Gaza war brings relations between Biden and Netanyahu to their lowest point

The U.S. abstention at the U.N. Security Council, which made possible the first ceasefire resolution in six months of war, strains the ties between the two traditional allies like never before

President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 18 in Tel Aviv during the former's visit to Israel.Evelyn Hockstein (REUTERS)

The United States abstention at the vote on a resolution for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on Monday, rather than the veto that Israel had requested, has definitively pitted the traditional allies against each other after weeks of spiraling tension and discord. These growing differences have been evident on the U.S. side through the telephone clashes between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and through the criticism of the latter recently voiced by Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, who called the Israeli prime minister an “obstacle to peace.” On the Israeli side, anger was manifested on Monday with the cancellation of a scheduled visit to Washington by a high-level delegation to discuss the announced ground offensive on Rafah, which the United States openly opposes.

The White House considers that the turning point in the bilateral relationship is due to internal political reasons, according to statements by three senior U.S. officials to the Axios news site, but if Israeli nervousness is of a domestic nature, the same could be said of the White House’s change in position in recent weeks: the Democratic administration is now capable of quantifying in votes the cost of unconditional, seamless support for Israel such as it showed in the first months of the war. The tens of thousands of punitive votes that Biden garnered at the Democratic primaries from voters willing not to support him in November if he does not distance himself from Israel, have been enough for him to back down, allowing the passage of a resolution that the United Nations itself called historic, even though it was adopted after six months of war.

Faced with Israeli anger, the United States tried to qualify its position, entangling itself in a web of terminology that convinced no one. The ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and the White House spokesman, John Kirby, stressed that the resolution was not binding, in contrast to the opinion of other members of the Council and numerous experts for whom the text is indeed binding (the resolutions adopted by the Council are considered international law and carry considerable political and legal weight; it is another matter whether they can be applied to the letter). On Washington’s part, it was more of a diplomatic feint to sustain its vote and, at the same time, not to burn all bridges with Israel.

What surprised Washington is the fact that Israel aired the differences on Monday with the resounding slam of the door in the form of the cancelled trip to Washington by two of Netanyahu’s closest advisors.

Disputes and differences

It is not the first time that both partners differ on sensitive issues. In 2010, Joe Biden, then serving as vice president to Barack Obama, traveled to Tel Aviv to try to talk Netanyahu into a temporary halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to promote a peace dialogue with the Palestinians. He was met on arrival with a slap in the face: the announcement of the construction of 1,600 new houses in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu hastily issued a statement to clarify that he was unaware of the project, but the mood of the visit changed.

This rudeness to Biden, who usually presents himself as Israel’s main ally — he did so during his visit to the country in the first days of the war; also in his last speech on the State of the Union — is on the list of frustrations that the relationship with Netanyahu left in Obama, with whom he coincided in power during the latter’s eight years in the White House (2009-2017). The relationship was so bad that at their last bilateral meeting, both men found it difficult to force a smile and joke about golf. Even more so when Netanyahu had made such a provocative gesture as taking advantage of the fact that the Republicans controlled the U.S. House of Representatives to give a speech encouraging them to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran promoted by the White House.

In 2016, his last year in the White House, Obama left behind a great military aid plan for Israel for the next 10 years, but also — when the polls had already given victory to Donald Trump — a final message to Netanyahu in the form now also chosen by Biden: an abstention in a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the settlements.

After almost six months of war in which the United States has not stopped vetoing ceasefire resolutions and providing abundant weapons and financing to its great ally in the Middle East, its U.N. Security Council abstention on Monday represented a symbolic slap on the wrist. According to Shmuel Rosner, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations and a senior researcher at the Jewish People Policy Institute, the abstention was a punitive action aimed at demonstrating their discontent with the Israeli government. It was also a warning, he says: Americans made too many attempts to contain Israel, to convince it to introduce more humanitarian aid, to force it to discuss the “morning after plan.” “Too many attempts that were met with a somewhat dismissive shrug,” he writes in TheMadad, based in Jerusalem.

The importance of the Jewish vote

The United States has used its veto power 45 times to benefit Israel since the 1970s. During the Gaza war, it has done so three times. Biden, however, has not gone as far as Obama did in 2014, during a much shorter, less bloody offensive in Gaza and in which Israel did not use hunger as a weapon of war. Back then, Obama stopped a supply of Hellfire missiles for helicopters, due to the number of civilian casualties. Previous administrations also stopped arms deliveries, such as in the 1970s, when Israel rejected a peace proposal with Egypt, or a decade later, after the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

There is a common territory between both allies: Jewish voters in the United States, many of them with direct ties to Israel. These play a determining role both in campaign fundraising and in the box marked on the ballots, placing whichever party is in the White House in a position where it needs to strike a balance between its traditional support for Israel and satisfying the voters who reject this support. This difficult balance applies to President Biden, but also to members of Congress like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both from the most progressive faction of the Democratic Party, who are being pushed by their voters to speak out unequivocally about the massacres of civilians in Gaza. It was not until last Friday when the representative for New York described what is happening in Gaza as a genocide. “If you want to know what an unfolding genocide looks like, open your eyes,” she said on the House floor. “It looks like the forced famine of 1.1 million innocents. It looks like thousands of children eating grass as their bodies consume themselves, while trucks of food are slowed and halted just miles away.”

In Israel, Netanyahu’s indignation has an air of choreography about it. If he has been repeating almost daily for weeks (both in Hebrew and in English) that his army will invade Rafah (“alone or with the help of the United States,” as he stressed on Friday) it is precisely because it contributes to cementing his image as a strong leader who is willing to sacrifice himself in the face of external pressures to defend his only concern: the security of Israel. It is a kind of flight forward at a time when his political survival depends on remaining in power and prolonging the war. He claims that holding elections earlier would be “a gift to Hamas.” In a similar way, he also defined the U.S. abstention on Monday as a betrayal.

Netanyahu’s controversial electoral reform had already affected his popularity, but all polls since the October 7 attack put him out of power. The last one, published two weeks ago by television channel 12, is just as clear: his party, the Likud, would fall from 32 to 18 lawmakers and the bloc that supported him before the war would obtain just 44 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst on Israel at the International Crisis Group think tank, pointed this out on her X social networking account: “Israel is entirely dependent on the U.S. for restocking its weapon supplies. It cannot operate in Rafah without U.S. coordination. Everything Netanyahu is saying/doing is grandstanding for his own political survival. Including cancelling Israeli delegation to DC now.”

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