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Are Bibi and Biden Heading for a Showdown?

Which of these two old and experienced politicians prevails will determine Israel’s future.
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February 13, 2024
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Joe Biden wants a two-state solution and it appears that his patience is quickly running out. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu obviously wants no such thing. But he now sees Biden’s growing pressure as a way to remain in office even after the war ends. Which of these two old and experienced politicians prevails will determine Israel’s future.

Biden has clearly had it. For years, his “I love you, Bibi, but I don’t agree with a damn thing you say” one-liner has allowed the president to maneuver past many serious disagreements between the two men. But a demonstrably peeved Biden is no longer bothering to soft-pedal his disatisfaction. During a recent news conference in which he was already in a bad mood after defending himself against a special counsel’s allegation that his memory is failing, he used his harshest language toward the Jewish state than at any time since Oct. 7.

Biden referred to Israeli military conduct as “over the top” and then went on to say: “A lot of innocent people are starving. A lot of innocent people are in trouble and dying. And it’s got to stop.” He followed up a few days later in his first conversation with Netanyahu in almost a month by warning the Israeli prime minister that he should not go ahead with the planned action in the southern Gaza city of Rafah without a specific plan for providing for the safety of civilians in that area. In the first weeks after the initial Hamas attacks, the two men spoke every few days. But as their objectives have grown apart and the disagreement between them has grown, Biden has been content to let his advisors convey his dissatisfaction. The Rafah flashpoint has raised his ire to a point where he believed that a more direct rebuke was necessary.

The operation in southern Gaza represents a particularly acrimonious clash between Biden and Netanyahu. Biden now faces increasing pressure from the political left in this country to the point where it could potentially threaten his reelection, and he has found a number of ways to express his displeasure with Netanyahu’s approach to the war. The president has issued executive orders aimed at ensuring that countries receiving U.S. military support commit to providing humanitarian assistance (a veiled caution flag toward Israel) and sanctioning four West Bank settlers for violence against Palestinians. The sanctions in particular clearly angered Netanyahu, who then complained about the decision directly to Biden.

The White House has also been frustrated by Netanyahu’s approach to the hostage negotiations, feeling that he has undermined U.S. efforts by dismissing the talks too quickly. But these are just the preliminaries: the major test of American-Israeli ties is yet to come. Biden has long believed in the necessity of a two-state solution and his administration has been increasingly vocal in their discussions of the preconditions for a Palestinian state. However, the president has not yet raised the volume on this option to the degree that will be necessary to pressure Israel to more seriously consider such an option. That may be about to change.

The Gaza war has taken on almost symbolic value to Biden’s progressive detractors, who seem to be channeling their frustration with the president’s pace of action on immigration policy, climate change, police reform and other liberal priorities into far more confrontational protest against him on the Middle East. Biden needs these voters in November, and since he is not about to abandon Israel altogether, a two-state solution might give him the ability to square that political circle.

But Netanyahu, whose poll numbers have dropped precipitously since Oct. 7, clearly sees a significant political benefit in being seen by the Israeli people as leading the resistance to an international call for a Palestinian state. More than three-quarters of war-scarred Israelis oppose a two-state solution, and Netanyahu regards his leadership of that opposition as a key to his political survival.

Neither Biden nor Netanyahu has any interest in leaving office anytime soon. But each of their paths to political survival may now require the defeat of the other.

Neither Biden nor Netanyahu has any interest in leaving office anytime soon. But each of their paths to political survival may now require the defeat of the other.


Dan Schnur is the U.S. Politics Editor for the Jewish Journal. He teaches courses in politics, communications, and leadership at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the monthly webinar “The Dan Schnur Political Report” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall. Follow Dan’s work at www.danschnurpolitics.com.

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