Relations between two old allies, President of the United States (US) Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which have long been somewhat tense, are being tested by the Hamas group’s sudden attack on Israel. Moreover, Tel Aviv itself is preparing for the possibility of carrying out a ground attack on the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
After months of tension over the future of the Middle East, the two leaders are now forced to forge a wartime partnership following deadly attacks by Hamas militants from Gaza into Israel.
US relations with Israel, Washington’s main ally in the Middle East, have deteriorated in recent months. This is because the White House has sided with Israel’s critics who oppose the right-wing Netanyahu government’s plans to limit the power of the Supreme Court.
But the differences of opinion between the two leaders are much deeper.
Joe Biden (right), who at that time served as US Vice President, prepares to sign the guest book before meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, March 9 2010. (Photo: Reuters)
As president, Biden has often emphasized his support for the independent states of Israel and Palestine. Government officials say he has raised the matter every time he has had the opportunity to speak with Netanyahu. Biden also asked him to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank occupied by Israeli forces.
After returning to office at the end of December, Netanyahu actually opposed the creation of a Palestinian state in the near future. He even approved a project to build thousands of new housing units for West Bank settlers.
The history of their relationship has often been marked by tension, including when Biden served as vice president during Barack Obama’s presidency. At that time, Netanyahu failed to cancel the US-backed Iran nuclear agreement in 2015.
Hamas is supported by Iran, Israel’s sworn enemy in the region.
Instead, Netanyahu held a meeting with Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor from the Republican Party and his potential opponent in the 2024 election. Trump himself is known to strongly support Netanyahu through his ideological support and very pro-Israel policies.
Despite this, Netanyahu chose to play it safe and not take sides in the US presidential election campaign.
After Hamas’ attack on Israel at the weekend – the deadliest attack since Egypt and Syria attacked in the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago – Biden put aside differences of opinion between the two leaders and opted to contact Netanyahu by telephone. Biden emphasized that his team will give Israel “everything it needs” to fight the militant group Hamas, a senior administration official said.
Biden assured Netanyahu of “strong” US support, and sought to increase Israel’s military arsenal and send an aircraft carrier group closer to Israel to demonstrate his massive support.
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they meet on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York City on September 20, 2023. (Photo: AFP)
In his public statements, Biden has not said that Israel should exercise restraint in its military response or expressed US concern for the Palestinian people, which has often been part of the White House’s response during previous crises.
“The President emphasized that there is no justification whatsoever for terrorism, and all countries must unite in the face of brutal atrocities like this,” the White House said of Biden’s second call to Netanyahu on Sunday (8/10).
The Wider War
Biden ordered his team to contact their counterparts in the Gulf and neighboring countries to try to prevent an escalation into a wider war. Biden is focusing on deterring the Iran-backed Hezbollah group to open a second front on Israel’s northern border, administration officials said.
Although Biden appears to be giving Netanyahu free rein to act at this point, policy differences remain. Biden could change those freedoms if the death toll in Gaza continues to rise and fighting continues, foreign policy experts predict.
Israeli TV channels said the death toll from Hamas attacks in the country had risen to 900 people.
In Hamas-controlled Gaza, Israel launched its most intensive counterattack ever and killed more than 500 people since Saturday (8/10).
“Eventually, if the conflict drags on for weeks or months, some US allies will lose patience and will openly call for an end to the conflict. At that point, you may see the US attempting to indirectly convince Israel to end battle,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a former US government national intelligence official for the Middle East who now works at the Atlantic Council think tank.
Biden also faces the potential challenge of securing the release of a number of missing Americans who may be held hostage by Hamas.
Palestinians remove bodies from the rubble of buildings after an Israeli air strike on the Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Monday, October 9, 2023. (Photo: AP)
Domestically, Biden faces pressure from both the right and the left. Hard-line Republicans in Congress accused him of giving power to Iran with the recent prisoner swap deal, something the president’s aides vehemently deny.
“If President Biden can support Ukraine as long as necessary, I hope President Biden can support Israel as long as necessary,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a foreign policy hawk on Fox News television.
Some fellow Democrats, before the attack, called on Biden to examine whether Israel deserves the billions of dollars in military aid packages it receives every year, and called for Biden to do more for the Palestinians.
The powerful pro-Israel lobby, led by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), is a major force in US politics, often backing Netanyahu, and is expected to play a role in the 2024 presidential election.
Palestinians walk past rubble amid destruction caused by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City’s al-Rimal neighborhood early on October 10, 2023. (Photo: AFP)
Don’t Love ‘Bibi’ but Love Israel
Biden, 80, calls himself a “Zionist,” and he and Netanyahu, 73, have both spoken about their decades-long friendship.
However, so far this year, Biden has not spoken to Netanyahu – or what is often called Bibi – for months. Bibi was also disappointed that she didn’t get the chance to meet Biden face to face until September 20. The meeting between the two leaders was not held at the White House, but at a hotel in New York, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
There, Biden expressed concerns about the need for stability in the West Bank and settler violence that has increased tensions with Palestinians, a senior administration official said.
They seem to have found common ground regarding US mediation efforts to mediate the issue of normalizing arch-enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the Hamas attack dealt a major blow to those efforts, leaving the future of normalization uncertain.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that despite Biden’s problems with Netanyahu, “the Israeli people and Israeli security are ingrained in Biden’s DNA.”
“Biden is not in love with ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu,” he said, using the prime minister’s nickname. “However, he is in love with the country of Israel, the people of Israel and he will do whatever he can to protect the people of Israel.” (ah/ft)