OPINIONS

Mon 24 Jun 2024 10:54 am - Jerusalem Time

Taking a Risk, Israel’s Netanyahu Continues To Butt Heads With White House

By KEREN SETTON

 

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant travels to Washington to discuss Israel’s conflict with Hamas and strained US-Israel relations with top US officials

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrived in the US on Sunday, at a critical time in Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza and its strained relationship with the administration of President Joe Biden. Gallant is set to meet with his counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, CIA Director William Burns, and special envoy Amos Hochstein.

Gallant’s visit comes as tensions between Washington and Jerusalem continue to rise. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the US for withholding weapons from Israel, a claim the White House rebuffed, saying all but one shipment is “under review.”

We generally do not know what he’s talking about. We just don’t.

“We generally do not know what he’s talking about. We just don’t,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in response.

On Sunday, Netanyahu opened his cabinet meeting with more remarks on the matter, explaining why he chose to go public with his criticism.

“I greatly appreciate the support of President Biden and the American administration for Israel,” he said. “But four months ago, there was a dramatic decrease in the munitions coming to Israel from the US. For long weeks, we turned to our American friends and requested that the shipments be expedited. We did this time and again. We did so at the highest levels … and … we did so behind closed doors. We received all sorts of explanations, but one thing we did not receive; the basic situation did not change. Certain items arrived sporadically but the munitions at large remained behind.”

Netanyahu’s public reprimand of the US, in which he said, “It’s inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunitions,” elicited criticism within Israel for risking the alliance with the US.

In an immediate show of dismay, the White House canceled a scheduled joint strategic dialogue on Iran. Israeli media reported some officials were already on the runway in Tel Aviv when they were notified of the cancellation.

According to Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, Netanyahu is taking a gamble in the direct confrontation with the American president.

“He either feels it will benefit him with his domestic supporters, or that he feels that a public confrontation is the only tactic he has lift, if indeed there has been delay of shipments,” Rosner told The Media Line. “But such a skirmish comes with risks and could come with a punishment. The US has plenty of tools that could harm or disrupt Israeli efforts.”

Up for reelection come November, President Biden is in a delicate domestic position. Netanyahu, well versed in American politics, likely made his statements ahead of Thursday’s scheduled first debate between the incumbent president and former President Donald Trump. It wouldn’t be the first time Netanyahu takes sides, choosing to align himself with the Republican candidate.

For Israel, amidst a lengthy war and perhaps even a wider conflict on the horizon, the stakes are high.

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It is important to remember that without American support, be it with weapons or the diplomatic umbrella, Israel would have been in a different position

“There is no doubt that the damage done outweighs the benefits,” said Yaki Dayan, former chief of staff to Israeli Foreign Ministers Silvan Shalom and Tzipi Livni, and former Israeli consul general in Los Angeles. “It is important to remember that without American support, be it with weapons or the diplomatic umbrella, Israel would have been in a different position.”

“The US helped, despite a lot of gaps in how it sees things in comparison to the Israeli position,” Dayan added. “Israel has a lot to lose, with various fronts active at the same time.”

Immediately after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, President Biden voiced support for Israel. This came with expedited shipments of necessary ammunition, increased financial aid, mobilization of an aircraft carrier to the region and diplomatic support in the international arena.

“When the White House spokesman says that the prime minister of Israel is “embarrassing” you hear it in Riyadh, you hear it in Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Cairo and Amman. In these places everyone reaches the same conclusion—Israel is no longer the closest ally of the USA. This is the damage that Netanyahu is causing us. This is his terrible irresponsibility, and these are his results,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid posted on his X account.

Media outlets in the US reported that the president and other senior officials were angry about Netanyahu’s statements and his ingratitude in light of the steady American support throughout the conflict. A sale of US-manufactured F-15 fighter jets to Israel was just approved by Congress last week. It is unclear how many arms shipments have been delayed and what the consequences are on Israel’s war effort.

The US-Israeli relationship has been rocky throughout Israel’s eight-month war against Hamas in Gaza. Netanyahu has procrastinated on the main American request to discuss an end-game strategy for the Gaza Strip once the war is over, causing frustration in the White House. In addition, the high number of civilian casualties as a result of Israel’s offensive in Gaza has led Washington to delay the shipment of 2,000-pound bombs.

“The US is our most important and strategic ally,” said Gallant before boarding the plane. “Our relationship is especially important, perhaps now more than ever.”

In a statement released by the Defense Ministry, it said Gallant’s meetings will focus on “getting equipment and projecting joint strength in order to maintain Israel’s qualitative advantage in the Middle East.”

Gallant will try to iron out the differences, as Israel finds itself at a strategic intersection. In Gaza, fighting in the southern city of Rafah is expected to wind down in the coming weeks. This could spell the end of the major fighting in the territory as a whole, leaving Israel to deal with the future of Hamas’ rule in Gaza and the extent of Israeli military presence there. Simultaneously, all eyes are on Israel’s border with Lebanon as the chances of an all-out war with the Hezbollah terrorist organization rise. Such a war would likely bring other regional actors into the cycle of violence, with the potential of dragging in the US as well.

“Gallant is viewed by the US as a decent partner for dialogue in the current Israeli government,” Dayan told The Media Line.

On Saturday, the Pentagon announced the USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier is headed to the Mediterranean, as regional tensions soar and attempts to avert a war between Israel and Hezbollah continue.

Israel’s critical strategic moment is also a political one. Netanyahu is busy trying to stabilize his far-right government. This has become a more arduous task as the moderate members of the War Cabinet, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot resigned earlier this month, in protest of his lack of strategy. Positioning himself as belligerent to the American president makes him appear strong to his domestic audience.

 “The administration is not hostile to Israel,” said Rosner. “It’s not clear that Gallant can do damage control, because there are major differences between the administration and the Israeli government. The Americans see Netanyahu as the main obstacle to achieving the goals as they see them.”

Washington is looking to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East. Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war in Gaza and has threatened a tougher response against Hezbollah in recent days.

The Israeli premier is scheduled to speak to a joint session of the US Congress next month, in what will be his fourth appearance there. He will likely meddle in American politics, as he has done before, much to the dismay of the democratic White House. It is unclear whether the Israeli leader will be invited to the White House, an invitation he has been waiting on since being sworn in as prime minister in December 2022.

“Netanyahu must make sure there is such a meeting before he departs,” said Dayan. “Without a meeting with Biden, this is a very sharp statement about the position of Israel.”

At least 100 Democratic representatives are expected to boycott Netanyahu’s speech. This is a testament to the crack in what was traditionally bipartisan support for Israel in the US, but also to President Biden’s delicate position within his party.

“Biden will make a political calculation as to the cost of inviting Netanyahu to the White House or not,” said Rosner. “Clearly, he doesn’t want to invite him.”

As usual in the Middle East, events unfold quickly, often not synchronized with the political calendars in Jerusalem and Washington. Even if the incumbent Democratic president ultimately loses the election, the Democrats will remain in power for another seven months, almost guaranteeing more clashes.

Netanyahu sees the public confrontation with the current administration as part of his tools

“Netanyahu sees the public confrontation with the current administration as part of his tools,” said Rosner. “Netanyahu is taking a major gamble. Only after the elections will we be able to tell if Netanyahu’s move was genius or if Biden wins, he may come to collect the price after his reelection.”

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Taking a Risk, Israel’s Netanyahu Continues To Butt Heads With White House

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