Netanyahu fighting Biden's plan to end the war bodes ill for the 'special relationship'

Biden says it's time to end the war. Netanyahu disagrees and is unlikely to risk losing his coalition and power just to please Washington

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in New York, the month before the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 20, 2023.  AFP
Powered by automated translation

In a dramatic news conference last week, US President Joe Biden outlined “an Israeli peace proposal” to end the war in Gaza. But the speech didn’t add up.

The plea for acceptance of the “Israeli peace proposal” was, bizarrely, aimed mainly at Israelis. As he spoke, it became apparent the proposal was not Israeli, but his own, albeit marketed by Mr Biden as “Israeli” to pressure its government to agree to what he was craftily branding as its own idea.

Mr Biden appealed to ordinary and elite Israelis for help. “I know there are those in Israel who will not agree with this plan and will call for the war to continue indefinitely,” Mr Biden stated, adding that “some are even in the government coalition”. This invited casual observers to assume he was referring to Jewish supremacists such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

“The people of Israel should know they can make this offer without any further risk to their own security,” with the operative word being “can”. In effect, he means that Israelis could and should “make this offer”, although they haven’t.

Anyone reading between the lines could immediately see that Mr Biden was attempting to enlist the support of the Israeli public, particularly the huge percentage that favours a negotiated agreement with Hamas to retrieve hostages over an indefinite continuation of the quixotic and even absurd effort to secure the complete destruction of that organisation.

He was also attempting to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu every opportunity of siding with Washington, at least in public, and blame any categorical opposition on his radical cabinet colleagues. Mr Netanyahu, however, declined to co-operate.

His public responses, which stressed that the war must continue until an undefined and unachievable “defeat” of Hamas, amounted to an obvious and categorical “no” to what Mr Biden had presented as an Israeli proposal. Mr Biden’s plan envisages three loosely defined phases, leading from a phase 1 ceasefire and mutual release of captives to a phase 2 permanent cessation of hostilities followed by a phase 3 reconstruction in Gaza and establishment of a new post-conflict order there, which he did not describe.

Mr Biden also said that if talks over phase 2 had not concluded in the six weeks allotted for phase 1 negotiations over phase 2, talks and the ceasefire would continue as long as all parties were abiding by phase 1 commitments. Neither side, therefore, would be able to simply pocket the gains from phase 1 and reinitiate conflict, willy-nilly, because they’re not interested in phase 2, most notably permanent cessation of hostilities, meaning an end to the war under the conditions that effectively exist whenever such an agreement is reached.

By insisting that the war must continue until additional unspecified, undefined and probably undefinable military and political goals are achieved, Mr Netanyahu was categorically rejecting the logic of the three-phase plan and the American position that the goal is to permanently stop the fighting.

Mr Biden concluded his remarks by bluntly saying, “it’s time for this war to end and for the day after to begin”. Mr Netanyahu’s response was unmistakable, albeit slightly less explicit, amounting to “this is no time for this war to end”. He didn’t put it that way, but by insisting that Israel has a good deal more fighting to do and leaving the scope, aim and timetable of additional hostilities completely undefined, he only added to the impression that he would prefer to see this war go on, perhaps, as Mr Biden said, indefinitely.

Hamas leaders understood this dichotomy immediately, and played on it, saying that they would accept the proposal as long as Israel “agreed to end the war”. Their intention is obvious: to exploit and exacerbate the split between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu and, indeed, between the US and Israel in general, over the continuation and purpose of the war. However, Hamas leaders in Gaza almost certainly also want the war, which they apparently believe is going according to plan, to continue indefinitely. The insurgency and “permanent state of war” they intended all along has already begun in Gaza city and elsewhere, after all.

Mr Netanyahu tried to manage the latest crisis with Washington caused by his intransigence by saying he is open to phase 1, which includes a 42-day pause in fighting in exchange for return of many remaining hostages. But he insisted that Mr Biden had not presented “the whole picture” in his speech. Once again, however, it was clear that he did not embrace the logic of Mr Biden’s three-phase plan or his goal of securing an end to the war.

Mr Netanyahu not only effectively rejected Mr Biden’s proposal, he also batted aside the opportunity to blame his extremist coalition partners for the Israeli refusal to co-operate, welcoming the opportunity to play that role himself. However, Mr Smotrich and Mr Ben-Gvir refused to allow him to monopolise Israeli hawkishness, threatening to leave and bring down the government if it ever agreed to what both of them separately described as a “surrender”.

Mr Biden and his administration will continue to pressure Mr Netanyahu, the entire Israeli leadership and even the Israeli public to get behind this proposal that he unconvincingly claims was their own offer, but his chances look decidedly slim.

Mr Netanyahu has clearly decided that the best way to stay out of prison, given that he is facing serious corruption charges in an ongoing trial, is to stay in office, and the best way to remain in power is to continue the war into the foreseeable future. Mr Biden implied as much in a recent interview with TIME magazine. And Mr Netanyahu is unlikely to risk losing his coalition and face incarceration just to please Washington.

The rift between the Israeli government and Mr Biden, and indeed between Israel and the US, over Gaza – not to mention a possible invasion of Lebanon and the necessity of creating a Palestinian state – appears to be widening at every phase.

This is not, as I’ve noted on these pages before, an ordinary rift in the US-Israeli partnership. It has, instead, all the makings of the beginning of the end of the “special relationship” that has existed between the two countries since the late 1960s. And, as things stand, it’s only likely to get worse over time.

Live updates: follow the latest on the Israel-Gaza war

Published: June 05, 2024, 2:00 PM