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Why Biden and Bibi Are Tangling, and Why Biden Could Win

In this feud, a desperate Netanyahu has much to lose, and Biden has very little to lose by confronting him.

Biden and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv
Biden and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, on October 18, 2023

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu aren’t getting along—and they want to make sure the world knows it. President Biden went on MSNBC to tell an interviewer that Israel’s prime minister “is hurting Israel more than helping.” Via Politico, Netanyahu answered first with faux incomprehension that he didn’t know “exactly what the president meant,” then angrily declared that Israelis wouldn’t let anyone “ram down our throats a Palestinian state.”

In fact, what Biden wants is clear. It starts with an immediate change in Israel’s tactics to dramatically reduce civilian deaths in Gaza and continues to a day-after-the-war diplomatic process aimed at Palestinian statehood.

What’s more interesting is why both Biden and Netanyahu have chosen to make the dispute so public. For Netanyahu, the question is acute: Why risk a schism with Israel’s superpower patron, and with a president who has so fully supported Israel during the current war?

On Biden’s side, the easy answer was supplied by his MSNBC interviewer, Jonathan Capehart: The president faces a tough election, and parts of his electorate—especially Muslim voters in the swing state of Michigan—are furious with him for arming Israel. So Biden is pivoting: air-dropping aid to Gaza and insisting that Israel not carry the battle into Rafah, where most of Gaza’s displaced population is now huddled. Reversing a political cliché, Biden now needs lots of daylight between America and Israel.

The horse-race explanation, however, is too simplistic. Recall that the clash between the two men dates to the formation of Netanyahu’s current extreme government and its push to concentrate power in the ruling party’s hands. “They cannot continue down this road,” Biden said of Netanyahu’s plans for crippling judicial review of government actions. After months of pointedly refusing to invite Netanyahu to visit, Biden finally met Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly—not at the White House.

After Hamas’s brutal attack on October 7, Biden prioritized his commitment to Israel’s security over his distaste for its leader. But Netanyahu has done nothing to make the truce last. When Biden told Capehart, “It’s contrary to what Israel stands for,” he was referring specifically to the death toll in Gaza. Arguably, though, the comment expressed Biden’s larger view: Netanyahu’s rule in Israel is a political mishap, an aberration from the Israel that the president supports.

Biden is pushing for more than an immediate change in Israeli tactics. His postwar diplomatic goals include, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said, a “timebound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state living ... in peace with Israel.” This defies another cliché about U.S.-Israel relations: that America “can’t want peace more than the parties themselves,” as Thomas Friedman wrote back in 2010.

Historically, the cliché ceases being true when Israeli-Arab conflict becomes a strategic danger for the United States. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War nearly led to a U.S.-Soviet showdown, for instance, Washington plunged into peacemaking. U.S. pressure on Israel peaked with the Ford administration’s 1975 “reassessment” of ties with Israel. That led to the second Israel-Egypt disengagement accord, a crucial stepping stone to the eventual peace agreement.

The current conflict includes not only the war in Gaza but also the slow-burning fighting with Hezbollah on Israel’s north and the Houthi attacks on shipping. Escalation with Iran’s proxies could lead to direct conflict between the United States and Iran. Given the strategic stakes, America can definitely want peace more than an irresponsible Israeli government does. Biden’s comments are a bid to tell the Israeli public that Netanyahu’s intransigence is causing a dangerous rift with the United States. Israeli media have in fact covered Biden’s dissatisfaction extensively.

If there were any questions in Israel about the seriousness of the split, Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s blast at Netanyahu on Thursday erased the doubts. Speaking on the Senate floor, Schumer said he believed that “Netanyahu has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.” The New York senator, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the U.S., added that the “Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7,” and Israelis needed the opportunity to go to the polls.

Given Israel’s dependence on the U.S.—not least for arms—Netanyahu might be expected to look for compromise. Instead, he is defiant.

He has his reasons. The first is ideological. Biden wants to reunite Gaza and the West Bank on the way to a two-state agreement. If Netanyahu has held one consistent political principle in his long career, it’s been opposition to Palestinian statehood. And he has treated the split between Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as a valuable obstacle to a two-state outcome.

In the past, under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu has sometimes at least feigned flexibility. His present dire political situation makes that more difficult. If anything could spark rebellion in his own Likud party, it would be the pretense of countenancing a future Palestinian state. Besides the Likud, he depends on the support of two parties of the extreme religious right, for whom Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza was not only an unforgivable political mistake but a theological crisis. For them, the war is an opportunity not just to reconquer Gaza but to reestablish Israeli settlements there. Some Likud politicians support that demand.

Even a lasting cease-fire poses a political threat to Netanyahu. Protests demanding new elections are already growing. They are expected to escalate dramatically with the end of the war and the return of reservists from the front. Public anger at Netanyahu for failing to prevent the disaster of October 7 has not dissipated.

A recent poll—matching the trend for months—showed that if elections were held now, the Likud would lose nearly half its seats and the more moderate parties opposed to Netanyahu would likely sweep to power. The same survey found that over half of the Israeli public believed that Netanyahu’s primary reason for continuing the war was to ensure his own political survival. By contrast, just over a third believed that his main reason for staying was to fulfill his promise of “absolute victory” over Hamas.

An implication hiding in those numbers is that a larger portion of Israelis no longer believes that “absolute victory”—whatever that means—is possible.

This is one more reason for Netanyahu to tangle publicly with Biden. When he does accept a cease-fire, Netanyahu is likely to blame supposed American betrayal for preventing triumph. At the same time, contradictory as it may be, he’ll try to restore his political standing by claiming that only he is strong enough to resist U.S. pressure to agree to a Palestinian state. Schumer’s speech offered an early opportunity for Netanyahu’s party to escalate: The Likud quickly issued a statement saying, “Israel is not a banana republic,” and that Netanyahu’s policy in the war “is supported by a huge majority” of the nation.

In the same MSNBC interview, Capehart asked Biden if he’d be willing to go to Israel to address the Knesset. “Yes,” Biden said, and then refused to elaborate.

But the president doesn’t need an invitation from the Knesset. Israeli networks would surely be willing to broadcast a speech by the U.S. president. To make his case to Israelis, Biden must warn that Gaza will become a quagmire if Israel leaves its army there. He must argue that, as in the wake of the 1973 war, a peace agreement is the only path to security.

Offering hope, Biden has a chance of shifting Israeli public opinion toward a diplomatic path out of the crisis. In the very short term, that could push Netanyahu to bend on arrangements for governing Gaza. If he does not, his position in the potential postwar election campaign will be even weaker.

None of this guarantees that Biden’s diplomatic gambit will succeed. Netanyahu’s intransigence is only one of the hurdles. But in the public feud, a desperate Netanyahu has much to lose, and Biden has very little to lose by confronting him.