As handling of war pushes US away, Netanyahu’s half-steps may not be enough to fix ties

After the relationship between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to reach a new low last week, signs have emerged that both sides want to patch things up, at least for the time being.

After taking on Biden’s criticism directly for weeks, Netanyahu dramatically canceled a visit — requested by Biden — of his top aides to Washington to discuss American ideas for an alternative to a major ground operation in Rafah and for an increase in humanitarian aid to Gazan civilians.

The move was a very public protest of the Biden administration’s decision to forgo the use of its UN Security Council veto and allow the adoption of a resolution calling for an immediate Gaza ceasefire unconditioned on a hostage release, which it also called for.

But the cancellation turned out to be just a modest postponement. Only two days later, the White House announced that Netanyahu had agreed to reschedule the trip by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi.

The next day, President Isaac Herzog also showed a desire to help the sides move beyond the contretemps. He told a group of visiting Democratic members of Congress that US President Joe Biden is “a great friend of Israel.”

In his press conference Sunday, Netanyahu also struck a conciliatory tone: “We are still and always interested in hearing from our American friends, even when we have disagreements with them. They have things to say on the humanitarian issue and on the evacuation of the population. We hear it, we will hear it in the future.”

That came days after the US authorized the transfer of billions of dollars’ worth of bombs and fighter jets to Israel, joining a steady stream of military equipment that the US has provided Israel with since the start of the war.

But after months of increasing hostility and festering points of contention — Israel’s plans to invade Rafah, US dissatisfaction with the pace of aid entering the Strip and civilian deaths, deep divisions over how to tackle the “day after” enigma — even the mutual desire to improve ties will likely not be enough.

Even should Netanyahu move beyond half-measures aimed at patching things up, the same dynamics that have strained the relationship throughout the war will likely continue to push the allies apart.

Growing apart

Though the Biden administration played coy around Israel’s reaction to the Security Council vote — supposedly “perplexed” by what it called Netanyahu’s attempts to manufacture a crisis in ties — no one seems to be fooled.

“There certainly has been a change” in the White House policy toward Israel of late, noted Natan Sachs, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We’ve seen repeated signals from the Biden administration, certainly not by accident.”

The Biden White House’s relationship with Netanyahu and his government has long been characterized by friction tempered by spells of amity, though both sides have struggled to paper over the deep discord with equanimity.

Since the outbreak of war, the antagonism has sharpened considerably, putting the relationship in ever-greater peril.

Even before Biden touched down in Israel for his well-received solidarity trip less than two weeks after the October 7 massacre, White House officials were telling the press that the president would ask “tough questions as a friend of Israel” regarding Jerusalem’s strategy in the Gaza war.

In the ensuing months, those questions have only toughened, and have been joined by harsh allegations — such as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing Israel of “dehumanizing” Palestinians in February — and threats to pull US backing for Israel’s war effort.

While that backing has remained, the White House has found other ways to put distance between itself and Netanyahu’s government. This includes placing sanctions on settler extremists, and rhetoric taking aim at Netanyahu himself. In March, Biden charged in an interview with MSNBC that Netanyahu “is hurting Israel more than helping Israel,” and an operation in Rafah would be a “red line” if Israel did not evacuate the civilians there.

When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Jewish Democrat, called on Israel to hold early elections, saying he believed Netanyahu had “lost his way” and was an obstacle to peace in the region, few bought his claim that the message had been a private initiative.

“Clearly, Schumer would not be saying these things without first coordinating them with the White House,” said Sachs.

Netanyahu rolled with the punches for a time, but about a month ago, he began pushing back publicly.

“You don’t have an issue with me,” responded Netanyahu on “Fox and Friends.” after the MSNBC interview. “You have an issue with the entire people of Israel.”

Benny Gantz, left, a key member of Israel’s War Cabinet is welcomed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for a private meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

He was also quick to condemn Schumer’s comments, calling them “wholly inappropriate.”

Then there was the UN Security Council vote — which Sachs called “a very clear and loud signal” from Biden — and Netanyahu’s angry reaction.

Generational crisis

“There’s no doubt that the Biden administration’s rhetoric toward Israel generally, and toward Netanyahu specifically, has been systematically and purposefully sharpening for weeks,” said John Hannah, senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and former national security adviser to Republican former vice president Dick Cheney.

Like 1956, when US president Dwight Eisenhower’s split with Israel was a result of Cold War calculations reaching far beyond Israel, in 2024 Biden’s stance, at least in part, is seen as a result of his growing anxiety over US presidential elections in November and hopes for his own “two-state solution” — a path to victory through Michigan and Nevada.

If Biden is to prevail over Republican challenger Donald Trump, who has led in the polls since September, he will need every vote he can muster. Having progressives or Arab-Americans in the swing state of Michigan frustrated with him for perceived complicity in a “genocide” of Gazans won’t help his chances.

Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US, said the relationship had hit its lowest point since Eisenhower’s threats to sanction Israel if it didn’t withdraw from the Sinai in the 1956 war.

“This is the worst crisis between the countries in almost 70 years,” he said.

Israeli Sherman tanks advance toward the Mitla Pass during the 1956 Sinai Campaign. (Israel Defense Forces/Flickr)

According to Oren, the US is reacting to Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza in largely the same way it did during the Suez conflict.

“It’s a change of direction during a war that Israel didn’t start,” he said. “It started with a clear statement of support, then the White House issued demands to stop the war.”

Rather than risk appearing anti-Israel, the Biden administration has instead taken aim at Netanyahu and his government, seeking to portray the leader as unrepresentative of the Israelis at large. But some see flaws with that approach.

“They hate Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu],” Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said of key administration officials. “Everybody hates Bibi. So what’s new? The problem is the things they hate Bibi on are things where there is quasi-unanimity within the Israeli public and within the Israeli government, or at least within the national security cabinet.”

Though there is a deep and wide antipathy toward Netanyahu in Israel, with growing protests calling for him to step down, public opinion polls show few Israelis backing the Biden administration’s positions on using the Gaza conflict as a pathway to Palestinian statehood, stopping the war while Hamas is still in control of Rafah, or even the removal of inspections to speed the entry of humanitarian aid.

Netanyahu seems to think that being seen as standing up to Biden will help him recover domestically.

“If Netanyahu is choosing now to escalate tensions,” Hannah posited, “there’s probably no better issue for him to do it over than rejecting alleged international efforts to compel Israel to stop short of destroying Hamas’s military capabilities, which is clearly a goal that is widely supported by huge swaths of the Israeli public across the political spectrum.”


Regardless of the source of the worsening relationship, undeniable daylight between the two sides during a complex war doesn’t make it easier for Israel to achieve its goals.

“This kind of sustained public disagreement can have real policy consequences — especially in the middle of a war,” said Hannah.

Hamas has dug in its heels on its demands for a hostage release in recent weeks, which Israeli officials have blamed on the US refusal to wield its Security Council veto and other signs of lackluster backing.

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader hiding in a tunnel somewhere in southern Gaza, knows that he has withstood the worst of the Israeli military campaign. With every week that goes by, a major IDF operation in Rafah becomes more problematic for Israel, and international calls grow for a ceasefire without the release of hostages.

“Both countries are poorly served by the clash of personalities that we’ve seen between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu administration,” New York Congressman Ritchie Torres told The Times of Israel.

“It’s healthy to have passionate disagreement, but those disagreements should be had behind closed doors. When we allow those disagreements to go out into the public, it creates an exaggerated sense of strain in the relationship that plays into the hands of our enemies.”

Israel’s European allies are also taking signals from the US, issuing their own sanctions on settlers and calling for a permanent ceasefire. Spain is leading a group of European countries that are seriously considering a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

“There’s no question it gives Hamas and the entire Iranian axis reason to believe that their strategy of rejecting a hostage deal, continuing the war, sacrificing more Palestinian lives, and triggering a humanitarian crisis will result not in their overwhelming defeat on the battlefield, but in an historic victory that ruptures Israel’s relations with its most powerful ally and fundamentally weakens the Jewish state,” lamented Hannah.

The road back

The split between the allies is a strategic problem for Israel, but Netanyahu can take steps to patch things up.

He has already approved a videoconference discussion to allow Dermer and Hanegbi to hear US ideas about Rafah. An in-person meeting will likely take place in Washington next week.

Netanyahu could also push for a meeting with Biden if he is invited by House Speaker Mike Johnson to address Congress, as the GOP has pledged would happen. Failing to meet with Biden and White House officials would make the trip be seen as partisan intervention during elections, which will only make matters worse.

Israel could also offer far more clarity on the day-after scenario, and throw its full weight behind the humanitarian effort in Gaza, said Oren.

“It can’t be perceived as begrudging and half-hearted,” he said. “There needs to be a general in charge of it, it has to be a national effort. And even now it’s too late because it’s going to look like America had to push Israel, but it’s better than nothing.”

Israeli sources have told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu is unhappy with the pace of aid into Gaza, and he is leaning toward appointing an aid czar to flood the Strip with food and medicine.

This becomes even more pressing in the wake of the deadly strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy that killed seven aid workers Monday. Israel now has fewer partners it can rely on to distribute food within the Strip, and the White House will have much less patience if the situation doesn’t improve markedly.

But even a concerted effort by Netanyahu to get the relationship back on track might not be enough, given the context.

“The issue is that it’s not the relationship that’s causing the problem,” said Pletka. “It’s the politics in the US. And so Biden will be forced by his own logic to ratchet up pressure again.”

Originally published in The Times of Israel.