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Biden and Netanyahu clash openly over Gaza for the first time in over two months of war

The U.S. president said Israel must change its government and warned that the country is ‘starting to lose support’ over its ‘indiscriminate’ bombing of Gaza

Biden Netanyahu Guerra Israel Gaza
United States President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

Four days after the United States again saved Israel from a binding resolution at the U.N. calling for a ceasefire, the differences between the two allies over the war in Gaza have been laid bare for the first time since the conflict began on October 7. The rift in relations, which had previously been contained behind closed doors, was made public by both President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This Tuesday, in Washington, Biden said that Netanyahu must change his hard-line government because “it is the most conservative in Israel’s history” and it is “making it very difficult for [the prime minister] to move” because his government “doesn’t want a two-state solution” to the Palestine-Israel conflict. “You cannot say no [to a] Palestinian state… That’s going to be the hard part,” the U.S. president added. Biden also warned that Israel is “starting to lose support” over its “indiscriminate” bombing of Gaza, which have killed more than 18,000 people, more than two-thirds of them children and women.

“Israel’s security can rest on the United States, but right now it has more than the United States. It has the European Union, it has Europe, it has most of the world… But they’re starting to lose that support by indiscriminate bombing that takes place,” Biden said at a re-election fundraising event.

The remarks were, by far, Biden’s harshest words on the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Until now, the U.S. president had limited himself to reiterating that Israel has the “right and obligation” to finish off Hamas to ensure that an attack like the one that took place on October 7 — which left 1,200 people dead and over 200 kidnapped — can never occur again. Thus, Biden had closed ranks around Netanyahu in a way that stood out, especially considering previous tensions between the two leaders, mainly over the prime minister’s controversial judicial reform.

Shortly before Biden spoke, Netanyahu had already publicly acknowledged that Tel Aviv and Washington are not completely on the same page. The prime minister issued an unprecedented statement in which it conceded that while Israel had received “full backing” from the U.S. for its ground incursion into Gaza, there “is disagreement about ‘the day after Hamas,’” i.e., who will fill the power vacuum that will be left after the Palestinian militia is overthrown. Netanyahu also said in Tuesday’s statement he would “not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo,” the 1990s peace accords that created the Palestinian Authority (PA) as part of negotiations for the creation of a potential Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Repeating the “mistake of Oslo” would consist of leaving the administration of Gaza in the hands of the PA, as it would be entitled to do under these agreements. Netanyahu opposed Oslo at the time, but ended up signing agreements to implement it after winning the 1996 elections, a year after a radical Israeli ultranationalist assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who sealed the pact with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The PA has not been in Gaza since 2007. It was expelled by Hamas forces at a time of particular rivalry with Fatah, the faction that forms the backbone of the PA government in the West Bank and which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas. The Islamists considered that he was part of an international plot to annul their electoral victory a year earlier. The two territories have since been left with parallel governments, each claiming to be legitimate and signing their documents as the PA. The international community boycotted the Gaza government and maintained Abbas’s government in the West Bank as a valid interlocutor.

Now, the White House wants the PA to return to Gaza after the war, but Netanyahu objects. “I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate terrorism, support terrorism and finance terrorism,” Netanyahu said. The prime minister’s remarks echo a widespread idea among those opposed to a peace agreement: that Palestinian violence is not linked to the Israeli military occupation, but rather it is nourished by an education based on hatred of Jews and by the financial support received by the families of martyrs (those killed in the conflict with Israel, regardless of whether they were armed actors or not), who motivate others to join in the resistance.

Netanyahu concludes the communiqué with another idea — “Gaza will be neither Hamas-stan nor Fatah-stan” — often advocated by the far-right members of his coalition government: the minimization of the differences between the two factions. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has gone so far as to say that Hamas is “an asset” and the PNA, “a burden”, because no one expects Israel to negotiate peace with the former, but it does with the latter. The United States and the rest of the international community advocate instead strengthening the moderates, such as Abbas, against the extremists (Hamas). In complaining about the Israeli government, Biden actually mentioned by name another controversial ultranationalist minister: Itamar Ben Gvir.

The scuffle comes as Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, prepares to visit the region. At a forum organized by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Sullivan assured that in his meetings with Israeli authorities he will address how much longer the conflict could last.

“On the verge of collapse”

Even though Israel assures that Hamas is nearly wiped out, Israeli forces have implied that the current phase of the war — with intense attacks by land, sea and air — will continue for at least several weeks. Hamas “is on the verge of collapse,” Israel’s Defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said Monday night, even as heavy fighting rages on fronts across the Gaza Strip. The southern city of Khan Yunis is currently the scene of an intense battle that will keep the troops occupied for three to four weeks, according to a senior defense official quoted by the local press. Moreover, sources add, a similar period of time would be needed to complete the war against Hamas.

There are tens of thousands of Israeli army troops currently inside the Gaza Strip. Military spokesmen announce daily small achievements: the destruction of tunnels, the seizure of weapons and ammunition, and the death of some Hamas members. But none of the militia’s top leaders have been killed, despite 67 days of relentless bombardment.

Israel announced Tuesday that 13 of its military personnel were killed in Gaza by friendly fire. That’s more than 10% of the 104 Israeli soldiers that have been killed since the Gaza ground incursion began in late October. Guillermo Pulido, defense security analyst for the Ejércitos (Armies) magazine, believes Israel has suffered few casualties in its ranks, given the intensity of the operation over more than two months.

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