Australia/Israel Review

Relationship troubles

Mar 27, 2024 | Ilan Evyatar

Biden and Bibi in better days (Image: GPO/ Flickr)
Biden and Bibi in better days (Image: GPO/ Flickr)

Spats between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers are nothing new: President George H.W. Bush clashed with Yitzhak Shamir over settlement expansion and refused to give Israel loan guarantees for the absorption of the wave of Soviet immigrants in the early 1990s. His son, George W. Bush, clashed with Ariel Sharon in October 2001 at the height of the Second Intifada, just a few weeks after 9/11, when he signalled that the US would call for a Palestinian state. Sharon responded, publicly, by inferring that Bush was behaving like Neville Chamberlain in Munich and wanted to “appease the Arabs at our expense.” 

Spats between American presidents and current PM Binyamin Netanyahu are also definitely not new. Netanyahu had a troubled relationship with Bill Clinton. After their first meeting, the President reportedly said: “Who the f**k does he think he is? Who’s the f**king superpower here?” His relationship with Barack Obama was no better, to put it mildly: In his recently published memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, former Netanyahu chief of staff Ari Harow describes some Obama-Netanyahu “moments” including how at a photo-op between the two leaders after the 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge) “displayed the body language of men who wanted nothing to do with one another.” Things got even worse after Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress to oppose the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, without the Administration’s agreement.

Fast forward a decade, and five months into the latest Gaza conflict, and it seems that the language between an American administration and an Israeli leader has rarely been so belligerent or so openly expressed. 

President Joe Biden went on MSNBC to tell viewers that Netanyahu is “hurting Israel more than helping.” Vice President Kamala Harris said there was a need to distinguish between the Israeli Government and the Israeli people, and the strongly pro-Israel majority leader Chuck Schumer – the highest-ranking Jew in the American Congress – delivered the toughest blow in what seems like a coordinated attack by calling for Netanyahu’s ouster: “The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7… a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel, at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government.” Biden called it a “good speech”. 

While serving as Obama’s vice president, Biden once said, “I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, Bibi, but I still love you.” The disagreement remains. The love seems to have been lost. 

The comments came in the wake of the Biden Administration’s growing frustration with the Netanyahu Government, and especially its hard-right elements, frustrations that had been building even before the Gaza war. 

The Administration believes that, given its unprecedented support for Israel during the war, Jerusalem should be more receptive to Washington’s demands. Among these are: 

  • That Jerusalem facilitate the transfer of greater amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza; 
  • That the IDF move to employing more pinpoint military methods leaving less wide-scale destruction in Gaza;
  • That it also refrain from a major ground operation into the southern Gazan city of Rafah, the last Hamas bastion in the Strip, and instead only pursue limited raids there; 
  • And, above all else, that it plays ball with US plans for a broad initiative that would see Israel normalise ties with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in exchange for commitments to move toward establishing a demilitarised Palestinian state at some point.

The Administration hasn’t just been verbally critical. There have been insinuations that it could take steps such as placing restrictions on the use of American weapons if, for example, Israel crosses a “red line” and goes into Rafah without first finding a solution for the 1.5 million Palestinians who have been displaced there from other parts of the Strip. 

Biden and the entire upper echelon of the Administration also recently hosted Benny Gantz, the leader of the National Union party, a Netanyahu rival despite currently participating in the War Cabinet, and the man who is likely to replace Netanyahu if elections are held in the near future. It is clear President Biden and his staff believe Gantz would be a far easier Israeli leader to deal with than Netanyahu and much more likely to sign up for its plans for the day after. 

It should note, however, that Gantz too was critical of Schumer’s anti-Netanyahu tirade – he called the Senate Majority Leader’s comments “counter-productive and unacceptable”. Moreover, like Netanyahu, Gantz believes Israel must complete the job in Rafah. 

Netanyahu has fiercely rebuffed the US criticism of his Government, noting that his position that Israel needs to finish off the battle against Hamas – including taking Rafah – represents the views of the vast majority of Israelis. He also called Schumer’s comments “wholly inappropriate” and said that Israel is not a “banana republic” that will have elections “foisted” upon it. 

On both sides, domestic politics is clearly at play. With elections now just a few months away, Biden needs to placate Arab American voters and progressives, who condemn him for taking Israel’s side in the war against Hamas, a sentiment that could cost him key states such as Michigan, where there is a large Arab American population. 

Netanyahu for his part needs to keep his hard right coalition partners happy – and is also likely to come under heavy pressure for new elections once the current war winds down. Playing hardball with the US while proclaiming variations on the theme, “I am the only one who can stand up to the international community and resist pressure for a Palestinian state” have never harmed him with his political base before.

The latest spat has been described as both a “watershed” moment and an “earthquake”, but just how far apart the US and Israel are drifting is actually unclear. After all, just as spats between Israeli PMs and American presidents are nothing new, so too there is little new in claims that profound damage to the US-Israel relationship is just around the corner. 

Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, who held the position from 2002-2006 and witnessed ups and downs in the relationship between President George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, suggested to me that the difference between the present crisis and previous disputes is that previous examples were generally relatively short-lived. Bush and Sharon, for example, soon built up a strong working relationship after their early disagreements. 

“Netanyahu is doing a lot of damage [to the US-Israel relationship],” Ayalon argues. “He needs to take the initiative. He should have put forward a plan for the day after the Gaza War.”

This time the dispute also comes amid changing dynamics in the United States. There is a big generational gap in support for Israel, with young Americans far less supportive of Israel than their elders, while young Jewish Americans tend to be less involved with Israel. Support for Israel in the Democratic party is declining, and progressives are increasingly overtly pro-Palestinian. Minority groups have a far greater weight than in the past and tend to disapprove of Israel’s actions. The changes in the Democratic party base mean that Israel is increasingly becoming a partisan issue, where bipartisan support was largely the norm over recent decades. 

Yet Republican support is also not guaranteed. In the evangelical community – once a pro-Israel bedrock – parts of the younger generation are also turning away from Israel. Meanwhile, the party as a whole is growing more isolationist in the current era of increasing dominance by Donald Trump. More than half of Senate Republicans recently voted against an aid package for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan (though many did so to leverage their votes to get a quid pro quo on immigration they were seeking.) 

Back in 2010, I spoke with the French philosopher and public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who had just spent a year travelling the US. Discussing with me the question of American support for Israel, he warned: “I don’t want to be a prophet of bad omen, but nothing grants that this miraculous friendship will last forever… Nothing is eternal in the history of human beings…. Politicians have a tendency to believe that the situation of the moment can be frozen for eternity. That is not the case.”

So, as the currents that Lévy warned of gather force, is Israel destined to find itself facing a future where American support is constantly in question?

Not so fast, says Ayalon. For the moment, Israel and the United States still have common values and common interests, and only a strong Israel can maintain stability in the region. “I don’t see a change in the immediate future,” he says. 

Ilan Evyatar is a former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report. He is co-author with Yonah Jeremy Bob of Target Tehran: How Israel Is Using Sabotage, Cyberwarfare, Assassination – and Secret Diplomacy – to Stop a Nuclear Iran and Create a New Middle East (Simon & Schuster, 2023). 


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