Israel war shelves White House’s criticism of Netanyahu’s government over judicial reform

Republicans have accused the Biden administration of indirectly financing the Hamas offensive through the unfreezing of funds to Iran in prisoner swap deal

María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken appear before the media Saturday at the White House following the Hamas attack on Israel.Yuri Gripas / POOL (EFE)

The outbreak of hostilities in Israel could not have come at a worse time for Washington, which is embroiled in a serious institutional crisis in Congress following the dismissal of the Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy by his Republican co-religionists, while the threat of an administrative shutdown looms if the brief extension agreed upon a week ago expires without an agreement to approve the federal government’s spending plans for the recently begun fiscal year. Any supplementary aid from Washington to Israel, like that for Ukraine, may be hampered by the political and institutional impasse. The example of aid to Kyiv, which was ignored in the extension and has been criticized by Republicans, is on everyone’s mind.

Nevertheless, President Joe Biden informed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that military backing will be provided. “Additional assistance for the Israeli Defense Forces is now on its way to Israel with more to follow over the coming days,” the White House said in a statement.

Washington will send ships and military aircraft to Israel as security reinforcements, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed, in addition to providing ammunition to the Israel Defense Forces (IFD). The Pentagon has given the order to move a carrier strike group deployed in the Mediterranean, which includes the USS Gerald R. Ford, the world’s largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, with support ships, closer to Israel’s coast. “I have directed the movement of the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean,” Austin said. The deployment will also occasionally serve to evacuate U.S. citizens.

On the presence of Americans among the casualties of the war, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has confirmed his department is attempting to identify several people reported killed in the attack, as well as others listed as missing. “We have reports that several Americans were killed. We’re working overtime to verify that. At the same time, there are reports of missing Americans and there again, we’re working to verify those reports,” he told CNN. According to preliminary reports, at least four U.S. citizens were killed in the Hamas offensive against Israel. A spokesman for the National Security Council confirmed late Sunday that “several” had been killed, without specifying the number.

While putting Congress under extraordinary pressure due to the power vacuum on Capitol Hill, the open war between Israel and Hamas has contributed to shortening the existing distance between Joe Biden’s White House and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Despite Washington’s express criticism of the Israeli Prime Minister over his controversial judicial reform and the planned expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank — an erosion in its view of democratic values and international legality — the Biden administration closed ranks Saturday to defend Israel’s right to security: Biden conveyed his “full support” in a telephone conversation with Netanyahu. This is nothing new, but serves as confirmation that Washington’s unwavering backing is the policy adhered to, without exception, by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The presence of significant Jewish communities in the U.S. — New York has the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel — and the role of the powerful lobbies that represent them, albeit with diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, act as a lever on Washington with regard to safeguarding the security and defense of the Hebrew State.

Biden and Netanyahu brought their positions closer in New York in September, at a bilateral meeting during the U.N. General Assembly. The fact that the encounter was not held at the White House was already a sign from the U.S. president: since he resumed power last December, Netanyahu has not yet visited the Oval Office, the obligatory destination for Israeli leaders whenever there is a change of administration in the United States. However, to oil the wheels of the meeting at a Manhattan hotel, Biden let slip that he hoped to be able to meet Netanyahu in Washington “before the end of the year.” Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose role is more ceremonial, has been received at the White House.

The timeframe suggested by Biden could now perhaps be extended because of the war in Israel and the dual crisis in the U.S. The situation in Israel and Washington’s interlocution have also become political ammunition for the 2024 election campaign, with the primaries looming. Republicans have attacked Biden’s handling of the Middle East crisis. “Iran has helped fund this war against Israel and Joe Biden’s policies that have gone easy on Iran have helped fill their coffers. Israel is now paying the price for those policies,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is competing with Donald Trump for his party’s presidential nomination, said Saturday.

DeSantis was referring to the prisoner swap deal the Biden administration reached with Iran last month. Under the pact, the United States relieved sanctions imposed on Tehran, issuing a blanket waiver for international banks to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds from South Korea to Qatar, a prerequisite for the swap. Adrienne Watson, a National Security Council spokesperson, rejected DeSantis’ accusation, stating that not one cent of the $6 billion unblocked has yet been spent, and that the money will be used exclusively for humanitarian purposes.

The Abraham Accords

Like DeSantis, Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination — his lead last week stood at 40 points —, has also placed responsibility for the Hamas offensive on Democratic policy, enshrining a new Republican casus belli against Biden. “Sadly, American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks, which many reports are saying came from the Biden administration,” Trump said in a statement. “We brought so much peace to the Middle East through the Abraham Accords, only to see Biden whittle it away at a far more rapid pace than anyone thought possible. Here we go again.” The Abraham Accords, Trump’s legacy in the region, almost definitively cornered the two-state solution backed by the majority of the international community and led to the normalization of relations between several Arab countries — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco — and Israel. A regional alliance against Iran was thus forged, which the planned Washington-sponsored agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia should in principle enshrine.

Trump did not pass up the opportunity to lash out at the Democratic administration, claiming that the Hamas attacks on Israel are the result of the “weakness and ineffectiveness” that in his view the U.S. conveys. “The Israeli attack was made because we are perceived as being weak and ineffective and with a really weak leader [Biden]” the former president said Saturday at a campaign rally in Waterloo, Iowa.

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