Mar 12, 2024 - World

Biden-Bibi clash escalates as U.S. accused of undermining Israeli government

US President Joe Biden (L) speaks as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens on prior to their meeting in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.

President Biden speaks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The public clash between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu significantly escalated Tuesday after a senior Israeli official accused the Biden administration of trying to undermine Netanyahu's government.

Why it matters: The official's strongly worded and emotional statement underscored the mounting resentment and distrust between the two leaders over the Gaza war.

Catch up quick: A top U.S. intelligence agency in its annual threat assessment released Monday cited deepening "distrust of Netanyahu's ability to rule" since the Israel-Hamas war began in October.

  • "Netanyahu's viability as leader as well as his governing coalition of far-right and ultra orthodox parties that pursued hardline policies on Palestinian and security issues may be in jeopardy," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence report said.

The report added that U.S. intelligence services expect large protests demanding Netanyahu's resignation and new elections in the coming weeks and months.

  • "A different, more moderate government is a possibility", the report said.

Between the lines: It is highly unusual that such an assessment on the domestic political situation of the leader of a key U.S. ally be made in public.

  • Israeli officials think it shouldn't have happened without the White House clearing it in advance.
  • The Biden administration has been facing immense political pressure over its support for the Israeli government in its war with Hamas, as the president vies for re-election.

What they are saying: On Tuesday a statement sent to reporters attributed to "a senior Israeli official" hit back at the report but more broadly took aim at the Biden administration and accused it of meddling in Israeli domestic politics.

  • "Those who elect the Prime Minister of Israel are the citizens of Israel and no one else. Israel is not a vassal state of the U.S. but an independent and democratic country whose citizens are the ones who elect the government," the senior Israeli official said.
  • "We expect our friends to act to overthrow the terror regime of Hamas and not the elected government in Israel."

The big picture: Biden after his momentum-building State of the Union speech last week 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.

  • Biden in recent days set a "red line" regarding the war in Gaza for the first time by publicly opposing an Israeli military operation in Rafah.
  • Netanyahu responded by saying his "red line" is that Israel must go into Rafah.
  • During his speech, Biden also emphasized the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as he faces demands from the left flank of his party to call for a ceasefire.

State of play: Netanyahu in a speech Tuesday at the AIPAC pro-Israeli lobby conference thanked Biden for the support he's given Israel so far but stressed he will not cave to external pressure not to go on an operation in Rafah.

  • Netanyahu claimed a majority of Americans and a majority in Congress supports Israel.
  • "There are people who will make you believe that there is the prime minister of Israel and the people of Israel. The truth is that the people of Israel support my policy," Netanyahu said.

The other side: White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan tried to downplay the differences in a briefing with reporters Tuesday and said Biden is going "to speak out" when he has concerns about humanitarian aid and protection of civilians in Gaza.

  • Sullivan, who met the Israeli ambassador Mike Herzog on Tuesday morning, stressed: "Let's see what happens [in Rafah]…the issue is what happens on the ground and not what happens in the back and forth of words."
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