Middle East Crisis: Domestic Politics Drive Divisions Between Biden and Netanyahu

Middle East Crisis: Domestic Politics Drive Divisions Between Biden and Netanyahu

Relations between President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel appear to have sunk to a new low, with both men pressed hard by domestic politics and looming elections.

Mr. Biden is facing outrage from his own supporters and global allies about the toll of civilian deaths in the war against Hamas and Israel’s seeming reluctance to allow into Gaza adequate amounts of food and medicine. On Monday, Mr. Biden chose to allow a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza to pass, abstaining from the vote rather than vetoing the measure as the United States had done in the past.

In response, Mr. Netanyahu, who is trying to keep his own far-right coalition government in power, called off a planned high-level delegation to Washington for meetings with U.S. officials to discuss alternatives to a planned Israeli offensive into Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than a million people have sought refuge.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, allowed his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, to remain in Washington for talks.

Mr. Netanyahu is also facing sharp criticism from his far-right coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, over any indication that he is hesitating in the war against Hamas or in the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. They are also deeply divided over proposed legislation that could end up drafting more ultra-Orthodox Israelis, known as haredim, into the military.

Nadav Shtrauchler, a political strategist who previously worked with Mr. Netanyahu, said the prime minister was seeking to embody a central narrative: “We must stand strong, even against the United States, and I am the man with the backbone to do that.”

Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right partners have made increasingly bellicose remarks criticizing the Biden administration. In a recent interview, Mr. Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, accused Mr. Biden of tacitly supporting Israel’s enemies.

“Presently, Biden prefers the line of Rashida Tlaib and Sinwar to the line of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir,” said Mr. Ben-Gvir, referring to the progressive Palestinian American member of the U.S. Congress and to Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar. “I would have expected the president of the United States not to take their line, but rather to take ours,” he added.

By seeking to pressure Israel, President Biden was “enormously mistaken,” Mr. Ben-Gvir said, adding that Biden “constantly sought to impose restrictions on Israel and talks about the rights of the other side, who include, I remind you, many terrorists who want to destroy us.”

Should Mr. Ben-Gvir and Mr. Smotrich leave the government, it would force early Israeli elections. That is precisely what Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, called for in a recent speech, in which he said Mr. Netanyahu was an impediment to peace. Mr. Biden called it “a good speech” without endorsing the call for new elections.

Mr. Biden’s action on the Security Council resolution appears to be more political than substantive, and his own officials insist that American policy has not changed. The U.N. abstention does not alter American support for Israel, nor does it reduce the supply of American weapons going to Israel. It does not amount to an American veto of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Rafah, though it does underscore American and allied concern that Israel first come up with a detailed plan to spare the civilians hunkering down there.

The United States also is continuing to work with Israel and Arab allies in an attempt to broker a temporary cease-fire in Gaza in return for the release by Hamas of Israeli hostages, an Israeli goal.

Washington hopes to turn a temporary truce into a longer-term cessation of hostilities that could allow serious talks on how Gaza can be governed and rebuilt while protecting Israeli security. But that is a battle yet to be fought, especially as talks on a temporary cease-fire drag on.

Mr. Netanyahu has a history of using his arguments with American presidents — including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — to bolster his own domestic political standing, seeking to show that he is Israel’s best defense against outside pressure for concessions on relations with the Palestinians, or even on a now-faded deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But Mr. Biden is far more popular in Israel than Mr. Obama was and a serious break with Washington would deeply undermine Israel’s security and its future.

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.

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