OPINIONS

Sun 23 Jun 2024 12:49 pm - Jerusalem Time

Why Netanyahu Doesn’t Take Biden Seriously

By Nicholas Kristof

A few months ago, President Biden seemed so fed up as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel ignored his calls for restraint in Gaza that he finally sounded tough.

In March, Biden was asked if his calls for Israel not to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah marked a “red line,” meaning that an invasion would lead to serious consequences.

“It is a red line,” Biden said, “but I’m never gonna leave Israel.”

What that added up to wasn’t clear, perhaps not even to Biden. But as someone who generally admires Biden’s foreign policy, I wanted to think that the president meant that an Israeli invasion of Rafah would lead to a suspension of transfers of offensive weapons, but no interruption of defensive weapons such as protections against incoming missiles.

Then in April, Biden called Netanyahu and seemed again to draw a line that was at least pink. He urged an immediate cease-fire and, according to the White House announcement, “made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.”

The statement continued, “U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

In May, Biden once more seemed to establish a red line. “If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons” used against cities, he told CNN.

All this seemed to signal Biden’s belated willingness to stand up to Netanyahu and avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Rafah. After being widely urged to do more for Gazans — even by his wife — Biden seemed to condition assistance so as to push Israel to flood the territory with aid, avoid an invasion of Rafah, stop killing aid workers and move toward a cease-fire.

In the period since that stern April phone call, Biden has again allowed Netanyahu to walk all over him.

Israel did invade Rafah. The supply of food reaching people in southern Gaza dropped. At least an additional 15 aid workers have been killed in Gaza. And Israel has continued reckless bombings like the one that ignited a tent camp in Rafah, killing dozens.

Now that Biden’s red and pink lines have been ignored, what is the president planning next? The administration is moving ahead with an $18 billion sale of F-15 fighter jets to Israel; I’ve no objection to the sale in principle, but the timing sends an awful signal that there are no consequences for ignoring Biden.

“What Biden has shown Netanyahu over and over is that he will wag his finger but he won’t enforce the finger-wagging,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former administration official who is the president of Refugees International.

This war began when Israel suffered a horrendous terrorist attack, and it had every right to strike Hamas — but not to level entire neighborhoods or to starve civilians. Biden has enabled Netanyahu and protected him at the United Nations even as a U.N. commission found Israel responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Biden seems to have believed initially that he could best influence and restrain Netanyahu by holding him close. And in fairness, this approach worked to some degree: Israel did not invade Lebanon last fall, as it was considering, and its invasion of Rafah seemed more measured than its invasion of other Gaza cities. It has also allowed more food into northern Gaza, aid workers say.

But the bottom line is that Biden’s Gaza policy has helped Netanyahu stay in power without, in my view, advancing Israel’s long-term security interests. The war has made a mockery of Biden’s arguments that the United States backs the “rules-based international order” and has thus undermined our position in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in a remarkable show of ingratitude to a president who has been his lifeline, Netanyahu used an English-language video to criticize the Biden administration for being insufficiently supportive and is preparing to sidestep the White House and speak to Congress.

We all know that diplomacy involves sticks as well as carrots. If Netanyahu doesn’t take Biden seriously, that’s because Biden mostly speaks softly and carries a big carrot.

After the latest Netanyahu attack on the Biden administration a few days ago, the White House responded that it found the prime minister’s remarks “deeply disappointing.” That sure taught Netanyahu a lesson.

“How much more proof does Biden need that Netanyahu is not a U.S. ally?” asked Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper. It advised Biden that Netanyahu “has taken you for a ride.”

If Biden shows that his red lines are meaningless in Gaza, why should Russia, China or Iran find him credible? If he is too timid to take on an ally dependent on American arms, what reason is there to think he would confront a rival?

The paradox is that Biden has generally had a successful foreign policy, especially in knitting together an alliance in Asia to reduce the risk of war with China. Yet he now finds himself mired in a mess in the Middle East that could well worsen. The war in Gaza may drag on at a lower level for the rest of this year, and Israel is talking of attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon in the coming weeks, triggering a separate war that could be even more catastrophic. Biden is trying to prevent a Lebanon war, but the way he projects weakness to Netanyahu limits his influence.

Look, I recognize that it’s easy to write these critical columns from the sidelines and that it’s much harder to actually navigate real-world policy. The realm of diplomacy always has more problems than solutions, and American politics and Netanyahu’s slipperiness make it all the more complicated. Yet after eight months of unremitting horror in the Middle East, Biden should recognize that his Gaza policy is a moral, practical and political failure that has not helped anyone but Netanyahu.

 

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Why Netanyahu Doesn’t Take Biden Seriously

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