Mar 25, 2024 - World

Netanyahu provoking crisis with White House for domestic politics: U.S. officials

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with the German Chancellor after their meeting in Jerusalem on March 17, 2024.I

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 17. Photo: Leo Correa/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The White House sees the public rift with Israel over a UN Security Council resolution as an artificial crisis manufactured by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for domestic political reasons, three U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: Less than six months after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, which led to unprecedented support for Israel by the Biden administration, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is rapidly deteriorating.

  • Netanyahu today canceled a visit to the White House later this week by his senior advisers after the U.S. abstained from the UN vote calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Behind the scenes: On Sunday evening and Monday morning, White House officials held discussions with Netanyahu's aides about the UN resolution and told him the U.S. was likely to abstain, a source with direct knowledge said.

  • The White House told Netanyahu's aides during these discussions that the U.S. abstention isn't a policy change and stressed the Biden administration doesn't see the UN resolution as binding, the source said.
  • Netanyahu said in a statement on Monday that he made it clear to the Biden administration on Sunday night that he does see it as a change in U.S. policy. He also threatened to cancel an Israeli delegation trip to Washington to discuss the Rafah operation if the U.S. didn't veto the resolution.
  • "If Prime Minister Netanyahu felt so strongly, why didn't he call President Biden? The U.S. position is clear: We read the resolution as calling for both a ceasefire and the release of hostages — in the same paragraph. For that reason, we abstained," a U.S. official said. 

What they're saying: A U.S. official said the White House was "perplexed" by what it sees as an overreaction by Netanyahu.

  • The official said the White House is also puzzled that the prime minister rejected the U.S. interpretation of the UN resolution, decided to air his differences with the Biden administration in public and tell the U.S. what its policy is when the U.S. is already stating its policy, which is different from what Netanyahu is saying.
  • "All of that is self-defeating. The prime minister could have chosen a different course — to align with the U.S. on the meaning of this resolution.  He chose not to, apparently for political purposes," a U.S. official said.

The latest: Two hours after Netanyahu announced he canceled the delegation, conservative minister Gideon Saar said he is resigning and that his party is leaving the emergency government.

  • Saar's resignation will increase pressure on Minister Benny Gantz to do the same.
  • If the centrist Gantz leaves, Netanyahu will remain with his original radical right-wing coalition and will have significantly less maneuvering space internationally.

Another U.S. official said Netanyahu was using the UN vote as an excuse to not send a delegation of Israeli leaders to Washington this week to discuss Israel's planned invasion of Rafah. More than 1 million Palestinians displaced from their homes are sheltering in the southern Gaza city.

  • "He was afraid we might offer something reasonable," the official said. "He would rather have a fight with us even if it's not in Israel's interest."
  • "It's also a funny way to treat a partner that has given Israel so much support," the official said.

Between the lines: The White House is trying to play down that Netanyahu canceled the trip by his confidants — Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi.

  • The two were expected to meet national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior officials to discuss alternatives that the U.S. planned to propose for an Israeli operation in Rafah.
  • U.S. officials say they are instead focusing on another senior Israeli official who is in Washington this week, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who met with Sullivan on Monday and discussed the operation in Rafah among other issues.
  • "We had a constructive discussion on how best to ensure Hamas' lasting defeat in Gaza," Sullivan posted on X.
  • Gallant is a security hawk who supports an Israeli operation in Rafah, but he is Netanyahu's main rival inside the Likud party.

Flashback: The current crisis echoes the fight between Netanyahu and former President Barak Obama over the Iran deal in 2015 and the confrontation between the two leaders in December 2016, when the U.S. didn't veto a UN Security Council resolution against Israel expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank.

What's next: Biden doesn't have a call with Netanyahu scheduled at the moment, a source familiar with the issue said.

Editor's note: This story was updated with details about Gideon Saar's resignation and Sullivan's comments on the meeting with Gallant.

Go deeper