Netanyahu and Biden spar publicly as Ramadan starts with no ceasefire in Gaza

Observers warn of growing rift between leaders as Israel-Gaza war casts grim shadow over region during holy month

US President Joe Biden meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Israel on October 18, 2023. Reuters
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US President Joe Biden and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred publicly on the eve of Ramadan, with no ceasefire to the Israel-Gaza war on the horizon.

Mr Netanyahu on Sunday said Mr Biden was “wrong” that Israel's approach to the war in Gaza was self-defeating.

A day before, Mr Biden told a US news channel that while Israel has a right to defend itself, Mr Netanyahu has to do more to protect innocent civilians in Gaza.

The tense exchange comes as the prospects of a ceasefire before Ramadan, which begins on Monday, appear to be dim.

The Biden administration and allies in the region for weeks have been working on securing a six-week pause in the war by the start of the fasting month.

Mr Biden has also warned the Netanyahu government against an all-out offensive on the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, where about 1.4 million people are believed to be sheltering.

Mr Biden wants a six-week pause in war during which hostages held by Hamas can be released in exchange for Palestinian detainees held in Israeli prisoners.

The pause in fighting would also enable the entry of much-needed humanitarian aid.

Critics say Mr Biden, who is running for re-election in November, has not used the US's substantial influence – including billions of dollars in military aid – to force Israel to agree to a ceasefire and allow more relief into the enclave, and is instead going around Israel.

After months of US efforts to get Israel to allow sufficient and sustained aid into Gaza by land, on Sunday, an American ship set sail for Gaza as part of an international plan to deliver aid to the enclave by sea, a mission that will take weeks to complete.

And last week, the US began dropping food into the strip.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, said that Mr Biden intends to adopt a tougher line with Mr Netanyahu, but is unlikely to cut or place conditions on military aid to Israel.

“[Biden] is intending to get tough with Netanyahu,” Mr Indyk said in a post on X. “An Israeli attack on Rafah is a red line.

“Bottom line: Unless Netanyahu changes course, a confrontation with Biden is coming.”

Illustrating the tension between the leaders, Mr Biden was recorded on Thursday saying that he told Mr Netanyahu that the two were headed for a “come to Jesus” conversation over the issue of humanitarian aid to Gaza

“I told him, Bibi, and don't repeat this, but you and I are going to have a 'come to Jesus' meeting,” Mr Biden said, using Mr Netanyahu's nickname.

He was having a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg and a Colorado Democratic senator after his State of the Union address.

“I'm on a hot mic here. Good. That's good,” Mr Biden said.

“Coming to Jesus” is an American expression that means having an honest, heart-to-heart conversation.

But Mr Biden appeared to be giving contradictory remarks on Saturday, calling Israel's threat to invade Rafah in southern Gaza a “red line”, but then backtracking.

“It was a red line but I'm never gonna leave Israel,” he said. “The defence of Israel is still critical. So there's no red line.”

Joe Biden announces plan for aid pier in Gaza

Joe Biden announces plan for aid pier in Gaza

The stakes are high for Mr Biden, whose support for Israel has earned him the nickname “Genocide Joe” among protesters, many of them his former supporters, daily taking to the streets and rallying outside his campaign events.

Some analysts say Mr Biden is contemplating a new manoeuvre, which involves distancing himself from Mr Netanyahu and his actions in Gaza, while continuing to support Israel in its stated goal of eradicating Hamas.

Khaled Elgindy a fellow in the Centre for Middle East Policy at Brookings and an expert on US-Israel relations, disagrees.

“This is just sophistry,” Mr Elgindy wrote on X.

“It is precisely the Netanyahu government – not the Israeli people or some abstraction called Israel – that Biden is supplying with unlimited weapons and unconditional support at the UN.”

Israel launched its punishing offensive on Gaza on October 7, the day Hamas gunmen attacked Israel, killing about 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Mr Biden immediately came out strongly in Israel's support. He made a wartime visit himself and bypassed Congress to pass two military weapons sales.

Officials in Gaza say more than 31,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, have been killed, and the majority of the enclave's residents have been displaced to the south, where they lack access to food, water or medical care.

Israeli bombardments by land, air and sea have reduced entire neighbourhoods and critical infrastructure in Gaza to rubble.

And amid Israeli restrictions of the entry of aid by land through Israel or Egypt, the UN warned of an impending famine, and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 4:12 AM