Biden in a bind as Netanhayu ready to flout any US attempt to rein in Israel

National security adviser Jake Sullivan (left) meeting Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

Israel PM has defied US calls for restraint in Gaza and told domestic audience he will not compromiseFri 15 Dec 2023 00.00 EST

US efforts to show it retains significant influence over the Israeli government were dealt a double blow yesterday when the Israeli defence minister said it would take months to complete the task of rooting out Hamas, and a leaked US intelligence assessment revealed up to 45% of the 29,000 air-to-ground munitions that Israel has dropped on Gaza since 7 October have been unguided “dumb bombs”.

The predictions of a months-long campaign were delivered on camera by Yoav Gallant to a stony-faced Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, who had arrived in Israel to convey a message that its campaign needed to change – and preferably be wrapped up in weeks. They were later reinforced by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Neyanyahu, who said Israel would not stop until complete victory.

The leak about the munitions contradicted claims by the US state department that it had no concerns and no assessment whether Israeli bombing could be in breach of international humanitarian law.

More broadly the two issues highlight questions about the nature of the control America has over Israel’s political and military response to Hamas’s bloody attacks of 7 October.

Until a few days ago, the preferred White House narrative has been this is an utterly justified war of self-defence with an obtainable objective, but it has necessary for the US to hug a traumatised Israeli government close so best to retain its trust, guide its decision-making and prevent regional escalation.

The US state department at its regular briefings has always been keen to cite examples of how Israel is listening and acting upon US advice – whether it is on humanitarian aid access points, safe zones, a modified bombing campaign or plans for what comes after.

But that narrative is starting to fray at the edges, as suppressed differences emerge between the US and Israel, not just over methods, but objectives.

On Monday, for instance, two days after the US received international criticism for vetoing a ceasefire call at the UN security council, the state department spokesperson took more hits in defence of Israel. In the course of one briefing he conceded the US was “engaging in conversations” with Israel over the killing of the Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah, over the “deeply disturbing” photographs of Palestinians stripped naked, and the “concerning reports” about the use of white phosphorus detailed in the Washington Post.

Later in the day Joe Biden called his commitment to Israel “unshakeable”, but added: “They have to be careful. The whole world’s public opinion can shift overnight. We can’t let that happen.”

On Tuesday, in what were interpreted as some of his most pointed comments about Israel’s conduct of a war, Biden was reported as saying Israel risked losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza. He also criticised Netanyahu’s far-right government, which he said does not “want anything remotely approaching a two-state solution”. It is hardly a revelation that Netanyahu and his government are opposed to a two-state solution, but it is normally left unsaid.

With Biden, it is hard to know if a deliberate communications strategy is in play or if it is what the Middle East Institute policy analyst Brian Katulis described at the weekend as shuffle diplomacy – just something that edges the policy on a little.

Either way, it is not great politics for the president. From one constituency he is getting it in the neck for “allowing Israel to kill 18,000 Palestinians”, and at the same time the impression left is that Israel is not listening to him. They are taking his guns, but not his advice.

The danger for Biden is that he becomes part of Netanyahu’s survival plan. Netanyahu is effectively running a re-election campaign – expected next year – not just a war, and no one is more ruthless in the pursuit of power. If necessary, the argument runs, he is willing to use unwarranted US interference in Israel’s security as a campaign tool.

In a brief video posted online, in Hebrew, Netanyahu claimed to be the only one capable of thwarting the desire of Washington and the Arab countries to revive the two-state solution. “I will not allow it. It is up to Israel not to repeat the mistake of Oslo,” he asserted. “I will not allow, after the immense sacrifice made by our citizens and our fighters, that we put [in power] in Gaza people who teach terrorism, support terrorism and finance it. Gaza will be neither Hamastan nor Fatahstan”.

The prime minister thus tried to scupper the west’s plans for a revived Fatah-influenced Palestinian Authority to take charge across Gaza and the West Bank. The only solution left becomes Israel’s management of the Palestinian territories, something the US has said must not happen.

The dilemma for Biden is how to handle Netanyahu and his cabinet now that his differences are so out in the open. Is it best to invest in other Israeli leaders, and try to reach some kind of understanding with Arab leaders that Netanyahu would be pressed to accept? It is not unknown for allies to diverge in war time, but to fall out completely over the long-term war aim is best avoided.

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