States from shoving the PA and the two-state solution down Israel’s throat. It’s a veritable axiom in Washington that presidents do not want a public fight with Israeli prime ministers. I came to understand this while working for both Republican and Democratic administrations. Such feuds are inevitability messy, distracting, and awkward. They can also be counterproductive and politically costly. When presidents do pressure Israel, it’s almost always in pursuit of a defined and achievable goal that makes the fight worthwhile. The best examples include the threat by President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger of reassessing U.S.-Israeli relations to press the government of Yitzhak Rabin to sign a second Sinai disengagement accord with Egypt in 1975; President Jimmy Carter’s wrestling match with Prime Minister Menachem Begin on settlements en route to an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979; and the fight President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker waged with Israel over loan guarantees and settlements on their way to the Madrid Conference in 1991. For Biden, who has a deeper history with Israel and its leaders stretching back decades and a love for the idea of the country and its people, the desire to accommodate and not confront is even greater. One only needs to examine the administration’s response to the current Netanyahu government—the most extreme in Israel’s history—before the Gaza crisis. Instead of a tough response to Israel’s effort to effectively annex the West Bank, the president settled for tough words and what appeared to be a passive-aggressive posture. He denied Netanyahu a meeting at the White House, which has long been customary for Israeli leaders in their first year—but agreed to see him in New York during the United Nations General Assembly. If there are any doubts about where the president’s heart is, take a look at the same remarks that contained those sharp words for Israel. Biden also reminded supporters that he had known every single Israeli head of state since Golda Meir in the early 1970s. And then he said: “Were there not an Israel, we’d have to invent one. … Without Israel as a freestanding state, not a Jew in the world is safe.” Even after chiding Netanyahu about his opposition to a Palestinian state, the president said: “We’re not going to do a damn thing other than protect Israel in the process. Not a single thing. … We are not going to … walk away from providing Israel what they need to defend themselves and to finish the job … against Hamas.” Only once in his remarks did the president refer to the need to protect Palestinians. And he reserved his harshest remarks for Hamas: “They’re animals. They exceeded anything that any other terrorist group has done of late.” He condemned the group’s use of “rape, sexual violence, terrorism, and torture of Israeli women and girls.” Indeed, the day after he referred to Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby appeared to walk that language back. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, when questioned about that phrase in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12, referred to the president’s milder formulation later that week that Israel needed to go after Hamas but to be “more careful.” For many years, Biden’s personal support for Israel blended seamlessly with his domestic politics. The president is of a generation where being extremely supportive of Israel was both morally right and politically smart—and necessary. But like so many things in U.S. political life, Israel, too, has become a polarizing issue. And the Israel-Hamas war has reflected those divisions both in Congress and in public attitudes, mainly in terms of rage over the number of Palestinians deaths. For Biden, the politics on this issue have become more complex. He’s navigating a fine line between a Republican Party that has emerged in the past two decades as the Israel-can-do-no-wrong party and an increasingly divided Democratic Party. Most Democrats still support Israel strongly, but a minority of progressives and even some centrist senators want the administration to be tougher on Netanyahu—to press him for a cease-fire or even impose conditions on U.S. military assistance. So far, Biden has held the line. And while some may argue that the president is running the risk of alienating young voters, Arab Americans, and progressives, Biden’s personal views on Israel and his concern about the blowback from conservatives in his own party will likely carry the day for now. Biden’s political advisors will surely be concerned if Gaza remains a hot-button issue, with daily pictures circulating of death and destruction—but the presidential election is still a year away. The final piece in understanding the president’s approach to the Netanyahu government is his appreciation of the complexity of the challenges Israel faces. In the wake of the worst attack in Israel’s history and the single bloodiest day for Jews since the Holocaust, Israel is trying to crush a brutally violent organization that still holds more than 100 hostages and hides among a civilian population of more than 2.3 million. The administration dispatched a three-star general with experience in counterinsurgency in Mosul and has advised the Israeli government to conduct more targeted operations. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned Israel that the mounting civilian death toll could end up handing Israel a strategic defeat by alienating Palestinians and creating new militants. But it’s magical thinking to believe that in the wake of the Oct. 7 surge, Israel would have been able to pursue anything other than a comprehensive campaign to try to destroy Hamas’s military infrastructure above and below ground and kill its senior leadership without wreaking a terrible death toll on the Palestinian population.

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