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Bepi Pezzulli
International counsel & foreign policy adviser

Biden v. Netanyahu: The rift deepens

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In an extensive interview with MSNBC, broadcasted on March 10, US President Joseph R. Biden signaled a collision course with Israel, exposing a widening gulf between the Democratic administration and the Netanyahu government.

Never before have the United States and Israel, despite their occasional diverging interests, publicly showcased such stark disagreements on fundamental issues. Typically, such differences have been smoothed over through discreet diplomatic channels and collaboration between intelligence agencies.

Breaking from established US foreign policy norms, President Biden delivered scathing criticism of Jerusalem’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which was launched following the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel last October 7. Biden asserted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions constitute a “grave error” by failing to adequately safeguard civilians. Biden emphasized that while the prime minister has the right to defend Israel and pursue Hamas, he must prioritize the protection of civilian casualties. According to Biden, Netanyahu’s approach not only contradicts the values Israel stands for but also undermines its interests.

This unprecedented public rebuke by the US president highlights the deepening divide between the two allies and underscores the significant shift in their relationship dynamics.

In a contentious gesture, Biden also validated Hamas’s casualty figures, drawing sharp condemnation, as the US president appeared to lend credence to a terrorist organization. “We cannot afford to witness another 30,000 Palestinians dead,” declared Biden, echoing the casualty toll compiled by the terrorist group, which purportedly should include at least 13,000 combatants.

These figures are widely considered dubious and poorly fabricated. Yet, Abraham Wyner has presented statistical evidence in Tablet magazine. His critical examination begins with the reported “total” number of deaths. Wyner shows that the graph depicting total deaths over time displays a suspiciously linear increase. Furthermore, the figures regarding civilian casualties fail to withstand scrutiny when measured against the R-square (R2) statistic, indicating the correlation with combatant casualties. If the numbers held true, R2 would approach 1.0 significantly. Yet, it stands at a mere 0.017, statistically negligible.

Biden, who still supports Israel’s defence, though, also raised controversy by viewing the incursion into Rafah in the southern Strip as a “red line.” He insists that Israel must facilitate more aid into Gaza while safeguarding civilians from crossfire. Stressing his priorities, he declared, “Preserving lives must take precedence.” Furthermore, the American president expressed a desire for a ceasefire, beginning with a significant prisoner exchange spanning six weeks.

Observers have noted apparent contradictions in the Biden’s statements. When asked whether the Rafah incursion marks a red line for the Israeli prime minister, Biden replied, “While it represents a red line, I won’t forsake Israel. Safeguarding Israel remains paramount.” Nonetheless, he stressed that Netanyahu “must pay greater heed to the lives lost due to these actions” and emphasized that Israel “cannot abide by another 30,000 Palestinian casualties resulting from the pursuit of Hamas.”

For months, Biden has cautioned that Israel risks forfeiting international support due to the escalating civilian casualties in Gaza. His recent remarks underscore the increasingly strained relationship between the two leaders. Biden lamented that the death toll “contradicts Israel’s principles, and I consider it a grave error.” He even expressed willingness to present his case directly to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, yet another controversial course of action.

Netanyahu’s rebuttal: Defending Israeli policy amidst criticism

Netanyahu swiftly retaliated against Biden’s remarks, asserting, “I’m not entirely clear on what the president meant,” in response to Biden’s statements to MSNBC. Netanyahu told Politico, “However, if he insinuated that I’m pursuing personal policies against the wishes of the majority of Israelis, damaging Israel’s interests, then he’s mistaken on both counts.”

“These policies aren’t personal to me,” the prime minister contended. “They’re endorsed by the vast majority of Israelis. They support our actions against the remaining battalions of Hamas terrorists.”

Netanyahu asserts that Israelis argue against installing the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Moreover, he claims Israelis support his stance on rejecting the haste imposition of a Palestinian state. “Most Israelis comprehend that advancing the conflict in Gaza will only lead to a recurrence of the October 7 massacres, detrimental to both Israelis and Palestinians, and jeopardizing the prospects for peace in the Middle East.”

Netanyahu’s claims find backing in data. A recent survey by the Israeli Democracy Institute, as reported by the Times of Israel, revealed that 75% of Israeli Jews favor expanding military operations in Rafah. Among the proponents, 45% identify with the left. The survey also exposed a divided public opinion regarding US relations: 40% are optimistic about American support, 34% moderately so, and 20% pessimistic. Notably, 70% of Israeli Jews, including 86% of secular Jews, demand a review of the exemption of Orthodox Jews from military service, while only 19% of Orthodox Jews endorse it.

“So, the notion that my policies are personal and lack majority support is fallacious. The overwhelming majority is united as never before, understanding what’s best and crucial for Israel. And I believe they’re right.”

With respect to Biden’s remarks regarding an Israeli offensive in Rafah, crossing what he termed a “red line,” Netanyahu reiterated his government’s resolve to deploy Israeli forces to the city south of Gaza. In an interview with the German group Axel Springer of even date with Biden’s interview with MSNBC, Netanyahu emphasized his commitment, stating, “We will go there. I have a red line. Do you know what the red line is? October 7 will not be repeated.”

Pressed on whether Israel would proceed even without US support, Netanyahu affirmed, “Yes. We would prefer to have that support.” Addressing perceived differences between the USA and Israel, he underscored to Fox News on March 11 that such disagreements “do not aid in defeating Hamas.”

Moreover, Netanyahu rebutted accusations levelled against him by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, after aligning with Hamas, likened him to “Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.” Netanyahu dismissed Erdogan’s moral authority, stating, “Israel, adhering to the laws of war, won’t entertain moral lectures from a leader who supports the murderers and rapists of the terrorist organization Hamas. Erdogan, who denies the Armenian genocide, perpetrates atrocities against Kurds in his own country, and imprisons regime dissenters and journalists.”

Biden’s political maneuver: Breaking with Netanyahu’s Gaza strategy

Ambassador Sergio Vento contends that Biden has embarked on a high-stakes maneuver: diverging from Netanyahu’s approach to the Gaza conflict while maintaining solidarity with Israel in its battle against Hamas. Vento’s analysis finds resonance in reports from Axios, which cite US officials indicating that Biden’s shift in stance towards Netanyahu wasn’t triggered by specific incidents but rather a culmination of recent events and decisions by the Israeli prime minister.

According to the sources cited by Axios, Biden and key figures in the White House and the US State Department are increasingly frustrated by what they perceive as Netanyahu’s “ingratitude.” Despite offering unprecedented support to Israel over the past five months, even amid substantial opposition within the Democratic Party, Biden and his team feel Netanyahu has not reciprocated appropriately.

A pivotal indication of Biden’s evolving approach surfaced during his State of the Union address, Axios notes, where the US president avoided mentioning Netanyahu by name, opting instead for a reference to the “leadership of Israel.”

On March 9, New York Magazine reported that the Biden administration is actively exploring avenues to undermine Netanyahu’s government, trying to break the alliance between Likud and the religious right. The magazine highlights consultations between American officials and Israeli experts, examining mechanisms that could destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition. An unnamed Israeli expert reveals being approached by a senior figure in the administration, probing potential vulnerabilities in Netanyahu’s coalition dynamics. A US expert interviewed by the magazine suggests that the White House perceives Netanyahu as cornered and incapable of maneuvering effectively, thus necessitating a drastic policy shift.

Meanwhile, both Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz and war-cabinet member Benjamin Gantz view the operation in Rafah as pivotal for dismantling Hamas’s military and governmental apparatus, a goal they believe should enjoy full support from the USA and Biden. In his recent visit to the US, Gantz emphasized the necessity of demilitarizing Rafah, arguing that ending the conflict without achieving this objective would be akin to quelling “only 80% of a raging fire.”

Biden’s humanitarian initiative amidst rising tensions

During his State of the Union address on March 7, Biden announced a decisive move: directing the military to establish a platform off the coast to accommodate ships carrying essential supplies such as food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters to Gaza, which lacks functioning port infrastructure. In a Defence Department briefing on March 8, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen.  Patrick S. Ryder elaborated that the construction of the pier and its connecting road to the mainland would involve approximately 1,000 US soldiers and would span up to 60 days.

Concurrently, the departure of the US military ship, General Frank S. Besson, shortly after President Biden’s announcement, signals the immediate commencement of efforts, according to a statement from the US Central Command, Centcom.

Diverging paths: Contrasting visions for the future of Israel-Palestine

The recent discord over Israel’s strategy in Rafah underscores a deeper ideological chasm concerning the post-conflict landscape. The US Democratic Administration advocates for a comprehensive roadmap towards the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, culminating with the installation of the Palestinian Authority in the Strip following operation “Sword of Iron.” However, Israel’s leadership staunchly opposes the notion of a hasted Palestinian state. In stark contrast with the US plan, Netanyahu advocates for a security-centric approach, demanding Israel’s continued presence on the Gaza-Egypt border and proposing the replacement of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) with alternative international aid organizations.

Moreover, in a video address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on March 12, the prime minister issued bold declarations of impending victory, asserting, “We are marching towards unequivocal triumph.”

Netanyahu also affirmed the elimination of key Hamas figures, notably Saleh al-Arouri. Netanyahu’s remarks hint at Israel’s operational successes, including the covert elimination of high-ranking Hamas leaders. In a candid interview with Bild on March 11, Netanyahu illuminated the covert support extended by Arab nations to Israel’s anti-Hamas efforts. While publicly denouncing Hamas, leaders of unnamed Arab states, which Ambassador Vento identifies as most likely being Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, privately acknowledge the threat posed by the Iranian-backed terrorist group. Netanyahu emphasized their tacit cooperation, highlighting the shared recognition of Hamas’s alignment within the broader Iranian terror network.

The time of the crisis is unfortunate. Given Biden’s facing a highly uncertain reelection in November, he is keen on not alienating the Muslim vote in the USA. Consequently, there must be significant coordination between Washington and Ramallah occurring behind the scenes. The alliance between the USA and the Palestinian Authority is apparent, with senior PA advisor Mahmoud Habbash stressing the imperative for Hamas to cede control in Gaza to the PA. This alignment underscores a unified stance on the US plan, with the forthcoming announcement of a new PA government anticipated following Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s resignation.

Settlement expansion: The crucial arena in Judea and Samaria

Ambassador Vento underscores that the true battleground lies within Judea and Samaria, asserting, “If Gaza represents the tip of the iceberg, the ongoing struggle unfolds in Judea and Samaria.” Last week, the Supreme Planning Commission greenlit the construction of 3,500 housing units in the city-settlement of Maaleh Adumim, the village of Keidar, and Efrat near Bethlehem. While explicitly responding to a Palestinian attack near Maaleh Adumim resulting in two Israeli fatalities, the decision has elicited Washington’s ire.

In a press briefing held on March 6, the State Department condemned the move, branding settlements as a perpetual obstacle to peace and violative of international law. State Department spokesman Matthew A. Miller asserted, “These settlements not only inflict harm upon the Palestinian populace but also undermine Israel’s security and impede the prospects for a sustainable agreement conducive to genuine peace and security for Israelis.”

In response, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich echoed a defiant tone, stating, “In the past year, we have authorized 18,515 housing units in Judea and Samaria.” He framed settlement expansion as a strategic response to external threats, emphasizing resilience in the face of adversity.

According to Niram Ferretti, a Middle East analyst, Netanyahu and the incumbent government stand as the primary bulwark against perceived encroachments on Israeli sovereignty, particularly against what they view as misguided American initiatives.

“This sentiment, explains Ferretti, is encapsulated in the tough nationalist stance of the current administration, which, while occasionally provocative, remains grounded in a pragmatic understanding of regional dynamics. Their intimate familiarity with the nuances of Arab interactions stems from a shared heritage and upbringing, contrasting starkly with Democratic policy advisers whose comprehension of the Middle East is often marred by abstract theories divorced from lived realities.”

In the intricate landscape of the Middle East, every maneuver in Judea and Samaria reverberates, serving as a cautionary tale to an overly ideological Democratic administration. The terrain here is not merely about settlements; it symbolizes the precarious balance of power and the elusive quest for peace in a volatile region.

As things stand, between now and November, the journey will be marked by turbulence.

About the Author
Giuseppe Levi Pezzulli ("Bepi") is a Solicitor specialised in International financial law and a foreign policy scholar. His research interest is economic statecraft. In 2018, he published "An alternative view of Brexit" (Milano Finanza Books), which investigates the economic and geopolitical implications of Brexit. In 2023, "Brave bucks" (Armando Publishing House), which highlights the role of private capital in the industrial policy mix. Formerly an Editor-in-Chief of La Voce Repubblicana; is a columnist for the Italian daily financial newspaper Milano Finanza; a pundit for the financial TV channel CNBC; and a Middle East analyst for Longitude magazine. He received degrees at Luiss Guido Carli in Rome (LLB), New York University (LLM), and Columbia University (JD).
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