The explainer

😢 Biden and Bibi: how it all went wrong

22 March 2024

The explainer

Biden and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv after the October 7 attacks. GPO/Handout/Anadolu?Getty

Biden and Bibi: how it all went wrong

Last Friday, US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer – the highest-ranking Jewish official in US history – called for an election in Israel because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu risked turning the country into a “pariah” state. Netanyahu, he said, “has lost his way”.

What did Joe Biden have to say about it?
He said it was a “good speech” – remarkable from a man who has called Netanyahu a friend for more than four decades. Last October, 11 days after the October 7 atrocities, Biden landed in Tel Aviv, stepped off the plane, wrapped Netanyahu in a bear hug and promised to support Israel with the full might of the US military. In the five months since, the Israeli PM has happily accepted American military aid, while ignoring the US president’s calls to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza or countenance a two-state solution after the war. The pair have spoken only once in the past month, earlier this week, and – in contradiction of Biden’s “red line” – Netanyahu has approved plans for an assault on Hamas’s final stronghold, Rafah.

How long have they known each other?
They first met in 1982, when Biden was a 39-year-old junior senator and the 32-year-old Netanyahu was deputy Israeli ambassador in Washington. Since then, they have enjoyed an occasionally testy but warm rapport. When Biden travelled to Israel as vice president in 2010, he was blindsided by Netanyahu’s government declaring it would expand Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Some of Barack Obama’s aides saw it as a deliberate humiliation and argued that the delegation should immediately return home. Instead, Biden issued a statement criticising the move, then he and his wife Jill went for dinner with the Netanyahus.

How did Netanyahu get on with previous presidents?
He mostly got on their nerves. More than 30 years ago, as a young deputy foreign minister, he was banned from George HW Bush’s State Department for telling a newspaper that America’s Middle East policy was built on “distortions and lies”. In 1996, after Netanyahu became PM, it was Bill Clinton’s turn to be insulted. “Who the fuck does he think he is?” Clinton asked aides, after receiving a lecture on how to deal with Arabs during their first meeting. “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” Even Donald Trump was blindsided: when he and Netanyahu announced a new peace plan they’d cooked up – without Palestinian input – the Israeli PM unexpectedly declared that the proposal allowed Israel to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. “That was not what we had negotiated,” recalled a stunned Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and lead negotiator. “I grabbed my chair so intensely that my knuckles turned white.”

How is Netanyahu seen at home?
He was once a highly effective politician, says Ed Luttwak in UnHerd, who “set Israel on the path to techno-prosperity” as a revolutionary finance minister. But although he has been PM twice before, this time he was only able to win office by forming a coalition with some very unpleasant religious ultra-nationalists. And the minute he leaves office, he faces a potential prison sentence on multiple charges of corruption. So the longer the war goes on, the longer he can delay that reckoning.

What does he think about Palestine?
Netanyahu has long opposed Palestinian statehood and was once secretly recorded bragging to a settler family about how he had stymied the Oslo Accords in his first term as prime minister. He has also, counter-intuitively, been helping Qatar smuggle millions of dollars to Hamas for years, says Donald Macintyre in Tortoise. He seems to have believed that by keeping the terrorists in charge of Gaza, he would prevent the Palestinian Authority – which runs the West Bank – from governing both territories and thus boosting the case for Palestinian statehood. Plus, he hoped, Hamas would become addicted to the cash and worry more about staying in power than fulfilling its stated goal of wiping out Israel. On October 7, Israelis paid the price of that miscalculation.

Can Biden tell him what to do?
Netanyahu ignores the White House because there is no cost for doing so, says Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. That’s not entirely new. “Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice,” former Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan said in 1967. “We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.” But some previous presidents found that they had more influence than they realised. During the 1982 bombing of Beirut, Ronald Reagan called up Israeli PM Menachem Begin and told him: “Menachem, this is a holocaust”. Twenty minutes later, Begin rang back to say the bombing was over. A surprised Reagan told an aide: “I didn’t know I had that kind of power.”

Why is Netanyahu treated any differently?
He understands America. He was born in Tel Aviv but went to high school in Philadelphia, only returning to Israel aged 18 for his national service. After five years in the special forces, he went back to the US to study simultaneously at Harvard and MIT. Later, working at the Boston Consulting Group, he was a colleague and chum of (now senator) Mitt Romney’s. His bonhomie, American accent and easy political charms turned many US politicians into lifelong friends, who even now call him by his childhood nickname, “Bibi”.

What about Biden?
The US president’s unusual patience and forbearance is partly personal, but it’s also about history. He was born during the Holocaust, which has powerfully influenced his outlook: “You need not be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he has said. “I am a Zionist; if there was no Israel there’s not a Jew in the world who would be safe.” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US during Obama’s first term, puts it neatly: “He has Israel in his heart.” After that dinner with the Netanyahus back in 2010, Biden gave the Israeli PM a photograph scrawled with a message: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love ya.”

🪖💪 Biden has plenty of “leverage” with Netanyahu, should he choose to use it, says Nicholas Kristof. He could make US arms shipments contingent on Israel allowing more humanitarian aid into Gaza. He could attach “end-use restrictions” on those arms, limiting how they can be used, as he does with Ukraine. He could publicly urge Egypt to let aid trucks cross the border into Gaza “even without Israeli approval”. He could even “bypass Netanyahu” and make the case for a ceasefire directly to Israel’s parliament. For all his tough talk, Biden “hasn’t truly tested his power”.