Biden cajoles Netanyahu with tough talk, humanitarian concerns but Israeli PM remains dug in

President Joe Biden has stepped up public pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, warning he's “hurting Israel” and speaking candidly about “come to Jesus” conversations with the leader over the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza

March 11, 2024 09:59 am | Updated 02:03 pm IST - WASHINGTON

President Joe Biden, left, departs St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del., Sunday, March 10, 2024, after attending Mass.

President Joe Biden, left, departs St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del., Sunday, March 10, 2024, after attending Mass. | Photo Credit: AP

U.S. President Joe Biden has stepped up public pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, warning he's “hurting Israel” and speaking candidly about “come to Jesus” conversations with the leader over the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Despite Mr. Biden's increased displays of frustration, Israeli officials and Middle East analysts say no signs are emerging that Mr. Biden can push Israel, at least in the short term, to fundamentally alter how it’s prosecuting the conflict that is entering a new dangerous phase.

Read more on Israel-Palestine Conflict

“He has a right to defend Israel, a right to continue to pursue Hamas,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Netanyahu in an MSNBC interview. “But he must, he must, he must pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken. He’s hurting...in my view, he’s hurting Israel more than helping Israel.”

The U.S. President had hoped to have an extended cease-fire in place by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is set to begin Monday. Biden administration officials see a deal on a temporary truce in exchange for dozens of hostages as a crucial step toward finding an eventual permanent end to the conflict.

But with no deal emerging, Mr. Biden acknowledged last week that he has become more concerned about the prospect of violence in east Jerusalem. Clashes have erupted during Ramadan in recent years between Palestinians and Israeli security forces around Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major religious sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims and the emotional epicenter of the Middle East conflict.

Mr. Biden this weekend warned Mr. Netanyahu that an attack on Rafah—where hundreds of thousands of displaced Gazans have congregated—would be a “red line" and that Israel “cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead." At the same time, he said that his commitment to Israel's defense is sacrosanct.

State of Union address

The President's blunt comments came after he was caught on a hot mic following his State of Union address on Thursday telling a Democratic ally that he's told Mr. Netanyahu they will have a “come to Jesus” talk about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The U.S. this month began airdrops and announced it will establish a temporary pier to get badly needed aid into Gaza via sea. U.N. officials have warned at least one quarter of Gaza's 2.3 million people are one step away from famine. The extraordinary measures to get aid into Gaza have come as Israel has resisted U.S. calls to allow more in via land routes.

And in a move that irritated Mr. Netanyahu, Vice President Kamala Harris last week hosted a member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet, Benny Gantz, who came to Washington in defiance of the prime minister. U.S. officials said that Harris, and other senior advisers to Mr. Biden, were blunt with Gantz about their concerns about an expected Rafah operation.

Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday pushed back againstMr. Biden's latest comments.

“Well, I don’t know exactly what the president meant, but if he meant...that I’m pursuing private policies against the majority, the wish of the majority of Israelis, and that this is hurting the interests of Israel, then he’s wrong on both counts,” Netanyahu said in a clip of an interview with Politico, released by the prime minister's office on Sunday.

Mr. Biden's stepped up criticism of the prime minister's handling of the war has been an intentional effort to signal to Mr. Netanyahu that the U.S. president is running out of patience with the mounting death toll and lack of aid flow into Gaza, according to a U.S. official familiar with the president's thinking. The official was not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

Elsewhere in Israel, the reaction to Mr. Biden's public venting of frustration was mixed.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said he wasn’t surprised by Mr. Biden’s remarks. Lapid on Sunday accused Mr. Netanyahu of pandering to his base and said the prime minister had narrow political interests in mind, like placating the far-right members of his Cabinet.

The U.S. "lost faith in Mr. Netanyahu and it’s not surprising. Half of his Cabinet has lost faith in him as has the majority of Israel’s citizens,” Lapid, who briefly served as prime minister in 2022, told Israeli Army Radio. “Netanyahu must go.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz downplayed Mr. Biden’s comments, saying the U.S. backed Israel’s war aims and that was what mattered. “We must distinguish rhetoric from the essence,” he told Israeli Army Radio.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations and professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said Mr. Biden’s decision to scale up aid to Gaza and warn Israel about an incursion into Rafah undermined support for Israel’s aims of dismantling Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and freeing the hostages. He said it relieved Hamas of pressure to agree to a temporary cease-fire deal.

He said Mr. Biden’s harsher comments of late came out of a frustration with Mr. Netanyahu over his reluctance to accept the U.S. vision for a postwar Gaza. Mr. Biden has called for Middle East stakeholders to reinvigorate efforts to find a two-state solution, one in which Israel would co-exist with an independent Palestinian state, once the current war ends.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, has consistently opposed establishing a Palestinian state throughout his political career.

Gilboa said Mr. Biden's remarks were made with an eye on his reelection and were aimed at appeasing progressive Democrats. The president is facing growing pressure from the left-wing of his party to use the United States' considerable leverage as Israel's chief patron to force Mr. Netanyahu toward a permanent cease-fire.

More than 100,00 Michigan Democrats cast “uncommitted” ballots in the state's primary last month, part of a coordinated effort in the battleground state intended to show Mr. Biden that he could lose much-needed support over frustration with his administration's approach to the Israel-Hamas war.

“Netanyahu earned that criticism, but on the other hand when (Biden) criticizes Mr. Netanyahu personally, he thinks he improves his standing among progressives,” Gilboa said.

But Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that pointed criticism of the Netanyahu government has limited value for Mr. Biden politically.

“Words without deeds are not going to bring those voters back,” Miller said. “The hemorrhaging is going to continue as long as the pictures in Gaza don’t change.”

Gilboa said that even if a different government were running Israel, such as a more moderate figure like Gantz, Mr. Biden would still find a leadership intent on entering Rafah and defeating Hamas.

“They wouldn’t do things significantly different,” he said. “Is there anyone of sound mind here who is willing to leave Hamas in Gaza? That won’t happen.”

Biden administration officials pushed back against the idea that the president has become more outspoken in his criticism of Mr. Netanyahu with an eye on his 2024 prospects.

It's not lost on Mr. Biden that Israelis across the political spectrum remain as hawkish as Mr. Netanyahu about eliminating Hamas. Still, Mr. Biden believes that by speaking out more forcefully he can sway the Israelis to do more to reduce the death toll and alleviate suffering of innocent Palestinians as Israel carries out its operations, according to the U.S. official.

Mr. Biden, who last traveled to Israel soon after Hamas' launched its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, said in the MSNBC interview that he was open to travelling to Israel again to speak directly to the Knesset.

Privately, M. Biden has expressed a desire to aides to make another trip to Israel to try to circumvent Mr. Netanyahu and take his message directly to the people. One possibility discussed internally for a presidential trip is if a temporary cease-fire agreement is reached. Mr. Biden could use the moment to press the case directly to Israelis for humanitarian assistance in Gaza and begin outlining a path toward a permanent end to the fighting, officials said.

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