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Gaza war pushes US-Israel relations to ‘unprecedented low point’

Netanyahu’s decision to ignore Washington’s warnings on invading Rafah has placed Biden in an increasingly complicated situation ahead of the November election

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
Displaced Palestinians prepare to flee Rafah, southern Gaza, following an Israeli evacuation order, on May 11, 2024.HAITHAM IMAD (EFE)

U.S. support for Israel during the Gaza war has become increasingly difficult. Standing between the allies are the nearly 35,000 Palestinian deaths and criticism of Israel’s handling of a conflict that is advancing into its eighth month. Ahead of the November presidential elections, the United States has ended up becoming another theater of that war, even though it is thousands of miles from the Middle East battle front.

The complicated relationship between U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seen several scuffles in recent weeks. The Israeli leader is determined to continue with his strategy, which prioritizes military goals over humanitarian objectives such as freeing the hostages or safeguarding Gazan civilians. On Saturday, the Jewish state ordered a new round of forced evacuations in the Gaza Strip, orders that are illegal under international law. Although the differences between the U.S. and Israel are the widest they have ever been, no one expects the two countries to totally break relations: they need one another.

In October, on the eve of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, Biden hugged Netanyahu in Israel. Just a few months later, at a private event in February, he called him an “asshole,” according to a report by the NBC television network. Now, Netanyahu’s decision to complete the total land occupation of the Gaza Strip despite international objections has strained relations even further.

“Relations are at historic lows,” says Itamar Eichner, diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “The dismal relations between Israel and the U.S. began long before October 7, but it seems we have now reached an unprecedented low point with the public statements” by Biden, he argues, in reference to the U.S. president’s warning that Washington would pause weapons shipments to Israel if it invades Rafah.

“If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities,” Biden said on Wednesday in an interview with CNN, where he gave his sharpest criticism of the Israeli strategy since the war began in October. Some experts have described the comment as “seismic” in scope.

According to Eicher, it was “the first time the U.S. has publicly threatened Israel.” He argues that Biden made this statement because “Israel openly mocks the U.S.” by refusing to heed its warning against invading Rafah, where 1.5 million people are living in deplorable conditions.

Biden has tried to maintain a complicated balancing act between supporting his ally and dealing with pressure from the progressive wing of the Democrat Party and the pro-Palestinian university protests, which demand an immediate ceasefire. But Israel’s insistence on invading Rafah exhausted his patience.

Biden’s warning that the U.S. would stop supplying Israel with weapons came hours after the Pentagon confirmed that it had paused a shipment of 1,800 900-kilogram bombs and 1,700 225-kilogram bombs.

Netanyahu’s response was defiant: “If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone. If we need to, we will fight with our fingernails,” he said Thursday, on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day. “During the War of Independence 76 years ago, we were few against many. We had no weapons, there was an arms embargo on Israel, but with the strength of the soul, the bravery and the unity within us — we won,” he added, without explicitly mentioning Biden.

But his response was met with another blow from the U.S. A long-awaited report from the U.S. State Department said that it is “reasonable to assess” that weapons provided to Israel have been used in Gaza in ways that violate international human rights law. The report comes as the war enters its eighth month and the death toll of Palestinians rises to nearly 35,000, around 70% of whom are women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas.

But the document was only meant as a warning. The same report, ordered by Biden in February, states that it was difficult to “reach firm conclusions” about specific incidents, adding that the violations were only “likely” not proven to have happened. On the other hand, it argues that Israel has provided “credible and reliable” guarantees it would use the U.S.-sent weapons in accordance with international law, which is why it allows the shipment of these arsenals to continue.

And both Biden and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin insist that the United States continues to supporting Israel. The head of the Pentagon said the shipment had been paused because “it’s about having the right kinds of weapons for the task at hand” and the United States wanted to see Israel develop more precise operations. “A small diameter bomb, which is a precision weapon, that’s very useful in a dense, built-up environment,” he said, “but maybe not so much a 2,000-pound bomb that could create a lot of collateral damage.”

If Israel is dragged into a military operation in Rafah, it “will worsen its position within the international community,” writes Israeli Kobi Michael in an analysis published last week by the Institute for the Study of National Security (INSS). “The Hamas leadership is in a win-win strategic comfort zone, where they stand to benefit whether a more convenient deal for Hamas is imposed on Israel due to American and Egyptian pressures alongside domestic pressures, fueled by a well-oiled and effective cognitive campaign by Hamas and its allies (Iran and Russia).”

This is not the first time that the United States and Israel have clashed on sensitive issues. Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan also paused the flow of weapons to Israel in 1982 to force the then Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, to stop bombing Lebanon. And Biden himself, when he was vice president in the Obama administration, also had a tense moment with Netanyahu. In 2011, he 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. Obama and Netanyahu always maintained a relationship that was distant at best.

But regardless of the public spats, both governments know that there is a limit to how far they can go. Israel urgently requires weapons and support from Washington, as evidenced by the Iranian drone and missile attack last month; while the U.S. government needs Israel’s support in the Middle East, and cannot afford to alienate the influential Jewish community at home. Nor can it afford, six months before the November elections, to open itself to more criticism from the Republican Party, which accuses the White House of betraying its ally. Then there is the personal position of Biden, a politician with genuinely pro-Israel leanings.

Each side is carefully measuring its next steps. Biden has said that a major attack on Rafah would be a “red line,” so Israel is developing its offensive in the Gazan city cautiously. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to send weapons to Israel. “They’re still getting the vast, vast majority of everything that they need to defend themselves,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday. And it also continues to back Israel in every measure on the Gaza war that is debated in the U.N., be it in the Security Council or in the General Assembly.

“The U.S.-Israel relationship has become so institutionalized that it can work at other levels despite the fact that two leaders can’t stand to be in the same room with each other,” says Steve Cook, from the Council on Foreign Relations analysis center, in a talk with journalists. “The relationship is deep at the institutional level, so there are still ways to conduct business.”

At the same time, Cook acknowledges that there has been a shift. “Politics of the U.S.-Israel relationship in the United States is changing. And I think that you see that in sharp relief in kind of open discussions within the Democratic Party about conditioning aid to Israel, cutting off aid to Israel, sanctioning people in Israel,” he says. “There is certainly a greater willingness to air these kinds of concerns in ways and talk about policies or look for policies that, for lack of a more diplomatic word, that are punitive towards the Israelis.”

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