The Interlocking Political Fates of Biden and Netanyahu

Is the Israeli-American ‘special relationship’ in danger, or are the two leaders merely playing a game of political survival?

The Interlocking Political Fates of Biden and Netanyahu
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv two weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. (Miriam Alster/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

This week’s diplomatic contretemps between the Israeli and American governments is being described as the worst rupture in the “special relationship” in decades. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy remarked to Golda Meir (then Israel’s foreign minister) that America’s bond with the Jewish state was comparable only to the one the U.S. shared with Britain.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled the trip of a delegation of top officials that was set to go to Washington over the Biden administration’s abstention on a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and hostage release, which cleared the path for the resolution’s adoption. Israel has long relied on its American ally to veto U.N. resolutions it dislikes and sees the abstention as a betrayal.

“This constitutes a clear departure from the consistent U.S. position in the Security Council since the beginning of the war,” Netanyahu said.

In Israel, the legacy media that represents the center-right and liberal political spectrum reported the rift as Netanyahu’s fault and a dangerous development for the country’s security. On Monday night, the main headline on Haaretz’s Hebrew homepage read, “Just Another Day at the Office: Instead of Attacking Rafah, Netanyahu Attacked the U.S.” The newspaper’s follow-up editorial, which was translated for the English edition, is headlined: “Netanyahu Has Become Israel’s Agent of Destruction.”

Amit Segal, the influential political commentator for Channel 12, Israel’s most popular commercial network, said that Netanyahu made a decision that was “bad for Israel.” Segal, who grew up in a West Bank settlement, has for years been associated with center-right views, with liberal Israelis accusing him on social media of being a shill for Netanyahu. Now it seems that Segal, too, is turning away from the prime minister.

While the Israeli press sees the widening rift with the U.S. for what it is, the White House is playing it down, retorting that Netanyahu is attempting to stoke a crisis in Israeli-American relations where there is none. “The prime minister’s office seems to be indicating through public statements that we somehow changed here,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby commented. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We still have Israel’s back.” Driving the point home, Kirby told journalists at Monday’s White House briefing, “As you and I are speaking, we are still providing tools and capabilities, weapons systems, so that Israel can defend itself.”

Yet something has changed. For months, Biden has been quietly — critics would say meekly and fancifully — urging Israel to end its assault on Gaza, all the while providing the weapons for Israel to continue that very offensive. Yet the threatened assault on Rafah has proved a step too far, even for an exceptionally accommodating American administration.

But the Security Council resolution and the cancellation of the Israeli visit to Washington are not isolated incidents. The Biden-Bibi relationship has been deteriorating for months over the Israeli prime minister’s refusal to heed the White House’s increasingly strong suggestions that the Israeli military wrap up its campaign in Gaza. In November, the Biden administration announced a ban on Israeli “extremists [who have attacked] civilians in the West Bank” from entering the U.S. In February, it imposed financial sanctions on a group of settlers, and this month it levied sanctions on two West Bank settlements — the first time the U.S. has ever taken measures against an entire Israeli settlement in occupied Palestinian territory. Also in February, Biden issued a presidential memorandum conditioning military support to Israel on the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians.

The photograph of the two men wrapped in a bear hug immediately after the attacks on Oct. 7 of last year now looks like a dusty souvenir from the distant past. On more than one occasion, Biden has called Netanyahu an “asshole,” several sources “directly familiar with his comments” recently told MSNBC, inspiring the Politico headline, “From ‘I Love You’ to ‘Asshole’: How Joe Gave Up on Bibi.”

Biden is certainly not the first U.S. president to harbor such feelings toward the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. An exasperated Bill Clinton privately quipped after his first meeting with Netanyahu in 1996, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” Neither was Barack Obama exactly fond of Netanyahu. When Obama’s French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy confessed in a hot-mic moment in 2011, “I can’t stand [Netanyahu]. He’s a liar,” Obama replied, “You’re tired of him — what about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

But the Biden-Netanyahu relationship is different. Biden has called Netanyahu a “close, personal friend of over 33 years” and once inscribed a photo for the Israeli leader with the words: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.” So the nosedive from what was once a political bromance seems freighted and has observers speculating about what’s driving it — and where it might end.

In Israel, a common opinion holds that Netanyahu has a cynical interest in prolonging the war to avoid having to call an election that he would likely lose. Chuck Schumer’s much-discussed call for Netanyahu to step down — one that Biden quickly echoed — must be sticking in the embattled Israeli leader’s craw, not least because the Senate majority leader, a Jewish Democrat, has long been one of Israel’s most ardent supporters in American politics. In an interview for the New York Times published March 19, he took congressional correspondent Annie Karni to his old Brooklyn high school, which had a majority-Jewish student body when he attended in the 1960s. Schumer reminisced about walking the school’s corridors during the 1967 Six-Day War with a transistor radio “glued” to his ear. He goes on to describe growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust in Jewish Brooklyn, where he acquired his love for Israel and the Jewish people. When describing his connection to these two entities, he uses the Hebrew/Yiddish word “neshama” (soul).

Schumer says that he once had a warm relationship with Netanayhu, but no more. Now he believes that Netanyahu is harming the Jewish people and the state of Israel — hence his precedent-making March 17 speech, delivered from the Senate floor, in which he called upon Israelis to vote Netanyahu out of office “when the war winds down.” The prime minister, said Schumer, is an “impediment to peace.” To Karni, he said his point was that “you can still love Israel and feel strongly about Israel and totally disagree with Bibi Netanyahu and the policies of Israel.”

Biden later told reporters that he thought Schumer gave “a good speech.”

In calling, via Schumer, for Netanyahu’s ouster by election, the White House is gambling that Benny Gantz, a retired army general and former minister of defense who sits in the war cabinet, would win by a significant margin and be able to form a stable coalition. Biden surely knows that all the polls since Oct. 7 show Gantz’s Blue and White alliance winning. But Dahlia Scheindlin, a prominent pollster and author of “The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel: Promise Unfulfilled” (2023), urges caution. “Not only is there a possibility of Gantz winning the next election and forming a coalition — that is the most likely scenario, if the election were held soon,” she told New Lines.

But, she added, “no one can predict” when there will be an election. Netanyahu is not obligated to call one until early 2025. Moreover, three months must elapse between calling and holding an election. A lot, Scheindlin pointed out, can happen in three months. Meanwhile, Gideon Saar, who heads a party called New Hope, resigned from the governing coalition on March 25 over Netanyahu’s refusal to include him in the war cabinet, with Saar accusing Netanyahu of strategic failures in Gaza. But even with Saar’s departure, the prime minister still heads a stable coalition of 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset — three more than the required minimum of 61. In other words, Netanyahu could quite easily stay in power for another year at least.

The White House must also surely know that one of the most significant aspects of Netanyahu’s 15 years as prime minister is the almost complete decimation of Israel’s political left, in tandem with the rise of the once-marginal far-right parties headed by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. When Netanyahu brought the two men into his governing coalition, the center was horrified and the moderate right was distinctly uneasy. Both men are vocal racists who have long histories of incitement to political violence and little respect for democratic norms. But while Ben-Gvir, with his swaggering fascism, might once have seemed at the very least like bad PR for Israel, since Oct. 7 the discourse has shifted. The Hamas attacks are widely perceived in Israel as having broad support among Palestinians, which has allowed Ben-Gvir’s narrative to seep into mainstream political discourse. The crass and vulgar messenger might be repulsive to most Israelis, but less so his message. The rise of the far right is thus a wild card that could further complicate the Biden administration’s gamble in trying to dislodge Netanyahu. Instead of Gantz, Netanyahu could be replaced by someone to his right.

But what if Netanyahu is playing the same game, hoping to damage Biden by promoting the perception that he has abandoned Israel, thus tilting the scales toward Donald Trump in November? This would hardly be his first rodeo. In 2012, the Israeli leader controversially intervened in U.S. electoral politics — a taboo up to that point — by openly supporting Mitt Romney over Obama (whose vice president and running mate was one Joe Biden). Netanyahu was thrilled with Trump’s approach to Israel during his presidency, in particular his scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal (a signature foreign-policy achievement of the Obama/Biden White House) and his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. There’s also the emotional affinity between the two men: their shared authoritarian “strongman” personalities.

That’s how Khaled Elgindy, author of “Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, From Balfour to Trump” (2019) and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, sees it. “Netanyahu is most definitely trying to undermine Biden and tilt the scales toward Trump,” he told New Lines. “He understands that Israel has lost the Democratic Party, most likely for good, and that the GOP is more unconditional in its support for Israel than even Biden and without any of the pretense about caring for civilians.”

But Biden is also being pulled in the opposite direction, with millions of young Americans alienated by the administration’s handling of the Gaza war thus far and with the “uncommitted” protest vote within the Democratic Party gaining traction before a general election that will likely be decided by a razor-thin margin. In the critical swing state of Michigan, which Biden won in 2020 but Trump won in 2016, more than 100,000 voters cast “uncommitted” ballots in the Democratic primary last month. Wisconsin, which Biden won by just 20,682 votes in 2020, has a primary next month and Gaza is a major issue.

Biden is feeling the heat, and not just from Arab and Muslim Americans and young progressives. Earlier this month, a group of Democratic donors, as well as other movers and shakers in the party, sent a widely discussed letter to the Biden campaign warning that anger over the war in Gaza and Biden’s stance toward Israel is “increasing the chances of a Trump victory.”

The Biden administration is torn between an aging Washington consensus on Israel and a younger generation of Democratic Party politicians and activists. It is torn, too, between an Israeli prime minister unwilling to listen to Washington and a president unwilling to criticize Israel too strongly in an election year. Perhaps most of all, it is torn between the desire to maintain the American alliance with Israel and the open anger of most of the world over the war in Gaza.

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