Humanitarian crisis in Gaza widens divisions between Biden and Netanyahu

The U.S. president has praised Senator Chuck Schumer’s address, which described the Israeli prime minister as an ‘obstacle to peace’

Biden y Netanyahu
U.S. President Joseph Biden hugs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Tel Aviv in October last year.Europa Press/Contacto/Avi Ohayon
Macarena Vidal Liy

“A good speech” that raised the “serious concerns” of “many Americans.” That’s how U.S. President Joe Biden described Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s fiery speech, which called for new elections in Israel and described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as an “obstacle to peace.” The president’s praise of Schumer’s words is the latest sign of his rapidly deteriorating relationship with Netanyahu. Back in October, the two leaders were hugging in Tel Aviv. But after more than five months of war in Gaza, their relationships appear on the verge of a complete breakdown.

After Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,200 people, Biden stood firmly beside Israel — even as the number of Palestinian civilians killed in the Israeli offensive reached the thousands. The U.S. president, who maintains a decades-long relationship with Israel and its leaders, has even described himself as a “Zionist.”

But now “something is changing in the U.S. administration,” said a senior European official during EU High Representative for Foreign Policy High Josep Borrell’s visit to Washington. Biden and the Democratic Party continue to have a close relationship with their ally — “I’m never going to leave Israel,” the president promised a week ago — but they are not hiding the fact that they would like to divorce the prime minister. Netanyahu and Biden have not spoken directly for a month.

The relationship has become deteriorated as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has worsened. More than 31,000 Palestinians have died due to Israeli bombings, medicine and water are lacking, and 2.3 million Gazans are at risk of famine. Meanwhile, talks for a temporary ceasefire remain stalled. In early March, Biden warned that there were “no excuses” for Israel to continue blocking the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The distance between Biden and Netanyahu has also grown as the Democratic rank-and-file have become more opposed to Washington’s position on the war in Gaza. According to an AP survey in January, 62% of Democrat voters believe that the Israeli offensive in Gaza has gone too far, and just over half criticize Biden’s management of the conflict. Dozens of Democrat parliamentarians support a permanent ceasefire, but the White House has limited itself to supporting a temporary pause in the fighting.

In Michigan, the “uncommitted” campaign launched by progressive groups and the Arab-American community to punish Biden for his pro-Israel position secured 100,000 votes, 13.2% of the primary vote. This is in a state where Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020 by just 150,000 votes. The “uncommitted” vote also scored a high percentage in half a dozen other states, from Massachusetts to Washington, serving as a warning to the White House that its pro-Israeli positions could cost it key swing states, and with them, the presidential elections in November. This past Thursday, representatives of the Arab-American community refused to participate in a meeting in Chicago with Biden’s advisors.

In the past two weeks, the White House has sent out a number of signs of its frustration with the Israeli government. Vice President Kamala Harris received Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s political rival, at the White House, accentuating the difference in how the prime minister is treated. In response to Israel’s obstacles to the entry of humanitarian aid by land, which has fallen to a mere trickle, the White House air dropped aid in Gaza and announced the construction of a temporary port. Biden was caught on a hot mike saying that he and Netanyahu will need to have a “come to Jesus meeting.” And in an interview, Biden warned that Netanyahu is “hurting Israel more than helping Israel.”

Schumer’s speech, and Biden’s praise of it, is just the icing on that cake. The senator is the highest-ranking Jew in the American political hierarchy and a pro-Israel hawk, whom no one can call anti-Semitic. His comments open the door for other Democrats to openly criticize the Israeli prime minister and his government.

“Israel is not a banana republic”

In Israel, such criticism has stung. “Israel is not a banana republic,” said Netanyahu’s Likud party after Schumer’s speech. The prime minister, and extremist members of his coalition, insist that, despite U.S. pressure, they are not going to give in on issues such as allowing the Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza after the war, or the need for a two-state solution. When Biden warned that an offensive against the Gazan city of Rafah was a “red line” that should not be crossed, Netanyahu responded that his “red line” was making sure “October 7 doesn’t happen again.”

But, despite the increasingly frosty relations, there are limits to what Biden seems willing to do. Unlike Schumer, he has not called for new elections in Israel. The president has ruled out suspending military aid to Israel — it receives $3.8 billion a year from Washington, which has asked Congress to approve another $14 billion —, even though fellow Democrats have urged him to freeze or condition its release. A dozen Democratic senators are drafting an amendment that will require that U.S. weapons received by a country be used “in accordance with U.S. law,” which would mean limiting collateral damage to civilians.

“If the U.S. does not use its levers for conditioning military assistance, it really does seem [...] like the U.S. Congress is giving a blank check to Israel during a context in which U.S. important policies like the civilian harm reform effort are really being undermined. And that’s going to have an impact on the U.S. strategic interests in the future with other conflicts, not just this one,” said Michelle Strucke, former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Defense, at an event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

But imposing conditions on military aid to Israel would spell trouble for the president. The Democratic administration does not want to create any openings that the Republican Party could take advantage of to present itself as the great, unconditional friend of the Jewish state. Immediately after Schumer’s speech, Republican lawmakers responded with a barrage of criticism. And the president does not want to leave Israel unprotected against possible threats from other fronts, including Hezbollah attacks from Lebanon.

“In the bigger picture, the United States and Israel seem unlikely to abandon their broader regional security strategies, despite these recent divergences,” said Brian Katulis from the Middle East Institute in Washington in an article.

This is unlikely to please Democratic voters. In statements to the MSNBC television network, Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, Michigan — the city with the largest proportion of Arab Americans in the United States — was skeptical about Schumer’s speech and the changes in Biden’s position: “Words are not enough, what we want to see is actual change in policy.”

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