Jan 19, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Netanyahu inflames tensions with Democrats over Palestinian statehood

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Democratic members of Congress and the Biden administration are admonishing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for opposing the establishment of Palestinian state after the Israel-Hamas war.

Why it matters: It's just the latest rift between Democrats in Washington and Israel as President Biden begins to lose his patience with the Israeli premier.

  • "He's just proving to be an incredibly problematic partner ... it's a growing issue," said a House Democrat, adding, "The special relationship is with Israel, not with Bibi."

Driving the news: Netanyahu said in a press conference on Thursday that, as part of any resolution ending the active conflict in Gaza, Israel "needs security control over all territory west of the Jordan [River]."

  • That demand — which Netanyahu called a "necessary condition" — would include both Gaza and the West Bank.
  • Netanyahu, who has long opposed a two-state solution, acknowledged that the proposal "collides with the idea of sovereignty" for the Palestinians, adding, "What can you do?"
  • In a nod to Biden's pressure on him to work towards a two-state solution, Netanyahu also said, "I tell this truth to our American friends, and I also stopped the attempt to impose a reality on us that would harm Israel's security."

The comments were met with immediate pushback from the White House, with National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby telling reporters, "We obviously see it differently ... And the president and his team is going to continue to work on that."

What they're saying: A group of 15 Jewish House Democrats, including many steadfast supporters of Israel, said in a statement: "We strongly disagree with the Prime Minister. A two-state solution is the path forward."

  • Some lawmakers offered more cutting criticisms: "Frankly, I'm appalled," Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a statement, arguing Netanyahu is "not only out of step with the majority of Israeli citizens, he is also flat-out wrong about what is needed to keep his country safe."
  • Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said the comments "jeopardize security in the Middle East and the lives of Israelis and Palestinians," calling them "unacceptable."

Zoom in: Even some of Israel's most staunch Democratic allies in Congress expressed firm disagreement with Netanyahu.

  • Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) said in a statement to Axios that a "better future for all people in the region" requires a "very real pathway for Palestinians to realize their own peaceful aspirations for a viable state."
  • Rep. Kathy Manning (D-N.C.) said she continues to "believe firmly in a two-state solution" and that the "best path to peace in the region is the existence and security of a democratic, Jewish State of Israel and for the Palestinians to realize their own peaceful state."

Between the lines: Several Democratic lawmakers who spoke to Axios on the condition of anonymity said Netanyahu's comments will likely bolster critics of Israel's human rights record in Congress.

  • "It certainly strengthens the position of people who are going to be calling for conditions on aid to Israel," one House Democrat said.
  • "His comments make it harder and harder to dissuade people from what they either want to believe to be true or really do believe to be true about Israel's intent," said a second House Democrat.

The big picture: The row with Netanyahu is far from an isolated incident — Democrats have been increasingly clashing with the Israeli government's tactics and positions since the onset of the war in October.

  • Last week, a group of Jewish Democrats pressed Israel's ambassador to the U.S. on comments made by two far-right ministers in Netanyahu's government advocating the forced emigration of Palestinians from Gaza.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) forced a vote this week on directing the State Department to compile a report on Israel's human rights record, which was supported by 10 Democrats and one Republican.

The latest: Biden and Netanyahu spoke by phone for the first time in nearly a month on Friday. A frustrated Biden had abruptly ended their last call in December by saying the "conversation is over," Axios' Barak Ravid reported.

  • On the call, Biden discussed his vision for the day after the war, which includes normalization between Israel and the Arab world and a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians that would ensure Israel's security, Kirby said.
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