Joe Biden has a Benjamin Netanyahu problem – and how he deals with it grows more urgent with each brutal, bloody day that passes. Thousands of Palestinian lives hang on the answer to this question. So, too, do hopes of stopping this hugely destructive war spreading beyond Gaza, and of progress towards a lasting peace.
The Israeli prime minister’s post-truce bombardment and ground invasion of southern Gaza is shaping up to be even more “hellish”, in a UN official’s words, than the indiscriminate mayhem in the north that preceded it. The US president has the potential leverage and clout to rein him in where European and Arab leaders do not. Biden must take the lead.
It was apparent long before the 7 October Hamas terrorist attacks on southern Israel, which killed about 1,200 people, that Netanyahu and Biden were barely on speaking terms. The usual White House invitation following last autumn’s election, which brought Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition to power, was withheld.
A principal reason was Biden’s disquiet over the extremist, anti-Palestinian policies espoused by the new government, notably in the occupied West Bank. Yet when Hamas attacked, Biden, being at heart a decent and honourable soul, set differences aside. His mistake, or perhaps his wilful self-deception, was to believe Netanyahu was a man of similar mettle. Biden immediately proposed $14bn in military aid, deployed aircraft carrier battlegroups and flew to Tel Aviv. His moving speech to a grieving nation offered the sort of solace and empathy wholly foreign to Netanyahu.
Yet this show of almost unconditional support was promptly interpreted by Netanyahu as carte blanche to do whatever he pleased in pursuing Hamas in Gaza. His main “achievement” to date, given that the terrorists remain undefeated, is an unprecedented slaughter of Palestinian civilians, reportedly totalling nearly 16,000 deaths.
After initially doubting the sheer scale of the carnage, Biden has slowly – far too slowly – adjusted his stance, issuing increasingly strongly worded calls for proportionality, access for humanitarian assistance, and respect for international law.
Partly he is responding to Arab pressure and fears of a wider war, partly to growing dismay among Democrats and younger voters over Netanyahu’s actions. But he does seem to have been genuinely shocked. This is not the Israel he once knew and supported for decades in Congress.
Yet Netanyahu and his generals, while claiming to be listening to Biden, are really not. Their terrifying, post-truce targeting of Khan Younis, southern Gaza’s biggest city and the supposed base of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, is producing mass casualties again.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, told Netanyahu last week that Washington was losing patience. “The massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale we saw in northern Gaza [must] not be repeated in the south,” he said.
Blinken’s demand that Israel stop breaking international law, which it demonstrably does on a daily basis, was forcefully echoed by US vice-president Kamala Harris in Dubai. Defence secretary Lloyd Austin warned Netanyahu he was “replacing a tactical victory with a strategic defeat” by driving Palestinians into the arms of Hamas.
Netanyahu is within his rights to resist outside advice, even from Israel’s indispensable military, diplomatic and financial friend and partner. But that only makes sense if it serves Israel’s interest. This is the crux. From the beginning of this crisis, Netanyahu, as usual, has put his personal and political interests before his country’s.
After overseeing the worst security failure in 56 years, he hopes to salvage his reputation and his job by conducting a successful war – and preferably a long one. Right now, Netanyahu is deliberately, even proudly, rejecting US urgings to eschew tactics that will prospectively cause huge additional casualties in southern Gaza.
He continues to break promises not to obstruct aid supplies from Egypt. Meanwhile the army’s Orwellian QR code phone system for evacuating civilians to supposedly safe areas – apparently the best it can do in response to American pressure – is plainly unworkable amid telecoms blackouts.
More disobliging still, from the point of view of Arab neighbours and the international community, Netanyahu wants to create a permanent buffer zone in overcrowded Gazan territory. Preferring open-ended military occupation, he flatly rejects Biden’s view that the Palestinian Authority is best-placed to take charge of Gaza after the war and scoffs at talk of reviving the two-state solution.
On top of all that, he is ignoring, even courting, the risk of wider regional escalation – the nightmare Washington most fears. Since the Gaza truce ended on Friday, related violence has predictably flared anew from the West Bank and southern Lebanon to the Red Sea.
Netanyahu may calculate there is political advantage in being able to claim he “stood up” to the Americans. Biden must swiftly disabuse him of this notion – and of the bigger, pernicious idea that he can carry on prosecuting a war that collectively punishes a defenceless population, that increasingly harms US and western interests, and that is damaging to Israel’s long-term security.
Biden cannot continue to stand back or hide behind his officials. He must step in personally – and draw a line. What’s needed from the White House is less of the sympathetic uncle act, less of the soppy Joe, and more of the hard-headed pater familias and superpower commander-in-chief.
Biden needs to stop pleading and wheedling, spell out the concrete costs of this reckless course (including mooted US sanctions), and talk directly, as he did in October, to Israelis and the anti-Netanyahu, anti-extremist majority. Possible prime ministerial replacements include Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. Biden must bang some heads together.
Netanyahu is not a fit person to lead Israel in this crisis. He cares not how many people die, as long as he survives. Weaponising the memory of October’s victims and endangering the remaining hostages, he is drawing Israelis into a deadly cul-de-sac over the heaped bodies of the people of Gaza.
Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian
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