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Netanyahu’s Loyalty to Trump Must Outweigh Biden’s Loyalty to Israel

Joe Biden is being tugged in two directions, but his choice should be clear: Save Israel from itself, and save himself, his party, and American democracy in the process.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv
Kobi Gideon/GPO/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv on May 23, 2017

Bibi Netanyahu has been a purposeful pain in Joe Biden’s ass for decades now. Early in Barack Obama’s first term, the new president secured Netanyahu’s promise from the Israelis to freeze new settlement building for 10 months, albeit with so many exceptions that it was hard to keep track of all of them. Despite these gaps, the agreement paved the way for the Palestinians to rejoin the peace talks, which began again in late 2010, just three weeks before the putative “freeze” was to end.

Obama sent Biden to Jerusalem to help get the new talks off the ground, but guess what? Just as the wheels on Air Force Two were landing, Israel’s interior minister announced a near doubling of the number of proposed Jewish homes in East Jerusalem. Biden reacted furiously: “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units,” read a Biden statement that his office issued after he chose to show up 90 minutes late for dinner with Netanyahu.

Bibi knew, however, that he needn’t have worried. As he once stated to a group of settlers while being surreptitiously recorded, “America is a thing that can be easily moved, moved in the right direction.… They will not bother us.” Before Biden left for the trip to Israel, AIPAC had secured the signatures of 329 House members asking him to keep all criticisms of Israel “private.” Afterward they followed up with 76 senators’ signatures on a letter asking that Obama “reaffirm the unbreakable bonds that tie the United States and Israel together and diligently work to defuse current tensions.” That’s how it goes.

The state of Israel turned 76 on Tuesday. During all that time, it’s fair to say that no U.S. president has demonstrated a greater feeling of attachment and affection for the Jewish state than Joe Biden. Similarly, on the Israeli side, there have been no prime ministers who have treated American presidents more contemptuously than Netanyahu has treated all three Democratic presidents with whom he’s dealt as prime minister. (Everything was hunky-dory between Bibi and Donald Trump.) The combination of these two phenomena help to explain—at least at a macro level—why, until last week, Biden proved willing to pay an enormous political price, in his party, in the country, and with most of the rest of the world to stand, virtually alone, foursquare behind what has so far been Israel’s disastrous invasion of Gaza, despite the equivalent of an almost robotic kick in the shins from Bibi in return.

Israel’s war on Gaza, it behooves us to remember, was launched in response to the horrific Hamas terrorist attack of October 7. But it has revealed the degree to which the Netanyahu government has combined its leader’s personal and political self-interest with its coalition’s ideological extremism to turn Israel into a global pariah. The gruesome success of the Hamas attack was engendered in part by Netanyahu’s willingness to offer backdoor support to Hamas in order to weaken the Palestinian Authority—and thereby the argument for a Palestinian state on the West Bank. His government’s focus on protecting violent settlers who consistently terrorize the inhabitants there means that the south of Israel, which borders Gaza, was left undefended not only during the initial attack but also long after it, allowing the rampage of murder, rape, and kidnapping to continue virtually unimpeded for hours. The net result was the worst massacre of Jews anywhere since the dismantling of Hitler’s death camps.

Today, a traumatized Israel continues to shock even many of its most committed supporters abroad with its willingness to inflict death, starvation, and the likelihood of multiple epidemics on Palestinian citizens in Gaza as it seeks its revenge on Hamas. The fact that Hamas embeds itself among the Gaza populace gives Israel’s leaders, their thinking goes, the right to bomb hospitals, universities, food convoys, and refugee camps, with little concern for what warriors politely term “collateral damage.” Addressing both Israel’s moral callousness and its strategic conundrum, Biden and his representatives have repeatedly attempted to talk Israel into showing greater concern for the population of Gaza: to kill fewer of them for starters, but also to allow reasonable amounts of food and medicine into the territory in order to prevent mass famine and epidemiological disaster.

At the same time, Biden has shielded Israel in the U.N. Security Council, given it all the weapons it asked for, and just recently, decided to ignore what his own State Department reported were likely violations of both U.S. and international law in the manner in which these were used. In gratitude, Netanyahu, as the longtime Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas describes it, “has deceived, manipulated, evaded, stalled, and refused to engage with the United States.” Biden’s entreaties regarding Israel’s conduct of the war and lack of planning for its aftermath have been regularly met, Pinkas judges, exclusively with “defiant and incendiary statements.”

Biden’s decades-long deep emotional attachment to Israel, coupled with what remains a slightly tattered but still powerful stranglehold on Congress enjoyed by AIPAC and its allies, demands that the president tread extremely lightly when tangling with any Israeli prime minister, especially during wartime. But the particular circumstances of Netanyahu’s personal agenda have made Biden’s task more difficult than any previous president’s. Given the staggering size of his failure to protect the nation from Hamas on October 7, nearly three-quarters of Israelis questioned tell pollsters he should resign. A majority also rejects his prioritizing of continuing—now expanding—the war at the expense of making a deal to free the remaining hostages held by Hamas.

But Netanyahu has other things on his mind. Most prominent among these is the fact that, once he is back in civilian life, he will be forced to face three corruption trials, any one of which could land him in prison. That means it’s in his interest to continue the war indefinitely—and therefore put off new elections—and to kowtow to his extremist coalition partners in order to prevent a no-confidence vote in the Knesset. It’s also why he refuses all planning for life in postwar Gaza; that too would piss off the extremists, who would like to annex not only the West Bank but also parts of Gaza. It’s as if Israel’s government were run by its equivalent of Proud Boys and the Christian Coalition.

When Biden finally (and extremely reluctantly) took the small but symbolically significant step of announcing in public that he would pause a small portion of the roughly $18 billion in (mostly) military aid Israel is slated to receive this year, including a shipment of 3,500 bombs, and would block future delivery of additional offensive arms to try to prevent yet another humanitarian disaster in Gaza in the heavily populated city of Rafah, Netanyahu again offered him the back of his hand, announcing, “If we need to stand alone, we will stand alone.” (Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, did the dirty work, tweeting “Biden [heart] Hamas.”)

Israel’s supporters are always insisting that U.S. presidents criticize Israeli leaders only in private, and thereby reveal “no daylight” between the two governments in public. Republicans, including Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, have all felt free to ignore these orders, as all at one point went public with far harsher criticism and tougher policy responses than Biden or any Democrat before him have even contemplated. These days, however, this history is considered irrelevant because everyone understands that the evangelical Christian base of the Republican Party is rock solid in support of Israel, while the left wing of the Democratic Party has grown ever more hostile. So no GOP president these days would feel any pressure to criticize Israel, while Democratic presidents would now feel plenty of such pressure.

Biden defended his decision by telling CNN, “Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers.” The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza estimates that roughly 35,000 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 80,000 injured since Israel’s incursion began. This did not impress The Wall Street Journal’s editors, who attacked what they ridiculously termed Biden’s “arms embargo” against Israel. It also inspired the interesting insistence by a number of Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and others, that it’s none of America’s business what Israel does with its weapons we supply it with. (“We stand by allies, we don’t second guess them,” was the way Mitt Romney put it in a tweet.) Similarly, it goes without saying that the leadership of the “legacy” Jewish organizations were similarly outraged, treating Biden’s announcement as if he said he was going to join the pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia. Biden’s action “emboldens Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and undermines America’s commitments to all our allies,” AIPAC complained.

The response from Biden’s own party was, per usual, deeply divided. Twenty-six House Democrats signed a letter of complaint with all the trademarks of AIPAC letters of the past. Some of the party’s biggest donors were also, to no one’s shock, sufficiently upset to speak up in naked political terms. Haim Saban, one of the party’s biggest funders, emailed White House staffers, in a note that somehow made its way into the media, complaining of Biden’s “Bad, Bad, Bad, decision, on all levels,” and somehow felt it necessary to remind them that “there are more Jewish voters, who care about Israel, than Muslim voters that care about Hamas.”

Biden did receive some support from the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for what members of the party’s liberal base and activists have long agitated for. Senator Chris van Hollen, who has been the unlikely leader of these forces, told Face the Nation that he supported Biden’s decision in light of the fact that “Netanyahu has repeatedly ignored the president of the United States, ignored the president’s efforts to try to reduce civilian casualties, ignored our efforts to try to get more humanitarian assistance into Gaza and ignored the priority of trying to bring back the hostages.”

As for the student protesters who are causing the Democrats so much tsuris on campus and the campaign trail, well, they are mostly unreachable, unless Biden suddenly decides to insist that Israel dismantle itself and hand over its territory to the Palestinians “from the river to the sea.” But the hope inside the Biden camp, no doubt, is that the more reasonable among them will feel less inclined to take the kind of actions to help a presidential candidate in November who promises mass deportation of Muslims and a blank check to Netanyahu and company to do whatever they wish to the Palestinians, damn the humanitarian consequences (Democratic politicians and megadonors might wish to factor into their decision-making the fact of Netanyahu’s obvious preference for a Trump victory over Biden in November and maybe ask themselves if taking his side over the president’s is really where they want to be right now).

In the meantime, Israel’s war Cabinet has voted to expand its operations in Rafah, providing Biden with a profound internal conflict that is not unlike that which faced Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election. I don’t mean the frequently made comparison between Columbia demonstrations now and then. Rather, it’s a choice between a lifelong commitment of loyalty versus doing what he knows to be not only the right thing but also what is clearly in his political interest. Humphrey stuck with LBJ’s unwinnable war during his presidential campaign, knowing it was a loser both in politics and in morality. He did it knowing that LBJ evinced no such loyalty to him, and it almost certainly cost him the dream of his presidency and inaugurated what we now refer to as “our long national nightmare.”

A second Trump presidency, we now know, would be immeasurably more dangerous to the United States and the world than even Nixon’s was. Loyalty, like any virtue, becomes a vice when combined with irrational extremism. Biden’s choice should be clear: Save Israel from itself, and save himself, his party, and American democracy in the process.