David E. Weisberg

War and Politics, Biden and Netanyahu

Who’s playing politics with the war in Gaza?

Last Friday, President Biden announced that “Israel has offered a comprehensive new proposal.  It’s a roadmap to an enduring ceasefire and the release of all hostages.”

After Biden’s speech, Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly told Knesset members that there were “gaps” between the Israeli proposal and Biden’s outline of it, and that Biden’s outline was “incomplete.”  The prime minister, according to The Times of Israel, asserted specifically that Israel will not end the war in Gaza before achieving three goals: destroying Hamas’s military and civil governance capabilities, securing the release of all hostages, and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses any threat to Israel.

With regard to Hamas’s military capabilities, President Biden said on Friday that Israel had “devastated Hamas … forces over the past eight months.  At this point, Hamas no longer is capable of carrying out another October 7th, which — one of the Israelis’ main objective in this war and, quite frankly, a righteous one.”  But it seems obvious that there is a significant difference between Netanyahu’s stated goal of destroying Hamas’s military capabilities completely and Biden’s assertion that Hamas would not be able to carry out another attack like October 7th.  In this context, it should be noted that Israel believes several thousand Hamas gunmen are surrounded in Rafah; an armed force of several thousand battle-hardened fighters is not incapable of wreaking havoc in the future.

The chasm between Biden and Netanyahu only deepened when, on Tuesday, TIME magazine released an exclusive interview with Biden.  When he was asked whether Netanyahu is prolonging the war in Gaza for his own political reasons, Biden responded: “There is every reason for people to draw that conclusion.”

Biden presumably is implying that, because the right-wing parties headed by Ben Gvir and Smotrich are essential to Netanyahu’s coalition majority in the Knesset, there is every reason to draw the conclusion that Netanyahu is resisting Biden’s proposal simply to placate the right-wingers.  They insist on the utter destruction of Hamas, and only for that reason might Netanyahu (Biden implies) reject Biden’s proposal—a proposal that would be best for Israel.

Biden is asking the world to believe that he has Israel’s best interests at heart and that Netanyahu is sacrificing those best interests merely to preserve his coalition government.  But two questions arise:

Could reasonable people disagree as to which course is best for Israel?

Is it possible that Biden might also be motivated by considerations of politics, in virtually the same way he claims Netanyahu is motivated?

I don’t believe any fair-minded persons could insist, after October 7th, that Netanyahu’s goal of the total destruction of Hamas as a military force would not be very good for Israel.  It might not be an easy goal to achieve and, indeed, it might ultimately prove to be impossible.  But it cannot be said that it would not be in Israel’s interests to achieve that goal.

Biden effectively asserts that his proposal—which is opaque regarding the future role and capabilities of Hamas—is the best outcome Israel can realistically achieve.  Perhaps he is correct.  But, without a crystal ball (and even the President of the United States lacks that particular piece of equipment), it is impossible to say which plan, Biden’s or Netanyahu’s, would ultimately be best for Israel.

With regard to the second question—Is Netanyahu simply playing politics?—it is blindingly obvious that the exact same question could be posed with regard to Biden.  Biden implies that Netanyahu’s primary reason for not immediately embracing Biden’s proposal is his desire to preserve his coalition’s governing majority.  But it is equally possible that Biden’s primary purpose in offering his proposal is winning re-election in November.

Politicians who wield power typically want to preserve and extend that power.  This is true of politicians in Israel, the U.S., and in any and every other country in the world.  This is not to say that all politicians always put personal political considerations above any other considerations, including considerations as to what is best for their country.  But it is to say that one reasonably expects that sophisticated, successful politicians take political considerations into account.

A glance at the front page of any U.S. newspaper will confirm that a substantial portion of Biden’s Democratic political base is extremely dissatisfied with what in their eyes is seen as his improper support of the IDF’s over-the-top, possibly illegal, and possibly even genocidal attack on Gaza.  And many independent voters whose support Biden will need feel roughly the same way.

In proposing that both sides immediately agree to a ceasefire that is intended to be made permanent, Biden enhances his own political prospects: he gets pictures of dead Palestinians off the front pages and the media platforms, and he increases the likelihood that in the months before November the attention of the electorate will have shifted to other issues more favorable to his re-election.

I don’t claim to know whether it would be best for Israel to cease firing right now, or to continue with its effort to destroy Hamas completely.  As I see it, that is a question that ultimately ought to be decided by Israel–its government and its people–and not by Americans.  I also don’t claim to know to what extent either Biden or Netanyahu is taking a position on Gaza based only on his political future.  But I do know that reasonable people can disagree on the best course for Israel, and that both Israeli prime ministers and U.S. presidents can be accused of focusing solely on their own personal political ambitions, to the improper exclusion of any other considerations.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at:
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