Unprecedented tensions between White House and Netanyahu as Biden feels political price for standing with Israel

U.S. President Joe Biden pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.  Miriam Alster/Pool via REUTERS

President Joe Biden pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday, October 18, 2023.Miriam Alster/Pool/ReutersCNN — 

Joe Biden held Israel closer than any American president ever has in the horrific days after the Hamas attacks on October 7.

But more than two months later, following days upon end of Israeli strikes in Gaza that have killed thousands of civilians, unprecedented tensions are widening between the White House and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden accused Israel, for example, of carrying out “indiscriminate” bombing in an off-camera political event this week. He used exceedingly blunt language, which typically causes pushback from Israel’s leaders, who insist they try to spare civilians but accuse Hamas of using innocent Palestinians as cover.

The next big geopolitical question over the war in Gaza is not whether it will isolate Israel internationally — that’s already happened. It’s whether the White House’s firm support for the operation will also alienate the United States from its friends in a way that could severely compromise wider national security goals.

And the unrelenting toll on Palestinians is also increasing the political price that Biden is paying at home for his backing of Israel — and raising doubts about his capacity to invigorate his political coalition ahead of the 2024 election.

This is the sensitive backdrop of a trip to Israel on Thursday by Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who will meet Netanyahu and other key officials following strikingly direct criticisms of the right-wing Israeli coalition from the president.

Sullivan plans to address the issue of aid flowing into Gaza and the “next phase of the military campaign,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Biden’s top White House foreign policy official will also discuss with the Israelis “efforts to be more surgical and more precise and to reduce harm to civilians.”

“That is an aim of ours. And the Israelis say it is an aim of theirs,” Kirby said. “But it’s the results that count.”

Sullivan’s trip suggests Washington believes Israel did not sufficiently take into account warnings by Secretary of State Antony Blinken after the lapsing of a truce earlier this month that its continued operations should take more care to shield civilians than the initial phase of the Gaza operation did. The optics around Sullivan’s trip will also contrast with Biden’s visit to Israel in October, when he told Israelis he understood their pain, shock and “all-consuming rage.” But he also warned Israel not to make the same mistakes made by the US after the September 11 attacks in 2001, and told reporters on the way home that if Israel didn’t take steps to relieve the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, the country would be judged harshly by the international community.

According to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza, 18,412 Palestinians had been killed as of Tuesday. CNN cannot independently verify that number. Some 1,200 Israelis were killed in the Hamas attacks, which caused horrific scenes, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Biden’s political exposure on the issue shone through two extraordinary moments on Tuesday that revealed his ebbing patience with Israel. In the off-camera fundraiser, the president warned that Israel was losing international support because of “indiscriminate bombing that takes place.” And, continuing his habit of being startlingly frank in such events, Biden also said that Israel’s right-wing coalition government was “making it very difficult,” adding, “We have to make sure that Bibi (Netanyahu) understands that he’s got to make some moves.”

Clear differences are emerging between the two governments on what happens to Gaza immediately after the war and on the distant dream of a Palestinian state.

The war has exacted a terrible human toll. But it has also triggered unforeseen political reverberations in the United States. It set off a fresh wave of antisemitism and exposed equivocation about discrimination toward Jews, including among some progressives and in America’s liberal Ivy League universities. There’s been anger at the carnage in Gaza among Arab American voters, a crucial demographic for Democrats in a key battleground state like Michigan, where Biden’s poll numbers are suffering.

And Washington’s global leadership now threatens to take a hit over its support for Israel.

In a hugely symbolic move Tuesday, three of America’s closest allies — Canada, Australia and New Zealand — broke with Washington to urge urgent efforts to agree to a ceasefire in Gaza. “The price of defeating Hamas cannot be the continuous suffering of all Palestinian civilians,” prime ministers of the three nations said. The issue has now caused a rare split in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, which also includes the US and the United Kingdom. And even the UK, which ensures its foreign policy almost always sides with the US, is hedging its bets, after abstaining on a UN Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire that the US vetoed.

The dramatic diplomatic maneuvering seems to have got the White House’s attention.

“The president yesterday reflected the reality of global opinion, which also matters. Our support for Israel is not diminished. But we have had concerns,” Kirby said. “And we have expressed those concerns about the prosecution of this military campaign, even while acknowledging that it’s Hamas that started this, and it’s Hamas that is continuing it.”

But how much will increasing domestic and international pressure on Biden change his approach to Israel?

For all his increasing frustration, the president is pro-Israel to the core and it would still be a huge surprise if he adds tangible pressure to his rhetorical rebukes of Netanyahu. One possibility would be to back conditions on a $14 billion aid package to Israel – although officials told CNN the administration currently has no plans to do that, despite growing calls by Democratic lawmakers and human rights organizations for the US to stop providing weapons unless Israel https://pembangkitkuku.com does more to protect civilians in Gaza.

And that aid measure, mired in bitter clashes between the White House and far-right Republicans, can’t make it through Congress as it is. Plus, Israel believes it is engaged in an existential fight not just for itself, but for the survival of the Jewish people. The ferocity of its operation in Gaza is a signal that it will take care of its security however it sees fit.

It’s not clear that Biden, or anyone else in the outside world, could stop this if he wanted to. But the political cost he is paying will continue to mount.

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