Are there signs Biden is souring on Israel? – analysis

Is the honeymoon with US President Joe Biden over?

Has the US president – who articulated unequivocal support for Israel after the October 7 massacre, who came here to show that support a few days later, who sent aircraft carrier strike forces to the Eastern Mediterranean to deter Hezbollah and Iran, who has overseen a massive airlift of arms and ammunition since the war began, and who has pushed forward plans for billions of dollars of military aid – soured on how Israel is waging the war against Hamas?

Is the party over?

If one were to judge by Wednesday’s headlines of a speech Biden gave a day earlier at a campaign event hosted by a former president of AIPAC, one might very well think so.

“He’s [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] a good friend, but I think he has to change, and – with this government,” Biden said. “This government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move.”

“This is the most conservative government in Israel’s history – the most conservative,” he said. [Oztma Yehudit leader Itamar] Ben-Gvir and company and the new folks, they – they don’t want anything remotely approaching a two-state solution… They don’t want anything having to do with the Palestinians.”

US PRESIDENT Joe Biden is flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as he delivers remarks on continued support for Ukraine, at the White House. The US commitment to Israel is not taking place in a strategic vacuum, says the writer. (credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)

And this: “Right now, it [Israel] has more [support] than [just from] the United States. It has the European Union, it has Europe, it has most of the world supporting it. But they’re starting to lose that support by the indiscriminate bombing that takes place.”

Listening to those words – about a need to change the government, about “indiscriminate” bombing – one could conclude that Biden has had enough of the war and Netanyahu. And, indeed, Biden did say all of the above.

The media highlighted criticism, but Biden voiced support as well

But that is not all Biden said. That is what the media highlighted in his speech, but that is not all he said.

The US president also said this: “Nobody, nobody, nobody on God’s green Earth can justify what Hamas did. They’re a brutal, ugly, inhumane people, and they have to be eliminated.”

And this: “As I said after the attack, the safety of the Jewish people, the literal security of Israel as an independent Jewish state is literally at stake. But it is unshakable, our commitment to Israel.”

As well as this: “There’s no question about the need to take on Hamas. There’s no question about that. None. Zero. They have every right.”

And this: “They [Hamas] are animals. They’re animals. They exceeded anything that any other terrorist group has done… in memory.”

None of the above four quotes from the speech sounds like a man who has soured on the further waging of this war. Tellingly, the previous four statements were under-reported, overshadowed by his comments about “indiscriminate” bombing, about pressing the two-state solution, about the need for the PA to retake control of Gaza,  and about his criticism of Ben-Gvir and the current government.

Why were the critical comments highlighted and the statements strongly backing Israel’s right to pummel Hamas underplayed? Because any sign of potential conflict – of “daylight” right now – between Israel and the US is news, while indications that the two countries remain on the same page is not.

One must understand the politics of it all

But how are those two different parts of Biden’s speech reconcilable? Through understanding the domestic political dynamics at work – both American and Israeli.

Biden is a political animal, and in six weeks, the 2024 presidential election will kick off in earnest with the New Hampshire primary. Biden is presently not facing any serious challenge from within his party. Still, there are spoilers out there – such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. – who are running as third-party candidates and who could siphon off votes from Democrats dissatisfied with some of Biden’s policies, such as his strong support of Israel during this war. Siphoning off thousands of votes in swing states could impact the outcome of a close general election.

A recent CBS/YouGov poll showed that 38% of Democrats believe that Biden is being too supportive of Israel, a 10% increase from last month.

While the Israel-Hamas war is not registering as one of the main issues people will vote on, Biden needs to keep an eye on those figures. His constant reminders to Israel to uphold humanitarian law when waging this war, his use of the term “indiscriminate bombing,” and especially his continuously holding out the option of a two-state solution is a way for him to convey a more balanced view to those who think his support of Israel is too strong.

Biden might not have emphasized the Palestinian state issue as much if Netanyahu hadn’t expressed such strong opposition in the past week. Netanyahu has also been very vocal of late against allowing the PA to govern postwar Gaza and against the Oslo process.

On Tuesday, before Biden spoke, Netanyahu released a statement acknowledging the difference with the US about “the day after Hamas.”

“I would like to clarify my position: I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo,” he said.

Referring to the PA, Biden’s leading candidate to run Gaza after the war, Netanyahu said: “After the great sacrifice of our civilians and our soldiers, I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism, support terrorism, and finance terrorism. Gaza will be neither Hamastan nor Fatahstan.”

Netanyahu’s comments are being interpreted in Washington and elsewhere as politically intended, with Netanyahu concerned not only about what will happen in Gaza the day after the war but also with what will happen to him politically the day afterward – how he will survive.

Netanyahu’s recent very vocal opposition to the US proposal for the PA to return to Gaza is seen as staking out a position: that only he will be able to forestall the PA taking control of Gaza, and that only he can push back against rising calls now for a two-state solution.

If Netanyahu can get political, Biden seems to think, so can he. If Netanyahu can play to his Likud base, then Biden feels free to play to his Democratic one.

Do Biden’s recent comments show he has soured on Israel’s bid to topple Hamas? No. They do, however, show that domestic political considerations have entered this wartime discussion between allies.•

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