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The Arrogance

Netanyahu Is Humiliating Biden

The U.S. president thought he could influence the Israeli prime minister. He’s getting played instead.

President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hug each other in front of assembled aides and cameramen.
Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu embrace on October 18, 2023.

There is nothing new or unexpected about Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrogance. When President Bill Clinton first met him at the White House in 1996—mere weeks after Netanyahu first took office as Israel’s prime minister—he reportedly seethed to aides, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” That arrogance subsequently caused rifts with Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Netanyahu, now in his third stint as prime minister, has not changed at all over the last 30 years.

And yet, President Biden apparently thought he could influence how the Israeli leader responded to Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attacks. In the ensuing months, as the civilian death toll of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza climbed past 10,000 and then 20,000 and then 30,000, Americans were treated to stories in the press suggesting that although Biden publicly embraced Netanyahu at every opportunity, he was working hard in private to constrain him. This notion stretched credulity, given that Biden was no stranger to Netanyahu’s ways, having served as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, as vice president, witnessed Barack Obama’s increasingly frosty relationship with him.

But now, given the events of the past few days, we can say with total certainty that this back channel pressure—to the extent it existed—has been a spectacular failure.

On Monday, Hamas accepted a cease-fire deal brokered by Egypt and Qatar—Israel did not send negotiators to meet with the mediators who reached the agreement. That deal included multiple stages, but would release hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. American diplomats pressured Israel to accept that deal, which could bring about the end of a war that has cost tens of thousands of civilian lives, and Biden spoke to Netanyahu directly shortly before it was reached. Netanyahu nevertheless summarily rejected the deal—though Israel did agree to finally send negotiators to Egypt, where talks have been taking place for weeks.

As negotiators scrambled to strike a cease-fire deal, Israel was also massing troops around Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza Strip that is the last refuge for Palestinians who have fled Israel’s relentless attacks. Biden had previously referred to an invasion of Rafah as a “red line”; a week ago, concerned about Israel’s intent to cross that line, America halted a large shipment of weapons to Israel in an attempt to pressure Netanyahu to call off the offensive. That apparently did not work. Moreover, Netanyahu’s Cabinet apparently agreed that an invasion of Rafah was a bad idea amid the cease-fire talks—but the Israeli prime minister, who could land in prison for corruption if the war stops and elections are called, rebuffed them. On Monday, the Israel Defense Forces began an operation to secure a crossing between Rafah and Egypt, apparently to stop Hamas from smuggling weapons into the city. The Biden administration responded by saying that this action, which Netanyahu referred to as “a major operation,” did not cross that “red line.”

To recap: The U.S. government, at the behest of President Biden, has implored Netanyahu to halt a planned invasion of Rafah and to accept a cease-fire deal that could bring an end to the war. Netanyahu has rebuffed both requests. The United States has sent billions in weapons to Israel in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks. Biden has vocally defended Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, even as outrage has grown over the tens of thousands of innocent civilians, many of them children, who have been killed during that campaign. Israel’s response? Here’s what one official told NBC News after news broke that America was withholding weapons. “An Israeli official told NBC News there is deep frustration in the Israeli government over the decision. The official added that tensions had already been running high after Israel felt the U.S. allowed it to be blindsided by Hamas’ announcement earlier this week that it was accepting a version of a cease-fire proposal.” Nothing less than total support—and unending military aid—is acceptable.

The reasonable conclusion here is not that America has suddenly failed to influence Netanyahu but that it never had any influence to begin with. Netanyahu was happy to accept Biden’s backing—and his literal embrace—when it aligned with his own objectives: continuing the war indefinitely, no matter the immense human cost. The Biden administration has rightfully acknowledged that Israel is not heeding any of its warnings or recommendations and is, in response, trying to goad the country both through diplomacy and the withholding of armaments. It is unlikely that this will work because Netanyahu has shown time and time again that no one—not even Israel’s main ally, which unconditionally gives the country billions in military aid every year—can tell him what to do.

And what is the U.S. telling him to do, anyway? The Biden administration has struggled to articulate what the “red line” on Rafah really is: For the moment, it seems like the IDF can avoid stepping over that line by simply conducting a series of seemingly isolated military actions that ultimately, in the aggregate, constitute a full invasion. The Biden administration, given its stated acceptance of the IDF’s efforts to secure the Rafah crossing, will seemingly let them do it.

All of this was predictable seven months ago. It was predictable decades ago. Netanyahu has, time and again, snubbed American presidents and taken whatever action he sees as being in his best interest. Instead of recognizing this, Biden (again, literally) embraced Netanyahu, foolishly thinking he could influence his actions. In response, Netanyahu and his allies have consistently made a fool out of Biden, happily accepting his support while grousing whenever his administration has the gall to take any minor action aimed at pressuring the country to end the war, limit civilian deaths, or even ensure that basic humanitarian aid can reach Gaza. It is unlikely that Biden would accept such disrespect from any other world leader, and one can only hope that he now feels sufficiently humiliated to finally, and fully, to stand up to Netanyahu and act like a fucking superpower.