Analysis'There's a divide between what Biden's said and what he does'

US support is firm, but Biden and Netanyahu play dangerous game with two-state fight

Escalating public spat over possibility of a Palestinian state doesn’t help Israeli war effort against Hamas, but for now Biden is holding out against frustrated left flank

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (back) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/ AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (back) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/ AFP)

On the face of it, a dangerous fissure has emerged between the Biden and Netanyahu governments, one that could threaten Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas if it gets any wider.

Though moderate disagreement was evident from the outset of the war, it seems more publicly strident recently, especially around the issue of a two-state solution.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel two weeks ago felt less warm than the previous trips since October 7. He came with a list of demands on Israel, especially around the humanitarian situation in Gaza, few of which could be met.

Netanyahu’s office declined to issue a readout or photos after he met with Blinken, or after the war cabinet met with him, strong evidence that the conversations weren’t as friendly as the Israelis would have liked.

Every time he was in front of a microphone, Blinken stressed that the price of a prized normalization deal with Saudi Arabia had gone up. It can only happen, he said, if Israel agrees to a process that leads to “a pathway to a Palestinian state.”

“I felt the whole thing was tone-deaf,” said Michael Oren, a former ambassador to Washington.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken answers questions during a press conference in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

Blinken raised the pressure on Netanyahu last week in his comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos, saying that Israel would never have genuine integration in the region or security without “a pathway to a Palestinian state.”

He also called the conflict in the Middle East “an inflection point” that demands hard decisions for Israel. “This is a profound decision for the country as a whole to make: What direction does it want to take? Does it see – can it seize – the opportunity that we believe is there?”

The next day, three senior US officials leaked to NBC that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had told Blinken during his visit to Israel that he was not prepared to make a deal that allowed for a Palestinian state. They also said the administration was looking past Netanyahu to try and achieve its goals in the region, with one of them telling the network that the premier “will not be there forever.”

Netanyahu fired back at a press conference he called a day later, positioning himself as the leader standing in the way of a Palestinian state: “Whoever is talking about the ‘day after Netanyahu,’” the prime minister said, “is essentially talking about the establishment of a Palestinian state with the Palestinian Authority.”

File: US President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport, Oct. 18, 2023. (Evan Vucci/AP)

US President Joe Biden and Netanyahu had their first phone call in nearly a month the next day, and Biden told reporters that a two-state solution was actually possible with Netanyahu in office, referencing “types” of state that “don’t have their own militaries.”

The prime minister went out of his way to put out a rare Shabbat statement publicly contradicting the president. “Israel must remain in full security control of the Gaza Strip to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel — and this conflicts with demands for Palestinian sovereignty,” the PMO said Netanyahu had told the president.

Election season

The public spat isn’t evidence that Biden is about to pull the rug out from under Israel’s war effort, or that his goal is confrontation.

A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli bombardment on January 24, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)

“I don’t think Biden wants to be in a crisis with Israel,” said Eldad Shavit, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“On the substance, the position of the Biden Administration has changed very little since October 7,” stressed Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Weapons sales and other aid continues, the US uses its veto power at the UN Security Council, and it is not calling for an end to the campaign to topple Hamas.

A month ago, Channel 12 reported that 244 US transport planes and 20 ships had delivered more than 10,000 tons of armaments and military equipment to Israel since the start of the war. At that point, the Defense Ministry had made NIS 40 billion (almost $2.8 billion) in additional purchases from the US.

A deal for the IDF’s third F-35I squadron from the US is also expected to be signed in the near future.

The public criticism coming from Washington, Pletka therefore argued, has everything to do with Biden’s upcoming election.

A protester calls for a Gaza ceasefire as US President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally to Restore Roe at Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Virginia, on January 23, 2024. (Saul Loeb / AFP)

Biden is lagging in the polls against his likely challenger, the Democrats’ bete noire Donald Trump, who has knocked all but one of his GOP challengers out of the race. RealClearPolitics shows Trump leading Biden in every major survey this month except one, with The Messenger’s poll from this week putting Trump up by seven points nationally.

Biden needs every vote he can get, and progressives, who never trusted him much in the first place, are furious about his firm backing of Israel.

“What’s interesting is how much of the language you’re hearing is signaling to the president’s very angry left flank, very angry Muslim and Arab supporters, that he’s not putting up with Bibi anymore, versus how much of it is real,” she argued. “There is a real divide between what he’s said and what he does.”

That being said, there is pressure on Biden from within his own White House to change course.

US President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the war between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on October 19, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/AFP)

“The administration is not one person,” Oren explained. “It’s thousands of people. And they’re all looking at this President Joe Biden, whose numbers are not good, and they’re saying, are you crazy, you’re jeopardizing our future. You’re jeopardizing our jobs. You keep this up, you get Donald Trump.”

Multiple letters, by everyone from White House interns to political appointees to campaign staffers, have been released to the press since Hamas’s massacre of some 1,200 people and kidnapping of 253 others on October 7 and the subsequent start of the Israel-Hamas war, calling on Biden to push for an end to the conflict and condition aid to the Jewish state on its adherence to US demands.

Palestinian protesters demand an end to the war with Israel and call for the release of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas militant group, in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (AP/Adel Hana)

The White House, then, is perhaps best understood as two entities.

“There is the White House that runs most of the time on its own,” said Pletka. These are the aides who want a change of policy toward Israel, and who are likely leaking to outlets like NBC and the New York Times about rifts between the two countries.

“Then there’s the White House closely controlled by Biden, which focuses on a few narrow issues,” Pletka explained. “Those include Hunter Biden, and those include Israel.”

And Biden, so far, is standing firm against the pressure.

“Biden is, in some respects, one of the most senior American diplomats in history,” said Jonathan Lord, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security program at The Center for A New American Security. “Based off of his political career over a half-century, he has well-developed, strongly held views about Israel.”

What happened on October 7, it impacted Biden deeply.

That conviction only intensified as scenes of Hamas’s rampage in Israeli border communities reached Washington.

“What happened on October 7, it impacted Biden deeply,” Shavit said.

But he could yet crack in the face of the pressure as the election nears.

“He would like to be reelected, his wife would like him to be reelected, the Democratic Party would like him to be reelected,” said Pletka.

British jurist Malcolm Shaw, right, looks on during a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 12, 2024 (AP/Patrick Post)

And if the International Court of Justice in The Hague comes back on Friday with an interim ruling calling on Israel to suspend or curtail its operation, those pushing on Biden to start turning the screws on Israel could well find newfound purchase for their arguments in the Oval Office.

Both power centers in the White House would love to see Netanyahu replaced. But they are only helping him by choosing to fight publicly over a future Palestinian state, argued Lord.

“Talking about the two-state solution may be the only thing that puts wind in Netanyahu’s sails,” he said, “and gives him an inkling of hope to have some sort of political hook to turn around to a shocked and traumatized Israeli people post-October 7 and say, I alone can prevent the Americans from forcing a Palestinian state on us right now.”

“I think to force-feed [a push for statehood] is actually counterproductive to their aims.”

Abstract and in the future

As for Netanyahu, who seems even more eager to go public with the two-state fight, he sees domestic political benefit in telling an Israel that is in no mood to compromise on security that it doesn’t have to worry about another potential Iranian proxy on the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as long as he’s in power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Minister Benny Gantz attend a press conference at the Defense Ministry, in Tel Aviv. December 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

It’s a position with widespread support in Israel, even as many in Washington see it as further evidence of the hardline nature of the current government.

Even President Isaac Herzog, no Netanyahu acolyte and widely accepted in left-leaning circles in Europe and the US, said last week that the idea of a Palestinian state is ridiculous right now.

In Israel, “nobody in his right mind is willing now to think about what will be the solution of the peace agreements,” Herzog said in an interview on the Davos main stage, “because everybody wants to know: Can we be promised real safety in the future?”

“Israel lost trust in the peace processes because they see that terror is glorified by our neighbors,” said Herzog.

President Isaac Herzog speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 18, 2024, alongside a photo of Hamas-held Israeli hostage Kfir Bibas. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

But by playing politics, Netanyahu is making it harder to maintain support in Washington for the war, the successful prosecution of which should be top of mind for Israeli leaders.

“The two-state solution is highly abstract and in the future,” said Oren. “Tell them, okay, we’ll talk about a path to a two-state solution after the war.”

By then, Lord said, many of those squabbling now may well be out of office: “The irony here is that virtually all of the critical actors discussing the future are on short-term contracts, some with a possibility for renewal, others less so.”

Netanyahu, continued Oren, should be focused on “the two most important things — time and space for the IDF to operate. Which means no ceasefire, and ammunition. Those should be our only two considerations right now.”

“We know the Palestinians won’t accept [the terms Israel could potentially offer] anyway,” he added.

Shavit concurred that Biden is not pushing for any firm commitments that Netanyahu cannot wriggle out of after the war.

“The Americans just want some readiness, in principle, to even begin to talk about a two-state solution,” he said.

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