Has Israel manipulated Washington to its advantage?

In an election year in the US, important constituencies in the Democratic Party would turn against Biden if he opposed Israel

Israel supporters in New York on April 22. AFP
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With the war in Gaza in its seventh month, one of its most striking features is the ability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to effectively bend the Biden administration to his own priorities. Mr Netanyahu has shown an uncanny ability to take what he wants from the Americans, even create mini-crises with them over disagreements, assuming the US will make concessions to him in exchange for his flexibility.

The Israeli retaliation against Iran last week may be a case in point. Initially, after the Iranians had launched missiles at Israel, most of which were shot down, President Joe Biden had urged Mr Netanyahu to “take the win” and avoid retaliating. The Israeli Prime Minister made it fairly clear that Israel would decide on its own. However, he also realised, once Mr Biden had told him that if Israel responded, it would have to do so without US involvement, that his margin of manoeuvre was limited.

What appears to have happened is that the Israelis played on US anxieties about a regional escalation to extract a concession from the Biden administration on Israel’s aim to mount an invasion of Rafah. According to Egyptian sources, cited by the Qatari newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on April 18, the Israelis allegedly secured US acceptance of their entry into Rafah in exchange for a limited response against Iran.

Reports in the US media on April 19 painted a more complicated picture, and an American spokesman denied such an agreement was reached. The administration reportedly remains unconvinced by the Israeli plan for Rafah, forcing Mr Netanyahu’s government to modify its military tactics. However, one thing is apparent, namely that the two sides are now discussing the specifics of an invasion.

From the outset, the Biden administration said it would consider a credible plan for taking Rafah, so that’s not what’s new. However, repeatedly there were US indications that none of the Israeli plans was realistic, even as the Americans said Israel should adopt a different tactic of making limited incursions into Rafah, without endangering the population.

A few weeks ago, Mr Netanyahu appeared to comply with that request. He withdrew most of his soldiers from Gaza and began limited operations in Rafah. However, for the Israeli leader, the symbolism of taking Rafah and killing senior Hamas officials is a ticket to his political survival, therefore he remains adamant about going into Rafah. He appears to have secured a US willingness to continue addressing the specifics of such an operation, amid newspaper reports where US officials have been quoted as saying it is up to the Israelis to decide what to do.

But US backtracking is hardly an anomaly. When Israel attacked an Iranian diplomatic complex in Damascus on April 1, it did not inform the US. This may have been an attempt by the Israelis to draw the Americans into a war with Iran, which would be necessary to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities and military targets. Israel’s claim that it did not expect Iran to respond as it did on April 14 seems laughable. Mr Netanyahu must have known when he provoked the crisis that it would force the US to reaffirm its defence of Israel.

If Netanyahu stays true to form, he will continue to criticise the Americans, knowing that this will win him backing at home and provide him with leverage in future disagreements with Washington

Indeed, after the Damascus bombing, the Americans suddenly shifted to “protect-Israel” mode. US anger at being ambushed by the Israelis was forgotten, at least publicly, though NBC News did report that Mr Biden had expressed concern that Mr Netanyahu was trying to push America into a regional confrontation. Nevertheless, a coalition of western countries came to Israel’s defence, bolstering the Prime Minister’s position.

Much the same has happened with Mr Biden’s requests that Israel avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. There is no sign that Mr Netanyahu ever took this advice seriously. On the contrary, he exploited his divergences with Washington to bolster his popularity domestically. When the Americans asked Israel to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, the Israelis said they would do so, only to continue to restrict the entry of food into the territory until recently.

Rather than force Mr Netanyahu to open crossing points into Gaza for food deliveries, avoiding starvation in the territory, the US came up with an absurd plan to build a jetty to do so, a project that would take many weeks. Mr Netanyahu grasped that there was a wide chasm between US rhetoric and action, therefore that Washington would refrain from using its leverage over Israel, such as restricting arms sales, to impose its will.

In fact, on April 20 the US Congress okayed another $17 billion in military aid to Israel. Shortly thereafter, the Biden administration sanctioned Israeli military units accused of human rights violations. Mr Netanyahu condemned the move as a “moral low”, while a parliamentarian close to him accused the US of “anti-Semitism”. If Mr Netanyahu stays true to form, he will continue to criticise the Americans, knowing that this will win him backing at home and provide him with leverage in future disagreements with Washington.

This is an election year in the US and there are important constituencies in the Democratic Party that would turn against Mr Biden if he opposed Israel. The election is likely to be close, so the President does not want to concede the Israel card to the Republicans. His thinking may backfire if Arab-American anger costs him in vital battleground states, but for now Mr Biden sees no political advantages in a major clash with Mr Netanyahu.

Within the US, some supporters of Israel are continuing to circulate the canard that the Biden administration is pro-Iran. The White House would welcome going back to a nuclear deal with Tehran, but if months of tacit support for Israel’s horrific campaign in Gaza fail to prove the US commitment to Israel, nothing will do so.

Published: April 23, 2024, 2:00 PM