WASHINGTON – President Biden has maintained his public support for Israel even as he adopted a somewhat sharper private tone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a calculation shaped by Biden’s longstanding relationship with the Israeli leader and growing hopes that Israel’s military operations will take action Hamas is nearing the end.
In a phone call on Monday, Mr Biden warned Mr Netanyahu that he could only fend off criticism of the strikes in Gaza for so long, according to two people familiar with the call. This conversation should be significantly stronger than an official White House summary. It affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense and did not reiterate the calls made by many Congress Democrats for an immediate ceasefire.
The call and others since the fighting began last week reflects Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu’s complicated 40-year relationship. It started when Mr. Netanyahu was the deputy head of mission for the Israeli embassy in Washington and Mr. Biden was a young senator with a passion for foreign affairs. They have seldom seen each other since then, but through seven American presidencies – Mr Netanyahu was Prime Minister for four of them – they have built an occasional friendly working relationship and fought political battles over the Iranian nuclear deal and Israeli settlement policy.
This relationship is more complicated today than ever before. Mr Biden’s juggling act against Israel, which is always a challenge for an American president, is particularly difficult as the Democrats are no longer firmly in Israel’s corner.
Middle Eastern experts and former U.S. officials say many of Mr. Biden’s calculations are based on another era of US-Israeli relations – when Israel’s security concerns received far more attention than Palestinian grievances – and that his approach has less to do with that has military situation on the ground than with domestic policy and its broader foreign policy agenda, including nuclear talks with Iran.
For his part, Mr Netanyahu is fighting for his political life at home while trying to maintain support for his country in Washington. With Mr. Biden in the Oval Office, the men try again to maintain mutual trust amid greater forces that are driving them apart.
Martin S. Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, said Mr Biden bought private space to convince Mr Netanyahu to end the strikes in Gaza, which started in retaliation for Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli cities were. Mr Indyk also said that Mr Biden tried to get the Israeli leader to agree to a ceasefire by making it publicly clear that he was in Israel’s corner, that Israel has the right to defend itself, and that he has Netanyahu’s back . ”
“That was very important for the moment when he had to turn to Netanyahu and say,” Time to finish, “said Indyk.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu have gone through countless ups and downs together.
After Mr. Netanyahu suffered his first election defeat in 1999, Mr. Biden sent him a letter praising him for showing political courage in talks with the Palestinians hosted by the United States in Maryland. Mr. Netanyahu replied, noting gratefully that Mr. Biden was the only American politician to write to him after his defeat.
But in 2010 then-Vice President Biden had just begun a visit to Israel when he was blind to the unsolicited news that the Israeli government approved the construction of new homes in East Jerusalem, a setback to the Obama administration’s efforts to broker Israel . Palestinian peace talks.
Obama White House officials were furious and several urged Mr Biden to skip a scheduled dinner with Mr Netanyahu in Tel Aviv and to leave the country immediately. Mr Biden disagreed and chose to confront the Israeli leader privately while minimizing public discord. He was betting that such an approach would be more effective, said those familiar with the episode.
“There is progress in the Middle East when everyone knows that there is simply no space between the United States and Israel,” said Biden, standing next to Netanyahu in the prime minister’s residence. “There is no room between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”
At dinner his tone was much more critical.
Consistent with Mr. Biden’s longstanding view that foreign policy is driven by personal relationships, he has made it clear over the years that his sometimes angry stance toward Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing politics never broke men’s bonds at such moments Has.
Mr Biden has spoken publicly about the one time he sent a photo to Mr Netanyahu that said, “Bibi, I disagree with a damned statement, but I love you.”
And after the tensions between Netanyahu and the Obama White House over the Iranian nuclear program became public in late 2014, Mr. Biden assured a speech to a Jewish-American group that he and the Israeli leader “are still friends. ”
People familiar with Mr. Biden’s thinking say that his view of Israel affects much more than just his relationship with Mr. Netanyahu. Mr Biden often remembers a visit he made as a 30-year-old senator in the fall of 1973 to Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir on the eve of an attack by a coalition of Arab states on Israel in the so-called Yom Kippur War.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Mr Biden said he was stunned by the scale of the threat to Israel called that “One of the most consistent meetings I’ve ever had in my life.”
Over the past few years, Mr. Biden has repeatedly shown his dedication to the country. “I am a Zionist,” he said in 2007 to an Israeli television station. “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
Michael Oren, who served as Israeli ambassador to Washington from 2009-2013, said Mr. Biden was his main interlocutor in an Obama administration in which many senior Likud officials distrusted Mr. Netanyahu and excluded Mr. Oren.
“It showed, I thought, a great insight into the personality of Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Oren. He said Mr Biden saw the tension between President Barack Obama and Mr Netanyahu created “a very flammable environment in which he did his best to relax”.
Mr. Oren added that Mr. Biden always held a “great Rosh Hashanah” party at his vice-presidential residence to celebrate the Jewish New Year.
Today, the President hopes that once he has focused on other foreign policy priorities, including climate change, fighting China and restoring the year, Mr Netanyahu can help him avoid getting caught up in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict with poor prospects for resolution 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“I think the Biden administration was a little unprepared here,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “It took them a few days to mobilize and find their position.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One that Mr. Biden “has been doing this long enough to know that the best way to end an international conflict is usually to not to discuss it publicly. “
“Sometimes diplomacy has to take place behind the scenes – it has to be quiet and we don’t read out every component,” she said.
The conflict has diverted Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken from a trip to the Arctic to focus on one of Mr Biden’s top priorities: climate change. Mr Blinken spent most of his flight to Denmark on Sunday discussing the matter on the phone, a senior Biden government official said, and continued on the phone with foreign guides and American colleagues during a layover in Iceland on Tuesday.
But the State Department has only physically dispatched one middle-level officer, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs, to the region. Hady Amr.
As a warning, some former Obama administration officials recall the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry to reach a ceasefire in the 2014 Israeli Gaza conflict, which raged for two weeks after Mr Kerry visited the region to end the fighting.
In the short term, senior government officials in Biden hope that an initial lull in the crossfire will allow humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians who have fled or lost their homes and will serve as a step towards a permanent ceasefire.
But such hopes have been dashed before. After his first two conversations with Mr. Netanyahu last week, Mr. Biden said his “Expectation and hopeThat the conflict was nearing its end. Since then, more than 100 innocents have been killed in the fighting.
When asked why Mr Biden has not publicly called for a ceasefire like dozens of Congress Democrats, a senior administration official said it could be counterproductive and prolong the violence. Some analysts agree that such calls can defy Mr. Netanyahu, his political allies and the Israeli public.
Mr Oren said he believes Mr Biden’s publicly supportive stance towards Israel, which has generated an increasing number of complaints from Congress Democrats, is partly motivated by indirect negotiations with Iran this month in Vienna aimed at restoring the nuclear deal target with Tehran, another of Mr Biden’s top priorities.
“I would not be surprised if, after this conflict, the Biden government would say to the Israeli government:” Do you see how we supported your right to defend yourself against Hamas? Trust that we will guarantee your defense when we renew the Iranian nuclear deal, ”Oren said.
However, it is not clear whether this is a message that Mr. Biden would bring to Mr. Netanyahu himself. The Israeli leader is being prosecuted and has tried to form a ruling coalition preventing him from losing power for the first time since 2009.
Lara Jakes Contribution to reporting.