Mar 10, 2024 - World

Biden breaks with Netanyahu but sticks with Israel

US President Joe Biden (L), sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023,

President Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18. Photo: Miriam Alster/Pool via Getty Images

President Biden has begun a tricky maneuver: breaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Gaza war strategy — while sticking with Israel and its fight against Hamas, which is still holding hostages.

Why it matters: No one incident led Biden to start changing his course with Netanyahu, whom he has known for 40 years. It's an accumulation of events and decisions by the prime minister over the last few weeks, U.S. officials tell Axios.

Between the lines: Biden hoped for weeks that he could use the war to push his Saudi mega-deal after the fighting. But in many ways, Biden sees Netanyahu as the one responsible for the deal slipping away.

Behind the scenes: The U.S. officials say Biden — and many other senior officials at the White House and the State Department — are extremely frustrated by what they see as ungratefulness by Netanyahu.

  • Biden has given the Israeli government unprecedented support over the past five months, at the cost of strong pushback from the president's party during an election year.

Driving the news: Biden's "State of the Union" address contained a huge signal about his shift regarding Netanyahu. The president didn't call him by name, but referred to "the leadership of Israel."

  • In the speech, Biden was relatively restrained in his criticism of the Israeli government. But a post-speech chat with a Democratic senator, caught on a hot mic, showed that what the president actually thinks is much harsher.
  • "I told Bibi: 'You and I are going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting,'" he told Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) before realizing he was being recorded.
  • Biden told MSNBC's Jonathan Capehart that "come-to-Jesus" is "an expression used in the southern part of my state, meaning a serious meeting. ... I've known Bibi for 50 years, and he knew what I meant by it."

Biden told Capehart that Netanyahu "must pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken" in Gaza:

  • "He's hurting Israel more than helping Israel, by making the rest of the world — it's contrary to what Israel stands for. And I think it's a big mistake."
  • But Biden said he's "never gonna leave Israel. The defense of Israel is still critical."

Zoom out: Biden has reached a point three of his predecessors — Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — also arrived at in their relationship with Netanyahu.

  • Clinton managed to break with Netanyahu without hurting his pro-Israel record. Obama distanced himself from the prime minister but lost the Israeli people in the process. The consequence of Trump's break with Netanyahu will be known only if he gets re-elected.
  • But in Biden's case, the stakes are much higher. America's strongest ally in the region is going through its worst crisis in more than 50 years, the region is boiling at the beginning of Ramadan and the presidential election campaign is picking up steam.

What to watch: The military operation Netanyahu is planning in Rafah — where more than 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering after being displaced from elsewhere in Gaza — could be the watershed moment.

  • Israeli officials have said if no hostage deal is reached soon this operation could take place in April. Biden told MSNBC such an operation "is a red line."
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