After cautious criticism by Biden, Netanyahu rallies Israel’s right wing

In World

JERUSALEM — The relationship between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has oscillated between bitterness and bear hugs since Netanyahu regained power a year ago.

Biden at first denied his longtime frenemy the traditional phone calls and White House visits to express displeasure over Netanyahu’s push to overhaul Israel’s judiciary. But after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, he fully embraced the traumatized country, its war aims and its leader.

Now, as Israel’s devastating war in Gaza enters its third month, the bitterness is creeping back.

Biden says ‘indiscriminate bombing’ in Gaza is costing Israel support

Biden, in his strongest terms yet, echoed growing criticism over the staggering collateral damage from Israel’s military assault on Hamas: more than 18,000 Gazans killed and an unprecedented humanitarian collapse.

Further, the president criticized Netanyahu personally for “indiscriminate bombing” that was eroding Israel’s international support, arguing that the prime minister was beholden to the most radical members of his right-wing government.

“Bibi’s got a tough decision to make,” said Biden, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, at a Washington fundraiser Tuesday. “I think he has to change, and this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move.”

Netanyahu responded with a quickly produced video, expressly rejecting one of the president’s own key proposals: that the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority be revitalized to take over governing Gaza after the war. Netanyahu has recently signaled his intention to keep Israeli troops in Gaza indefinitely.

“I wish to clarify my position — I won’t allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo,” he said, referring to the 1993 Oslo accords that were meant to create a historic road map to peace between Israelis and Palestinians and allowed limited Palestinian self-rule. The agreement is loathed by Israel’s right wing.

“I won’t allow, after the immense sacrifice made by our citizens and fighters, for us to put in Gaza people who teach terrorism, support terrorism, finance terrorism,” he said.

After releases, an invisible divide separates Israel’s hostage families

The spat was cheered by Netanyahu’s supporters, who dismiss any calls from Biden or other leaders to pull back from the military assault on Gaza until Hamas has been wiped out as a fighting force. Some of Netanyahu’s more radical allies, including Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, have endorsed fringe calls for Israel to resettle Gaza forever.

Although Ben Gvir and political partner and fellow settler leader Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, have been excluded from the emergency war cabinet that is making security decisions, the two have kept pressure on Netanyahu to hew to the right. The two led an effort this week to vote down moves to allow farm and construction workers from the West Bank to enter Israel for the first time since Oct. 7.

“This is a different group,” Biden said Tuesday. “Ben Gvir and company and the new folks, they don’t want anything remotely approaching a two-state solution.”

Critics accused the prime minister of trying to shore up his base at the risk of straining relations with Israel’s most critical ally at a key point in the war. Netanyahu has plummeted in the polls since the surprise Hamas rampage that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel.

More than two-thirds of Israelis say they expect Netanyahu to take responsibility for failing to prevent the attacks and, when the war has ended, to leave office. Israeli media is full of reports of defections brewing inside the prime minister’s Likud party.

“Israel Is at War, and Netanyahu Just Launched His Re-election Campaign,” was the headline of an analysis by Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz Tuesday.

Even some supporters rebuffed the prime minister.

“We are at war here,” Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s onetime ambassador to the United States, said in an interview Wednesday. “This is not the time to be political.”

Biden is standing in increasing isolation for his full-throated commitment to Israel’s objective of eliminating Hamas, even as calls for a general cease-fire have grown around the world. On Friday, the United States vetoed a cease-fire resolution in the United Nations Security Council. Tuesday, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelming cast a nonbinding vote in favor of the same proposal.

“The only thing standing between us and an internationally imposed cease-fire is the president of the United States,” Oren said. “I cannot for the life me discern a national strategic interest in coming out against the P.A. [Palestinian Authority].”

Biden used the bulk of his remarks to reaffirm Israel’s right defend itself against Hamas, and Oren said he did not think the spat would shake Biden’s commitment to Israel’s war aims.

“But it doesn’t help,” he said.

The relationship is clearly growing more complicated as Israelis chafe against calls to dial back the Gaza campaign.

A billboard with Biden’s picture that hung for weeks across from the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Jerusalem reading “Thank you Mr. President” was replaced last week with a poster of Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who grilled three university presidents over antisemitism on campus.

Criticism of Biden is growing in Israel but is still leavened with gratitude.

“We respect and cherish the President of the United States,” said Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi in a post on X. “But we live here … There will be no Palestinian state here. We will never go back to Oslo.”

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, meanwhile, issued a statement Wednesday that any cease-fire would be a “gift” to Hamas. “Israel will continue the war against Hamas with or without international support.”

The price of that war was put in stark relief after the announcement Wednesday of one of the biggest days of casualties for Israel’s forces fighting in Gaza, with 10 soldiers reported killed the day before, including a high-ranking officer in the elite Golani Brigade. More than 100 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the ground invasion of Gaza began on Oct. 27.

For Netanyahu, there may be no domestic downside to dismissing the Palestinian leadership or any notion that an independent Palestine is even remotely possible. He has worked to sideline the possibility for years, pursuing policies that split Palestinians between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. His most radical allies are more vocal, but their aims and his are largely in sync, critics say.

In the general public, it had been years since the two-state solution was seen as much more than an artifact of long moribund peace negotiations, by Israelis or Palestinians. Now the idea is met with even more suspicion in Israel, making it easy for Netanyahu to seize upon it to shore up support.

That has been working for him for years, according to Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“Netanyahu started his career a generation ago building on the fears of the Israeli public against the Oslo process and the P.A.,” Plesner said. “Thirty years later, the theme is not very different. Right now, Israelis fear that when Palestinians have control over territory, it ends with Israelis being murdered and massacred.”

Read More: After cautious criticism by Biden, Netanyahu rallies Israel’s right wing

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