Biden Keeps Israel Close, but Netanyahu Away

Washington — With increasingly frequent and vocal expressions of frustration, U.S. President Joe Biden appears to be distancing himself from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed that international pressure will not prevent Israel from achieving “total victory” in its war against Hamas.

The rift is fueling speculation that the U.S. might restrict the supply of American weapons, particularly if Netanyahu moves to “finish the job” against Hamas in Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are sheltered.

Placing conditions on military aid would be Washington’s strongest leverage to affect Israel’s conduct of the war, which has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians according to Gaza’s health ministry.

While U.S. media have quoted anonymous administration sources saying they are considering that option, officially the White House has declined to “entertain hypotheticals.”

“The president has been very clear about our position on Rafah,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during Tuesday’s White House briefing. “A military operation in Rafah that does not protect civilians, that cuts off the main arteries of humanitarian assistance, and that places enormous pressure on the Israel-Egypt border, is not something that he can support.”

Biden himself was ambiguous about whether invading Rafah would cross a red line, saying he would never abandon Israel. At the same time, he rebuked the Netanyahu government for the way it has gone after Hamas following the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel and took more than 240 hostage.

“The defense of Israel is still critical, so there’s no red line [where] I’m going to cut off all weapons, so they don’t have the Iron Dome to protect them,” he said in a recent interview with MSNBC, even as he underscored that Israel “cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead.”

However, the president is telegraphing his rebukes. Caught on a hot mic while speaking to a Democratic senator last week, Biden said that he has told Netanyahu they are heading for a “come to Jesus” meeting, an expression for having a blunt conversation.

Told by an aide that he could be heard, Biden said, “Good. That’s good.”

Electoral goals

Biden’s increasingly public criticism of Netanyahu comes as he ramps up his campaign for reelection in November. The president faces competing constituencies within his Democratic base.

He cannot afford to give Republicans an opportunity to capture pro-Israel votes. But he also needs to stop progressive Democrats, young voters, Muslim and Arab Americans from abandoning him, as threatened by the significant portion of voters in some Democratic primaries who marked their ballots “uncommitted” to signal their outrage at the president’s support for Israel.

To address his domestic politics and foreign policy goals, Biden is “performing a political amputation of Bibi,” said Laura Blumenfeld, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, using a nickname for Netanyahu.

The goal, Blumenfeld told VOA, is to separate what Biden considers Netanyahu’s “toxic war policies” from the state of Israel so that the president can follow his political instincts: to protect Israel from further attacks and facilitate the release of hostages “without sacrificing his moral core.”

Biden’s souring on Netanyahu may not be enough to appease pro-Palestinian Americans, particularly if a cease-fire isn’t secured soon. “Uncommitted” voters say they would abandon the president even when Biden surrogates point out that the Republican presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies, is likely to give Israel freer rein over its war conduct.

“I’ve lived through four years of Trump,” said Samraa Luqman, co-chair of the Abandon Biden campaign in Michigan. Palestinians, she told VOA, “cannot live through another Joe Biden presidency.”

Trump has avoided stating an explicit position on the war other than saying in a Fox News interview that Israel must “finish the problem” and that the “horrible invasion” by Hamas “would have never happened” if he were president.

Netanyahu hits back

In response to Biden’s criticism that Netanyahu is “hurting Israel more than helping Israel,” the prime minister hit back, saying in an interview with Politico that he has the support of the Israeli people.

If Biden meant “that I’m pursuing private policies against the majority, the wish of the majority of Israelis, and that this is hurting the interests of Israel, then he’s wrong on both counts,” Netanyahu said.

Only 15% of Israelis want Netanyahu to stay in office after the war ends, according to a poll by Israel Democracy Institute. But 56% believe that continuing the military offensive is the best way to recover the hostages.

In general, Israelis are focused on toppling Hamas, said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. To them, protecting civilians and providing humanitarian aid are “details,” he told VOA. “They don’t understand the significance in America.”

Distrust in Netanyahu

Earlier this week, an annual threat assessment released by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) cited deepening “distrust of Netanyahu’s ability to rule” since the war broke. The prime minister’s “viability as leader” may be in jeopardy, the report said.

“It’s clear that the U.S. administration is going after Netanyahu,” said Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute.

As the process toward a political transition in Israel begins, Goren told VOA, the U.S. “is an actor in it.”

The ODNI report noted that “a different, more moderate government is a possibility,” drawing ire from Israeli officials who felt snubbed earlier this month when Israeli war Cabinet member Benny Gantz was received by Vice President Kamala Harris, Sullivan and Democratic congressional leaders.

Many see Gantz’s invitation to Washington as a sign of the administration’s support, should the popular centrist politician become Israel’s next prime minister.

Asked by VOA if Gantz’s visit is a signal that the administration is looking forward to an Israeli government without Netanyahu, national security communications adviser John Kirby flatly said, “No.”

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