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Biden to Bibi: “Don’t”

In the past week, something has changed

Photo: Flash90


IT was the first post-October 7 visit by a senior White House official that recalled the Biden administration’s attitude toward the Israeli government before the war. Like previous officials, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan landed in Israel for a meeting with the war cabinet in the Kiryah bunker. But this time, Sullivan was here to issue an ultimatum and receive a clear answer regarding Israel’s deadline for the operation.

In the early days of the war, President Biden’s speeches were balm to the soul of the wounded Israeli public, proving that American support is Israel’s mainstay. It’s not just in the international arena, where the United States stands alone with Israel, as reflected in the recent UN Security Council vote. Militarily as well, the American president has provided Israel with unprecedented assistance, even eclipsing America’s aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

America’s deployment of aircraft carriers, submarines, and special units to the region stymied Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s master plan of dragging Israel into a multifront war on five different fronts. American supplies of tens of thousands of shells and munitions, including tank shells and bunker-busting bombs, enabled the IDF to unleash devastating firepower. So far, America has demanded little in return — limited mostly to allowing increased humanitarian aid and fuel into the Gaza Strip, expanding the humanitarian corridor for civilians, and other issues.

Israel almost unfailingly fell in line with the administration’s demands, with a clear rationale: As long as the administration backs the core principle of allowing the operation to continue, Israel can afford to compromise on pinpoint issues.

But in the past week, something has changed. This was first reflected in President Biden’s remarks that Israel is using disproportionate force. Unfortunately, the tragic killing of three hostages by IDF forces in the Strip seemingly reinforced the American president’s remarks. The three hostages — Yotam Haim, Alon Shamriz, and Samer Talalka — were clearly unarmed and waving makeshift white truce flags, but were apparently mistaken for Hamas terrorists trying to lure IDF soldiers into a trap. An IDF investigation is underway, but no information had been released as of press time.

Biden’s unprecedented call to change the composition of the right-wing government was intended primarily for American rather than Israeli ears. But his words didn’t come in a vacuum, and were the first signal of friction between the US and Israel behind the scenes.


Three key issues were raised by Jake Sullivan in his emergency meeting with the war cabinet. The first concerns the northern front, where Israel signaled an intention to take action last week. The entire point of dispatching US Navy aircraft carriers and submarines to the Mediterranean (even before the Houthis began attacking ships bound for Israel) was to prevent the northern front from escalating into a high-intensity conflict.

But more than 70 days into the war, the feeling in Israel is that there’s no choice but to launch a campaign in the north as well, whatever Hezbollah’s entry into the conflict may entail.

“Our concerns stand regarding Hezbollah initiating a real war,” a war cabinet member told me this week. “Compared to the size and precision of Hezbollah’s stockpile, the rockets from Gaza will look like child’s play. Nevertheless, we can’t go back to the antebellum situation in the north because residents there won’t return home as long as Hezbollah remains on the border.”

Amid all the talk about the refugees in Gaza, the world has lost sight of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis displaced from the north and south, who’ve been staying in hotels, caravans, and short-term arrangements for over two months. The war cabinet and defense establishment recognize that unless Hezbollah is made to pull back from the border, whether by force or diplomacy, northern residents will refuse to return to their homes. Sullivan came to hear the war cabinet’s plans and ask it not to start a war until all diplomatic means have been exhausted.

The second issue concerns the question of the day after in Gaza. Netanyahu used the American president’s call to transfer control of Gaza to a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority after the war — made partly under pressure from the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates —to launch his own election campaign.

“There will be no Hamastan in Gaza, and no Fatahstan,” Netanyahu said, linking Hamas and Fatah as two terrorist entities. This statement ties into another recent comment by Netanyahu, in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, about the number of fatalities on October 7 being equivalent to the number of victims of the Oslo Accords.

Netanyahu’s first campaign for prime minister, in 1996, was run by the late American advisor Arthur Finkelstein in the shadow of the terror wave sparked by the Oslo Accords. More than 25 years later, at a nadir in the polls, Netanyahu is trying to rehabilitate his image as the only Israeli leader who can withstand American pressure to recognize a Palestinian state.

This narrative serves Netanyahu domestically in the battle against Benny Gantz, whose popularity spiked after October 7. Opinion polls currently give Gantz around 38 seats to fewer than 20 for Netanyahu’s Likud. But elections are nowhere in sight, and in the meantime, Gantz’s ally Gideon Saar is making noises about returning to the right-wing fold.

A prominent former Likud member who currently controls four of the 12 seats held by Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party, Saar has expressed strong opposition to the idea of a Palestinian state and made it clear that he rejects any American ultimatum to the emergency government, thereby strengthening Netanyahu’s hand. As Henry Kissinger once said: Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy.


It’s not just Netanyahu who has polling worries. For President Joe Biden, who lags behind Trump in all key states, misery loves company in this respect. Biden’s unequivocal and highly personal backing for the Israeli operation is taking its toll on the Democratic coalition.

And it’s precisely this that has brought the fundamental distrust between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government to the fore. The administration suspects that Netanyahu’s refusal to scale down the operation stems from personal considerations as much as security ones, a reluctance to part with the protective umbrella of the emergency wartime government.

Allowing the war to continue into 2024, not to mention opening a second front in the north, would represent a real electoral blow for Biden, but so would a public spat with Netanyahu over winding down the operation and the question of who controls the Strip the day after.

It seems Biden feels that allowing the high-intensity operation to continue can only hurt his chances, and with his poll numbers slipping as the election gets closer, he’s decided to give Netanyahu a clear ultimatum.

With a standing Israeli request for thousands more tank shells and other equipment, and with $14 billion in special aid delayed by a standoff between Democrats and Republicans over immigration, Biden is exploiting the situation to demand clear answers.

“I can tell you that for the first time since we sat down with government officials, we felt that they were setting us a timer,” one minister told me of the meeting with Sullivan, contradicting official government statements that the Americans had not set Israel a deadline for ending the war. “It’s clear to everyone that the war won’t end and ground operations will continue, but the administration is asking us to set a deadline for the high-intensity war we’ve been waging in the 70 days since Simchas Torah.”

Recalling President Biden’s warning to Israel’s enemies at the start of the war, one could say that this week, behind closed doors (for now), Biden told Netanyahu: “Don’t.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 991)

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