09.04.2024 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

From Israel vs Palestine to Biden vs Netanyahu

From Israel vs Palestine to Biden vs Netanyahu

Last week, Washington’s decision to abstain from voting allowed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to pass the resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. This would be remembered as one of those rare occasions where the US did not use its veto power to protect Israel. More importantly, the Israeli prime minister’s office termed the US decision to not veto the resolution as a “clear retreat” from Washington’s previous uncritical commitment to protecting Israel. The statement further said that Washington’s retreat will further hamper efforts to eliminate Hamas. It further announced that Israel will not be sending its delegation to Washington for talks because of the changed US policy vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine. Washington, on the other hand, has expressed “disappointment” over Israel’s decision.

These tensions also happen to be taking place against the backdrop of calls from Washington for regime change in Israel, as many in the Biden administration, too, now see Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace. This is nothing short of a dramatic turnaround of events, where former allies appear to be openly opposing each other. The critical question is: why is this happening, and will these tensions have an enduring impact on the state of affairs, including US-Israel ties?

These disagreements became public in a couple of interviews that both Biden and Netanyahu recently gave to the media. Biden called Israel’s decision to invade Rafah a “red line” in an interview with MSNBC. In an interview with Politico, Netanyahu hit back and said that if Biden meant “that I’m pursuing private policies against the majority, the wish of the majority of Israelis, and that this is hurting the interests of Israel, then he’s wrong on both counts”.

This clash has become public due to Biden’s growing frustration with his inability to convince Netanyahu to change his course, even slightly, and not indiscriminately kill civilians. The Biden administration complains that not enough humanitarian aid gets into Gaza, that Israeli forces have killed too many innocent people and that Netanyahu has his sights set on the destruction of Hamas, which US officials say is possible militarily but not ideologically. Hence, Washington’s attacks on Netanyahu’s stubborn – and unrealistic – policy.

For Biden, if protecting Israel mattered, the lives of the Palestinians have also suddenly become important. There is one key reason: Biden’s absolutely pro-Israel, pro-Zionist policy is hurting his electoral prospects. As many as 61 per cent of American adults believe that Biden’s policy is wrong. As a result, his approval rating has nosedived. Apart from the challenge that Biden is already facing domestically, the US is losing on the foreign policy front too as it continues to lose geopolitical ground in the Middle East. Antony Blinken has embarked upon several visits to the Middle East in the past few months (and he is visiting Israel again at the time of the writing of this article). The only reason is Washington’s efforts to align its policies more with the Gulf states to pause the war permanently and bring a durable, politically less costly solution to the crisis that has already grown to genocidal proportions with famine and destruction of Palestine’s ecosystem. It is imperative for Biden that he can end the war as soon as possible, or before elections, to improve his chances. Given the cost, Kamala Harris recently ruled that there would be “consequences” if Israel were to invade Rafah.

Other Democrats have gone even further, demanding to link the supply of military aid to Israel to Israeli cooperation vis-à-vis the supply of aid to Gaza. Apart from criticising Netanyahu for impeding the supply of aid, the Senators also advised Biden to use “NSM-20”.  The National Security Memorandum (20)

“requires, for the first time, that countries receiving U.S. security assistance provide ‘credible and reliable written assurances’ that the recipient country ‘facilitate and not arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery’ of U.S. and U.S.-supported humanitarian assistance. The current circumstances on the ground in Gaza, the many statements made by the President and other senior Administration officials, and the recent IPC assessment that ‘famine is imminent’ – make it abundantly clear that Netanyahu’s government is not doing nearly enough to allow aid to reach starving and otherwise desperate people in Gaza”.

There is clearly a tussle between both administrations. Will this tussle permanently change the relationship between the US and Israel? It is unlikely. Here is why:

Both Biden and Netanyahu are trapped in the net of domestic politics, as both are striving hard to stay in office. Their ratings have gone down massively due to the same war. While Netanyahu was already becoming unpopular in Israel before October 7, his handling of the war – in particular, his inability to secure the release of hostages – has further impacted his standing. More recently, Israel’s supreme court has ordered an end to government subsidies from Monday for many ultra-Orthodox men who do not serve in the army. This is bad news for his government, which has many ultra-orthodox coalition partners.

Were Netanyahu to lose his power, and were Biden to lose elections too, or were both to come successfully out of these challenges, Israel’s relations with Washington would most likely revert to normal. Trump’s return to the White House will most likely suppress the question of humanitarian aid and/or the question of the two-state solution. His preferred policy would be to reactivate the politics of the Abraham Accords, which may not have Palestine as the central issue requiring a prior resolution. In Israel, Netanyahu’s exit from power will most likely bring an even more right-wing group to power, further complicating the question of Palestine. None of this, however, will necessarily change, let alone damage, their bilateral ties. An ultra-right-wing coalition in Israel will find in Trump’s right-wing populism a willing ally to support a complete decimation of Palestine. Were both Biden and Netanyahu to survive the crisis, Washington would not be under pressure to either prevent an invasion of Rafah and/or link the supply of weapons to the delivery of aid. In both scenarios, however, Washington’s ties with the Gulf states could change on a long-term basis.


Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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