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Commentary: Biden is stuck with Netanyahu. How does he move forward?

Storer H. Rowley, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Political News

The long friendship between America and Israel faces some of the worst strains in its 76-year history. Six months into Israel’s war in Gaza, the rift is creating previously unthinkable fractures. Most recently, an Israeli prime minister publicly refused a U.S. president’s request to send emissaries to Washington to discuss war strategy and the appalling civilian death toll — then reversed himself.

Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has become an increasingly polarizing figure who welcomes U.S. taxpayer dollars and weapons but not always U.S. advice. Netanyahu has divided U.S. politics, outraged Israelis, vexed American Jews and undermined global support for the Jewish state. Yet, by all accounts, he’s not stepping down anytime soon.

President Joe Biden’s loyalty to Israel is ironclad, but his irritation is growing. During a “hot mic” moment after his State of the Union speech, Biden memorably promised to take Netanyahu to a “come to Jesus” meeting over Israel’s conduct of the war and Gaza’s unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking elected Jewish official in America, went further recently, calling Netanyahu a leader who has “lost his way” and become an obstacle to peace. The New York Democrat urged new elections in the Jewish state to save Israel. The U.S. even abstained from a United Nations Security Council cease-fire resolution last week, sending a strong signal to Israel’s extreme right-wing government that U.S. patience is wearing thin.

That two of America’s staunchest, longtime supporters of Israel are this frustrated is a sign of their deep concern over the horrific killing of more than 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, and also over the erosion of support for Israel due to the war. Biden said Schumer “gave a good speech” expressing concerns shared by many Americans.

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, most Americans (58%) said Israel has valid reasons for fighting Hamas, but only 1 in 5 (22%) believe the way the war is being conducted will make Israel safer.

 

“Biden’s in a tragic cul-de-sac. He can’t live with Netanyahu, and he can’t live without him,” said Aaron David Miller, a Mideast expert and former adviser to six secretaries of state.

“Clearly, Biden is not looking for a fight with Netanyahu,” Miller told me. “The administration is pursuing a passive-aggressive approach. It is angry and upset, but Biden is focusing on reality. Does he want to make a point with Netanyahu, or make a difference? You can’t do this by turning the current prime minister of Israel into a pariah.”

The longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history — who remains on trial on allegations of fraud, bribery and breach of trust — has seen his popularity with Israelis plummet and was recently called Israel’s worst leader by prominent Israeli journalist and author Anshel Pfeffer. His political fate is now entwined with the war.

“Chuck Schumer is not the only person who wants (Netanyahu’s) government gone or changed. Most Israelis want Netanyahu gone as prime minister as well,” said Linda Epstein, a Canadian Israeli political analyst who has lived in the country for 40 years. Israel’s parliamentary system makes it a challenge, she added, since Netanyahu’s governing coalition has a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset and most of its original members “are not willing to give up their seats.”

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