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.”

Netanyahu knows that “the longer he drags out the war, the longer it takes for a state commission of inquiry to begin” looking into intelligence and military failures leading up to Oct. 7, she said.


“The truth is almost everyone in the country is still suffering from trauma in one way or another,” Epstein said, “and because the country is so small, everyone knows someone who lost someone on Oct. 7 or knows someone in the army or knows someone who was killed.”

The same is true in Gaza, where whole families have been lost. Biden has called for the protection of Palestinian civilians in the planned Israeli offensive to come in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where some 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have sought refuge.

The war has bitterly divided American Jews and drawn outrage and cries of “genocide Joe” from younger voters and Arab and Muslim Americans. Biden’s unwavering support for Israel has hurt him in a presidential election year, with substantial numbers of Democrats voting “uncommitted” in protest in primaries. If that continues, it could cost him a close election.

To be sure, the administration rightly has championed Israel’s right to defend itself after Hamas terrorists went on a bloody rampage Oct. 7, killed 1,200 Israelis, raped and tortured victims and took 240 hostages back into Gaza. Hamas has no interest in peace or a two-state solution. It has promised more massacres, but it must accept a cease-fire and release the hostages now.

Netanyahu has also rejected Biden’s call for a two-state solution once the war ends. It’s the only viable path to peace — even though, after the trauma endured by both sides, that could well take years. A credible road to peace will require new Israeli and Palestinian leaders. As long as Netanyahu and his coalition won’t call new elections, Biden needs to work with him.

So, Biden’s stuck with Netanyahu. He could have slow-walked military assistance, but he hasn’t, said Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He could have demanded a complete cease-fire, but he hasn’t, preferring to urge Israel’s government to go ahead with a Rafah operation to root out Hamas — but only if they can do it cautiously with the least harm to Palestinian civilians. The U.S. abstention on the U.N. resolution was a rebuke more than a change in U.S. policy.

The lost Palestinian lives have been a generational catastrophe, and surviving civilians in Gaza now face imminent famine. The world must rally to help them. But Biden is right. There can be no lasting peace without subduing Hamas.


Storer H. Rowley, a former national editor and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.


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