May 15, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Bibi's rant: Israel isn't a "vassal state" of the U.S.

Photo illustration of Benjamin Netanyahu surrounded by torn pieces of blue paper, and torn pieces of a map.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images

A day after President Biden warned Israel that a major attack on Rafah would cross a "red line" for U.S. support, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on a rant during a meeting with his security cabinet.

  • "We are not a vassal state of the United States!" he declared, according to three people with knowledge of his remarks, including one of Netanyahu's aides.

Why it matters: Netanyahu's hot reaction last Thursday reflected his combative mood at a time when Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza has strained its relationship with the U.S.

Driving the news: The tension began escalating two weeks ago, after Biden put a hold on 3,500 U.S. bombs that were on a ship about to depart for Israel.

  • It was a shot across the bow to show Netanyahu how concerned Biden remains about the prime minister continuing to say he's planning to order an invasion of Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians have taken shelter.
  • Biden, with an eye on his re-election campaign, is under increasing pressure from progressive Democrats to end the war in Gaza that began after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Behind the scenes: Netanyahu and his close confidant Ron Dermer, Israel's minister for strategic affairs, were surprised by Biden's decision on the weapons shipment and his public ultimatum, two Israeli sources with knowledge of the issue told Axios.

  • Biden and other senior U.S. officials privately had told Netanyahu and Dermer several times recently that such a move could happen if they continued pushing toward an invasion of Rafah, a senior U.S. official said.
  • But Dermer, who was Israel's ambassador to Washington for eight years during the Obama and Trump administrations, told Netanyahu that Biden wouldn't dare take such a step, one Israeli source said.

During his long rant at the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu compared his clash with Biden over Rafah to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, declaring independence in 1948 over the objections of then-U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, two sources with knowledge of the meeting said.

  • Netanyahu also noted his speech to Congress in March 2015, when he voiced his opposition to President Obama's efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
  • That speech led to a deep rift in U.S.-Israel relations and angered many Democrats.
  • An aide to Netanyahu recounted the prime minister telling the cabinet that he knew how to push back against U.S. pressure and would do it again if necessary.
  • "When is comes to threats to our security we will do whatever it takes," the aide recalled Netanyahu telling the cabinet.

Between the lines: Netanyahu's "vassal state" remark echoed comments by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a 1982 meeting with Sam Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

  • Back then, Begin was fuming about President Reagan's decision to freeze $300 million in U.S. military aid to Israel over the Israeli government's annexation of the Golan Heights.

State of play: Senior U.S. and Israeli officials said there is a deep distrust between Biden and his close advisers and Netanyahu and Dermer, especially regarding Rafah.

  • A senior Israeli official said much of the engagement between Biden's team and Israel's government over Rafah during the last two weeks has gone through other Israeli channels, such as defense minister Yoav Gallant.
  • Gallant, who speaks regularly with Secretary of State Tony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk, is trying to make adjustments in the operation in Rafah "to minimize friction with the Biden administration," the senior Israeli official said.

So far, it appears to be working. Israel's military is operating in Rafah in a targeted way without a massive ground invasion, U.S. officials say.

  • Senior Israeli officials say that although the bombs shipment is still on hold, other U.S. weapons shipments continue. One significant U.S. shipment is expected to depart for Israel this week.

What to watch: Sullivan's planned visit to Israel on Sunday will be an effort to move past the rift and reach an understanding about Rafah.

  • A few days after he returns to Washington, a senior Israeli delegation will come to the White House for another meeting about Rafah.
  • At least until then, Israel isn't expected to expand its operation there.
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