Biden and Netanyahu at Odds Over Gaza War
The inevitable has happened.
Several reports in recent days show tension in the two leaders’ view of the war effort.
President Biden and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clashed Tuesday over who should govern Gaza after the war, in a remarkable public display of differences emerging between the two leaders over the conflict.
Speaking during a fundraiser in Washington, Biden made his toughest remarks since the war began about Netanyahu’s government. He suggested that its hard-line stance has prevented Netanyahu from accepting the Biden administration’s postwar plan to have the Palestinian Authority take over Gaza, and that it would also obstruct progress toward political, economic and security arrangements that could spawn a separate Palestinian state—an outcome the U.S. president sees as a long-term solution to the conflict.
“He’s a good friend, but I think he has to change…This government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move,” Biden said, referring to Netanyahu. He called Israel’s government the most conservative in Israel’s history, adding that some in the government oppose a two-state solution. Biden said members of the Israeli government want retribution “against all Palestinians,” not just Hamas.
Biden also warned that Israel’s approach to the war could result in a loss of support around the world. “Israel’s security can rest on the United States, but right now it has more than the United States. It has the European Union, it has Europe, it has most of the world supporting it,” he said. “But they’re starting to lose that support by the indiscriminate bombing that takes place.”
Biden reiterated his own staunch support for Israel following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people, and stressed that Israel has a right to defend itself. Hundreds were taken hostage in the attack. “The safety of the Jewish people, the literal security of Israel as an independent Jewish state is literally at stake,” Biden said.
Biden’s comments came as Netanyahu said in Israel he would block the Biden administration’s postwar plan to have the Palestinian Authority take over Gaza, the sharpest sign of Israeli pushback against the U.S. blueprint for administering the enclave after Israel’s invasion ends.
“After the great sacrifice of our civilians and our soldiers, I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism, support terrorism and finance terrorism,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Palestinian Authority, which currently oversees parts of the West Bank, in a statement Tuesday.
“I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo,” he added, referring to the 1993 agreement that established the Palestinian Authority and which Netanyahu has long criticized.
“Israel Begins Pumping Seawater Into Hamas’s Gaza Tunnels,” WSJ, 13 Dec.
Israel’s military has begun pumping seawater into Hamas’s vast complex of tunnels in Gaza, according to U.S. officials briefed on the Israeli military’s operations, part of an intensive effort to destroy the underground infrastructure that has underpinned the group’s operations.
The move to flood the tunnels with water from the Mediterranean, which is in an early stage, is one of several techniques Israel is using to try to clear and destroy the tunnels.
A spokesperson for the Israeli defense minister declined to comment, saying the tunnel operations are classified.
Israeli officials say that Hamas’s underground system has been key to its operations on the battlefield. The tunnel system, they say, is used by Hamas to maneuver fighters across the battlefield and store the group’s rockets and munitions, and enables the group’s leaders to command and control their forces. Israel also believes some hostages are being held inside tunnels.
In reported recordings between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and released hostages and their families leaked last week, Israelis angrily told Netanyahu that they feared flooding the tunnels would kill their loved ones.
During a press conference Tuesday at the White House with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a reporter asked President Biden about Israel’s flooding of the tunnels. The president didn’t address the Israeli approach directly but rather how flooding tunnels could affect the more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas.
Biden said that assertions have been made that “there are no hostages in any of these tunnels…But I don’t know that for a fact.” The president didn’t elaborate.
When President Biden touched down in Israel 10 days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet formally declared war on the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the two leaders shared a warm embrace.
That tight bear hug eight weeks ago is now entwined with some of the most hellish aspects of this war.
Those include the immense suffering of Palestinian civilians trapped in the Gaza Strip and the unresolved fate of dozens of hostages seized during Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7 rampage in Israel — and increasing world isolation faced not only by Israel, but also by its closest ally, the United States.
By declaring unwavering support for Israel, Biden hoped to rally international backing in the face of the worst mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust — but also to maintain some U.S. influence over the course of action chosen by the embattled prime minister.
Both those efforts have faltered.
Israel is confronting some of the fiercest worldwide blowback in decades. It faces outrage over its relentless bombardment and ground attacks in Gaza, which have killed more than 18,000 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them women and children, and set off a far-reaching humanitarian crisis. Hunger and disease stalk the devastated and blockaded enclave; 4 in every 5 of its 2.3 million people are displaced, according to the United Nations.
After weeks of defending Israel to the world, Biden on Tuesday issued his sharpest rebuke yet of Netanyahu and the way he is conducting the war. Biden said that the far-right Israeli government needed to undergo major changes, and that Israel is losing what had been wide international support over “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza.
Biden used the term “indiscriminate bombing” once before to refer to the massive destruction Israeli airstrikes inflicted on northern Gaza, with entire districts reduced to rubble. U.S. officials have repeatedly told the Netanyahu government that its attacks in Gaza’s south, which began late last month, had to be more surgical and less devastating. Israel has largely ignored that warning, and Biden apparently now believes the actions in the south are as dangerous as those in the north.
Speaking to a group of Jewish donors at the White House, Biden went on to recall an oft-repeated anecdote of inscribing on a photo he had taken with Netanyahu, referring to him by a nickname: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say.” In this recounting, Biden added: “That remains to be the case.”
Israel’s war in Gaza needs to “transition to the next lower intensity phase in a matter of weeks, not months,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the war cabinet in a meeting on Thursday, according to two U.S. and Israeli officials.
Why it matters: The Biden administration has backed the Israeli response to the Oct. 7 attack and says it supports Israel’s stated goal of ousting Hamas in Gaza, but the White House is under mounting international and domestic pressure to tell Israel to end the war.
- The rate of civilian deaths in Gaza is outpacing those of other conflict zones in the 21st century. Mounting casualties have been accompanied by a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the enclave.
- Biden administration officials think that moving to lower-intensity fighting will decrease civilian casualties, allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and decrease the risk for regional war.
- Biden said he wants Israel to be focused on how to save civilian lives in Gaza. “Not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful,” he told reporters during a visit to the National Institutes of Health in Washington on Thursday.
Sullivan said the Biden administration wants to move toward talking more seriously about what happens after the war, stressing that it will make it easier for the U.S. to maintain support for the military operation, Israeli and U.S. officials told Axios.
- Israeli official said after the meeting that the U.S. and Israel “are on the same page” about Lebanon and the need to end the war without returning to the buildup with Hezbollah forces along the northern border on Oct. 7,
- Sullivan also stressed that the U.S. is committed to protecting freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and Israel agreed to the multinational maritime task force that will start operating there, according to Israeli and U.S. officials.
“US has collected intel it could use to judge Israel’s conduct of war,” POLITICO, 14 Dec.
While American officials say they are not making judgments in real-time about whether Israel is abiding by the laws of war, the U.S. has gathered intelligence that might allow it to make such assessments.
The U.S. has collected intelligence and formulated detailed assessments related to both Israel and Hamas military movements and tactics in Gaza since the war began in October, according to two people familiar with the intelligence. That has included data on targeting by both sides, the weapons they appear to be using and the potential number of people killed in their ranks.
That information has been shared with members of Congress in several briefings, including with the members of the intelligence committees, the people said. Both individuals were granted anonymity to detail a sensitive issue.
State Department officials are also collecting reports of potential Israeli violations through a system unveiled in August called the Civilian Harm Incident Response Guidance, or CHIRG, according to Josh Paul, who quit the department over concerns about its approach to the war. Paul said some officials within the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs have asked State’s legal wing to “provide information about their potential international law exposure as a result of approving these sales.”
That suggests that when President Joe Biden reiterated Tuesday that Israel was using “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza — a breach of international humanitarian law — he was likely speaking about information he had. And his administration appears to have some of the data it would need to determine whether or not Israel is violating global rules of war.
“Here you have the president of the United States essentially accusing Israel of committing war crimes, while his administration refuses to conduct a thoroughgoing assessment of whether or not Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is consistent with the law of war,” said Brian Finucane, previously a State Department lawyer who now advises the International Crisis Group.
“Kamala Harris pushes White House to be more sympathetic toward Palestinians,” POLITICO, 14 Dec.
Vice President Kamala Harris has been telling colleagues in the administration that she wants the White House to show more concern publicly for the humanitarian damage in Gaza, where Israel is locked in a bloody and prolonged battle with Hamas, according to three people familiar with Harris’ comments.
President Joe Biden is among the officials Harris has urged to show more sensitivity to Palestinian civilians, these people said.
In internal conversations about the war in Gaza, Harris has argued that it is time to start making “day after” plans for how to handle the wreckage of the war once the fighting ends, one senior administration official said.
One person close to the vice president’s office said she believes the United States should be “tougher” on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; she has called for being “more forceful at seeking a long-term peace and two-state solution,” this person said.
The people characterizing Harris’s role and comments from the vice president and her team were granted anonymity in order to discuss private conversations.
Harris’ private push to shape the White House message about the war reflects the extent to which Democrats — even the top two officials in the country — are struggling to walk a careful line about the Israel-Hamas war, amid a gruesome conflict that has rattled the Democratic political coalition down to the local level.
It also underscores the delicacy of the tight political partnership that Harris has developed with Biden, despite some longstanding differences in perspective on various issues. She has long been more attuned to criticism from the left than her more moderate running mate, and more determined to align herself with younger and more progressive constituencies in the Democratic Party.
The domestic politics of this have been more fraught than even I anticipated when I commented almost exactly two months ago about the image of Biden embracing Netanyahu. While the international pressure on Israel for restraint, if not a complete cessation of hostilities, has continued, I did not understand the level of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli sentiment among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
It’s hard to judge from my vantage point the degree to which Biden’s new stance is a response to that pressure or a genuine concern that Israel’s actions in Gaza have gone too far. Thus far, it does not seem to be having much of an impact on Netanyahu.