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Biden-Netanyahu rift: Are US-Israel ties at breaking point?

Biden and Netanyahu's growing rift: Are US-Israel ties at breaking point?
7 min read
11 March, 2024
Analysis: Benny Gantz's recent visit to Washington was a direct message to Netanyahu, but are there cracks in the wider US-Israel relationship?

Last week's visit by Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz to Washington hit a nerve in the relationship between the US administration and Israel’s government, underscoring a personal dimension of the diplomatic tensions between the two countries amid the Gaza war.

Gantz, former chief of General Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and defence minister, and now part of the war cabinet after Hamas's October attack, travelled to Washington for a meeting with several US officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, before heading to the United Kingdom.

His visit to the United States was reportedly aimed at strengthening ties with Washington, ensuring the continuation of US military aid, and discussing various diplomatic initiatives, including a proposed hostage deal with Hamas.

However, Netanyahu wasn't happy about his main political rival's initiative. Israeli media reported that the Israeli PM, apparently unaware of the trip until Gantz contacted him before heading to Washington, told Gantz that "the State of Israel only has one prime minister".

Furthermore, the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC allegedly received orders not to assist the 'unauthorised' trip.

Gantz's visit to Washington comes amid a moment in the Gaza war in which Netanyahu's ultranationalist cabinet is not complying with US requests.

While US President Joe Biden still backs Israel's public goal of dismantling Hamas's presence in Gaza and continues to support Israel amid the international community's efforts to stop the war, he has been progressively critical of Israel's conduct.

Frustration has been mounting over civilian casualties and Netanyahu's refusal to open more aid routes to Gaza, leading to airdrops. Biden's strained relationship with Netanyahu, which dates back before 7 October's Hamas attack, has worsened with increased Israeli military actions and international criticism, publicly exposing the rift and suggesting that US-Israel ties may be at a breaking point.

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Khalil Jahshan, a Palestinian-American political analyst and executive director of the think-tank Arab Center Washington DC, told The New Arab that the US meeting with Gantz is a direct message to Netanyahu.

"This reflects the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu at an individual level. The US believes Gantz is their man in Israel as he is the leading candidate in recent public opinion polls. However, while putting a bit more pressure on Netanyahu, the US hasn't changed its policy toward Israel and the war in Gaza. The US remains obsessed with only asking for a temporary humanitarian ceasefire, not to end the conflict with a permanent, enforceable ceasefire applicable to all parties," he said.

Mairav Zonszein, a senior Israel analyst for the International Crisis Group, told TNA that Gantz visiting Washington without following the ordinary diplomatic protocol has sent a clear message of distrust in Netanyahu's leadership, reflecting a significant sentiment within Israeli society.

"Gantz wanted to show that he could be the next prime minister and a statesman and represent Israel in the US and Britain. But at the same time, the reports from his meeting in the US suggested that the Biden administration sent a message to Gantz that Israel was not aligning with US priorities and used Gantz to put some pressure on Netanyahu without addressing the Israeli prime minister directly," she said.

Gantz visiting Washington without following the ordinary diplomatic protocol has sent a clear message of distrust in Netanyahu's leadership. [Getty]

While supporting the Israeli military initiative in Gaza aimed at dismantling Hamas and securing the release of hostages, the US urged Israel to protect civilians, conduct low-intensity warfare, and allow aid into the area. However, Zonszein argued that there is a significant gap between the US requests and what Israel is implementing. 

Jahshan explained that Israel has unprecedently challenged some core issues of its relations with the US.

"The US has never faced a direct challenge from an Israeli prime minister like at this time. It had conflicts with other Israeli prime ministers, such as Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, but they never put the core issues of the Israeli link to Washington at stake like Netanyahu,” he said.

“Furthermore, among the accusations that Netanyahu is facing domestically, he has been blamed for ruining Israeli relations with the US. That has always been a sacred cow. Untouchable. And now it has been touched."

However, Zonszein argued that despite Biden and Netanyahu's disagreement, relations between the two countries haven't changed significantly. 

"While many criticise Netanyahu for endangering Israeli relations with the US, I don't think that there's actually a shift in the US-Israel relations," she said.

Nonetheless, US support for Israel poses a problem for Biden, potentially affecting his chances of re-election. Biden faces significant criticism, and the US appears embarrassed when the international community urges Israel to halt the war yet the US permits Israel to continue.

Diplomatically, the Biden administration has attempted to initiate discussions with Israel's Arab neighbours regarding the future of Gaza through multiple visits by Blinken to the region, with the aims of involving the Palestinian Authority and seeking the foundations for a two-state solution, a scenario that Netanyahu has firmly rejected.

However, Jahshan argued that although the Biden administration expresses support for a two-state solution, it has not taken concrete action to pursue it. Moreover, its efforts have not been convincing to Arab observers, who doubt the US sincerity and perceive American actions as mere attempts to defuse tensions without genuine commitment to Palestinian statehood.

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"The US is using the support for a two-state solution as a fig leaf to cover their failure in this war. Maybe Biden is committed to a two-state solution, but I have doubts. Establishing a two-state solution requires significant preparation and visible changes within the State Department and the White House. Typically, there would be specialised teams dedicated to negotiations. However, we haven't seen such preparations," he said.

Zonszein explained that Israeli leadership, with or without Netanyahu, has consistently supported settlements and occupation and opposed any prospect of a Palestinian state or political process necessitating Israeli concessions.

This highlights a conflict between this stance and longstanding US policy, which supports a restructured PA. While there's agreement for both the US and Israel on the need to remove Hamas from Gaza, Israeli far-right ministers oppose any Palestinian state.

"Netanyahu's government has been mostly monopolised by far-right ministers who are against any kind of Palestinian entity. As Netanyahu's political survival depends on them, any return of the PA to Gaza has been rejected, although he has left a window open by saying that maybe it could be some revitalised PA,” she said.

The relationship between Israel and the US, particularly traditional ties between Israel and Biden, who openly declares himself a Zionist, is under scrutiny. [Getty]

“But even doing that, both the US and Israel know well that it would still be hard to make that work, and Israel is not actively promoting a symbolic and meaningful political process in that sense.”

While Zonszein believes that the current US Administration would love a new Israeli leadership as much as most of the Israeli public, Biden doesn't want to be seen meddling in Israeli internal politics. 

"The US administration has been looking to Gantz as the person who could replace Netanyahu. However, Biden may be concerned that Gantz won't be able to win or how a new election would look like," she said.

In practical terms, Biden could put more pressure on Israel concerning settlements, the hostage deal, and the presence of Israeli forces in Gaza. However, he didn't do so because this scenario would force the Israeli far-right ministers to reach a moment of decision in which they would threaten to leave the coalition, destabilising the government.

However, Jahshan explained that the relationship between Israel and the US, particularly traditional ties between Israel and Biden, who openly declares himself a Zionist, is under scrutiny.

Despite Biden's efforts, including his visit to Israel after 7 October and the deployment of American fleets to the region, Netanyahu's government has not reciprocated or respected the US requests.

"I'm one of the people who keep saying that if anything in the region needs normalisation, it is US-Israeli relations. Biden's tolerance of Israeli actions in Gaza is unprecedented and unacceptable and surpasses even American standards. Such behaviour is abnormal, as the US does not treat any other ally, whether Japan, France, or the UK, in this manner," Jahshan said.

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi