Israel Is Losing America

Netanyahu Should Work With Biden, Not Against Him

In a surprise announcement on May 31, U.S. President Joe Biden outlined a road map for “an enduring cease-fire [in the Gaza Strip] and the release of all hostages.” The plan, he declared, had been authored by Israel, and he urged Hamas to acquiesce to its terms. Biden’s speech gave the president the upper hand in his growing rift with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and it caught the prime minister off guard. Biden’s action has put Netanyahu in a difficult bind. If he accepts the deal, then members of his right-wing coalition will likely follow through on their vow to topple him. But if he rejects it, then he will increase tensions with the United States. For the time being, the prime minister has settled for an equivocal endorsement, insisting that Biden has inaccurately characterized the offer and that Israel has not consented to Hamas’s precondition of a full stop to the war. Meanwhile, Hamas’s reaction has been even less positive.

For months, as Israel has intensified its grip over Gaza despite mounting international condemnation, the impasse between Biden and Netanyahu has seemed only to worsen. In the weeks before Biden’s address, recriminations escalated. “We are not a vassal state of the United States,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on May 9. More recently, Biden suggested that observers could legitimately conclude that Netanyahu is prolonging the war to preserve his grip on power. As a consequence of this discord, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is turning from an intimate friendship into a contentious brawl. The ability to resolve differences and coordinate policy behind closed doors is vanishing rapidly, being replaced by animosity and dissent.

Washington continues to dangle a normalization pact with Saudi Arabia in front of Israel as part of a transaction that would include a cessation of hostilities, freedom for the hostages in Hamas’s captivity, and a defined pathway to Palestinian statehood. But on May 19—two days after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met to discuss the “nearly final version” of agreements between their countries—Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “it may well be that Israel isn’t able, [or] willing to proceed” down this route. Motivated by political or personal considerations, Netanyahu—who told the UN last September that peace with Riyadh would “bring the possibility of peace to this entire region”—seems to suddenly have become lukewarm to the idea. His resistance has encouraged the Saudis to explore a bilateral framework with the United States that would leave Israel out in the cold.

In December 2023, I argued in Foreign Affairs that Israel was in danger of losing the United States. Subsequent events—particularly the Israeli government’s persistent aversion to engaging on a credible blueprint for a postconflict Gaza—have only reinforced that argument. Reprising his classic divide-and-conquer ploy, Netanyahu is stoking the flames of polarization within both Israel and the United States in order to fend off criticism of his leadership. In so doing, he is making a grave mistake. The merits of any tactical victory over the Biden administration would be vastly outweighed by the strategic defeat that would result from any larger rupture of Israel’s essential ties with the United States. These ties contribute more fundamentally to Israel’s national security than any rout of Hamas could. The prime minister should change course and work with, not against, the United States.

THE BEST DEFENSE IS A GOOD OFFENSE
Thus far, Israelis have overwhelmingly supported the Gaza campaign and, particularly, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who are operating in the combat zone. This spirit of unity has stolen some of the thunder from the huge antigovernment protests that preceded October 7, co-opting their enthusiasm. For months, calls for immediate elections to replace Netanyahu’s unpopular coalition have been tempered by genuine doubts over the propriety and feasibility of conducting a vote as the fighting rages. Although a majority of Israelis favor early elections, they differ on the timing and worry that those who might replace Netanyahu share his guilt for the lapses that led to October 7.

This domestic consensus about the war, which the prime minister has sought to exploit to his own advantage, has provided an ironic backdrop for his scheme to sow internal discord among the Israeli public. Invoking an outdated paradigm, Netanyahu has endeavored to rally loyalists against what he considers to be an insidious and defeatist Israeli left that would make irresponsible concessions to the Palestinians. But according to an April poll by the Tel Aviv University Peace Index, only 12 percent of Israeli Jews identify as left wing. Another April survey, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, found that only 26 percent of Jewish Israelis would support “the establishment of a Palestinian state in the future” even if Israel were to sign a regional defense treaty with Arab partners. The dominant fault line of Israeli politics straddles the question of whether Netanyahu himself is fit to stay in office.

To shore up Netanyahu’s position, some of the prime minister’s acolytes have given voice to conspiracy theories. They have alleged that Israel’s defense chiefs have been collaborating with Hamas and colluding with the White House to sabotage the war effort and overthrow Netanyahu. The prime minister’s son has been active in this regard, retweeting, before deleting, a video clip featuring an IDF reservist who threatened to circumvent the military chain of command and obey only direct orders issued by Netanyahu. This was a blatant attempt to suggest that the generals are untrustworthy. The prime minister’s reaction, “rejecting outright any refusal [to obey orders] from any side,” was thoroughly evasive.

The military and intelligence services have not been Netanyahu’s only target of reproach. Spokespeople on the right regularly accuse proponents of a hostage deal at all costs of being willing to save Hamas from oblivion and, as such, undermining the sacrifices of Israel’s troops. At the same time, Netanyahu and his allies point the finger at the United States, claiming that the Biden administration has restricted Israel’s capacity to trounce Hamas. The president’s recent decision to pause a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs to the IDF and continual U.S. appeals to bolster the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza have been cited by Israeli politicians and pundits as significant hindrances to Israel’s battlefield performance. For the prime minister, the spread of these beliefs serves to insulate him and his government from blame for, among other failings, October 7, the plight of tens of thousands of still displaced Israelis, and the hit to the country’s credit rating. It also gives cover to his failure, after more than eight months, to bring the war in Gaza to a satisfactory conclusion.

TAKING WASHINGTON BY STORM
Despite Netanyahu’s caustic attitude toward the Biden administration, the United States remains central to the prime minister’s calculus. Although Netanyahu is notorious for declining to grant interviews to Israeli media, it is not accidental that, since the start of 2024, he has appeared on all three major U.S. networks, CNN, Fox News, and even Dr. Phil. At a time when countries around the world are becoming overtly hostile to Israel, Washington’s backing remains second to none. This is, in part, because of the upcoming U.S. elections, which make Democrats and Republicans alike extraordinarily welcoming to the prime minister’s overtures. Notably, on May 31, a bipartisan group of legislators in Washington invited Netanyahu to address Congress in the coming weeks—flying in the face of the administration’s efforts to pressure the Israeli government. Many members of Congress are eager to engage on Israel’s behalf and advance any pieces of Israeli-related legislation that might enhance their electoral prospects. In addition, the mainstream of a well-organized U.S.-Jewish community, together with conservative Christian constituencies and other quarters of the pro-Israeli universe, have fully mobilized to advocate for Israel in its time of extreme need.

Netanyahu hopes to leverage these sources of sympathy within the United States to maximize the military, diplomatic, and economic assistance he can obtain from the Biden administration and minimize its resistance to continuing the war. Although the U.S. public—and particularly Democratic voters—have become more negative toward Israel, a recent poll by the Center for American Political Studies shows that U.S. citizens continue to favor Israel and take its side against Hamas by a four-to-one margin. The prime minister is counting on this plurality to encourage Biden, a self-described Zionist, to continue withstanding pressure to halt Israel’s war in Gaza prematurely.

In implementing this strategy, Netanyahu has a reasonable chance of success in the short term, preventing further White House constraints that could affect the ongoing offensive in Gaza. That outcome could be put in jeopardy, however, if the administration determines that Netanyahu is obstructing progress toward a settlement. But the far greater long-term risk is that open confrontation with a sitting president will further erode what remains of the bipartisan consensus in Washington on Israel, ultimately destroying its working relationship with the United States.

Netanyahu is playing a high-stakes balancing act, gambling that he can flout the Biden administration in his conduct of the war without causing irreparable harm to Israel’s relations with the United States. But this game could fail catastrophically. In May, Biden paused a single shipment of bombs, a measure that the Pentagon attributed to specific qualms about “the impact that they could have in a dense urban setting.” This pause could be only the beginning. Subjected to pushback within his Democratic caucus and amid palpable frustrations over the manner in which Netanyahu has pursued his objectives, Biden could exact supplementary penalties with truly debilitating consequences for Israel. These could include holds on the delivery of additional weapons systems or a decision to not veto UN Security Council resolutions that are harmful to Israel.

A LOSING HAND
Israel stands to lose even if Netanyahu wins his showdown with Biden and gets his way on Gaza. The prime minister’s divisive approach—exemplified by his government’s attempts to ram through a controversial reform of the Israeli judiciary that would significantly limit judicial independence—has damaged Israeli social cohesion. His blessing for a wide exemption from military conscription for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox haredi population—in the face of overwhelming public opposition—is but one trigger that could soon reignite large-scale civil unrest. Beholden to the demands of the right-wing parties keeping his government afloat, Netanyahu has often preferred to embrace paralysis rather than address the urgent questions necessitated by the war and its devastating effects on Israel’s communities and infrastructure.

The prime minister’s penchant for stoking friction with the U.S. government is also not in Israel’s long-term interests. The fallout from his previous clashes with U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama has not been forgotten in Israel or in the United States. Netanyahu’s courtship of Clinton’s political foes in the 1990s and his altercation, two decades later, with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal made Israel toxic within Democratic Party circles, exacerbating trends brought on by the simultaneous rise of the progressive left. Today, unwavering support for Israel has increasingly become an almost exclusively Republican position. Indeed, at present, the White House is under attack from parts of the Democratic base that are contemptuous of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel and Gaza. This split could come to mean that Israel will no longer be able to rely on the United States’ backing irrespective of party.

It would be imprudent, however, for Israel to presume that redemption might come from a second Trump presidency. In February 2017, Netanyahu cautioned the members of his cabinet against excessive enthusiasm about U.S. President Donald Trump, warning that they should take his “personality into account” and not expect to fulfill all their ambitions. In fact, Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran—a move inspired by Netanyahu—resulted in a vacuum that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s findings released on May 11, 2024, has brought Iran only “a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.” Israeli leaders would be wrong to anticipate that Trump will give them a blank check on Gaza. “You have to finish up your war,” Trump informed an Israeli newspaper in March.

CAN’T GO IT ALONE
To avoid a broader collapse of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, it is imperative for Netanyahu to shift course quickly and find ways to work more closely with the Biden administration. That is especially true if, as Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi remarked on May 29, “The fighting in Gaza will continue for at least another seven months.” Going it alone against its adversaries without U.S. support is not a viable strategy for Israel, whose war footing rests on access to foreign munitions and the suppression of international prohibitions on its actions. The United States should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Despite the Biden administration’s increasing reservations about the war, the White House has been extraordinarily attentive to Israel’s predicament. On April 24, Biden authorized an aid package that earmarked $17 billion to augment Israel’s defense capabilities. The next month, the administration notified Congress of its intention to transfer another $1 billion worth of ammunition and tactical vehicles to Israel to enable the IDF to maintain its posture against Hamas and Israel’s other enemies. That funding is crucial. For although the Netanyahu government has initiated efforts to boost production at Israeli defense industries, the country is fated to remain reliant on U.S. military assistance for the foreseeable future. The importance of that relationship was demonstrated on June 8, when four Israeli hostages were rescued from Gaza, in an operation facilitated by U.S. intelligence and logistics.

Israel also needs the United States for diplomatic relief. Washington’s involvement will be essential to crafting a practical transition that prevents Gaza from descending into anarchy. In addition, support from the United States is vital to Israel’s ability to overcome a daunting series of legal challenges surrounding the war. Judges at the International Court of Justice are weighing appeals to halt IDF maneuvers in Gaza, and at the same time, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor is seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant. Reckless statements made by Israeli officials have figured prominently in these proceedings. Here, too, Washington has Israel’s back, and U.S. policymakers have responded by passing legislation in the House of Representatives to sanction the court.

Netanyahu is stoking the flames of polarization to fend off criticism of his leadership.
The United States is still the only reliable bulwark against a possible wave of UN Security Council sanctions against Israel. Washington is also leading the charge on Israel’s side in multilateral forums to assert that direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians—and not unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state—hold the key to progress between the parties. Furthermore, the United States is central to the delicate network of regional alliances—with countries including Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—that protect Israel. These countries’ assistance in shielding Israel from the onslaught of 300 Iranian drones and missiles on April 14 underscored the value of respecting, not defying, U.S. concerns. That alignment provides an indispensable counterweight to Iran and its proxies—one that could become even more important as Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon threatens to devolve into a full-scale war.

Netanyahu’s window of opportunity for mending ties with Washington could soon close, as troubles at home intensify and inhibit his capacity to govern. The announced resignation in April of Aharon Haliva, the head of IDF intelligence, turned up the heat on the prime minister to accept personal responsibility for October 7. On May 15, Gallant, channeling the criticism of many within Israel’s security establishment, assailed Netanyahu’s dysfunctional management of the war in Gaza. Additionally, Netanyahu’s rejection three days later of an ultimatum by Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet, to, among other things, adopt concrete goals for ending the war laid the groundwork for the departure of Gantz’s National Unity faction on June 9 and its return to the opposition.

The prime minister is thus left alone with a slim, hard-line parliamentary majority, whose priorities are often anathema to the Biden administration. Coalition members include the hard-right Jewish Power faction, which froze its commitment to vote with the government until Netanyahu shared the text of the deal he submitted to the mediators. The faction has since suspended its pledge, claiming that the deal appears to be defunct. The haredi parties could soon revolt as well, if Israel’s High Court of Justice meets popular expectations and rules that ultra-Orthodox Jews must be subject to the military draft. Netanyahu’s position was further imperiled on June 6 when Israeli Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara called on the prime minister to establish a state commission of inquiry to investigate the war in Gaza. That probe would almost certainly raise serious doubts about the quality of Netanyahu’s leadership.

BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE
Israel has shifted its position as the IDF’s incursion into Rafah enters its second month. It has done so conscious of the Biden administration’s message that U.S. backing for this operation is conditional on receiving a “credible and implementable plan” from Israel for protecting civilians. Israeli forces have advanced into the center of the city and seized control of the Philadelphi Corridor along the Egyptian-Gazan border. Dozens of tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle weapons, provisions, cash, and other supplies into Gaza have been uncovered and destroyed. At the same time, the IDF has deployed in other parts of Gaza where Hamas has sought to regroup.

By all indications, Israel is being careful to avoid crossing Biden’s redlines. Nearly one million Gazans have been evacuated from the Rafah area to IDF-designated “humanitarian zones.” Israel has also pivoted away from large offensives to more targeted raids. On May 28, White House spokesperson John Kirby reiterated the administration’s objection to a major ground operation in Rafah, suggesting that it “might make [the president] have to make different decisions in terms of support [for Israel].” But at least for now, the United States believes that Israel has heeded this warning. On June 6, Biden told ABC News that although the Israelis had intended “to go into Rafah full bore . . . they haven’t done that.”

Old habits die hard. The prime minister is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on July 24, which could spell disaster for Israel. Many Democrats have said that they will boycott the event, making Netanyahu’s appearance seem to be a partisan affair. Should the prime minister use his speech to attack the Biden administration in the same fashion that he lashed out at Obama in 2015, the consequences could be severe. This is precisely the wrong time for Netanyahu to be thinking about his political supporters—many of whom feel that he should stand up to the United States—instead of Israel’s national security. The situation in the Middle East is becoming more dangerous. Israelis are demanding a response to escalating Hezbollah aggression, and there are mounting concerns about hot spots including the West Bank, Yemen and, especially, Iran. To deal with these, Israel will need the United States’ help. If Netanyahu does not tread carefully, the total victory that Israel scores could be over itself.

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