After 4 months of war, Biden and Netanyahu are on different schedules

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the future of the battle in Gaza this week, speaking just a day apart, but worlds apart in a way that captured the core tension between the two after more than four months of fighting.

Mr Netanyahu spoke of the war and how it would continue even if there was a temporary ceasefire to secure the release of the hostages, only “somewhat delayed”. Mr Biden spoke of peace and how such a cease-fire agreement could “change the dynamic”, leading to a wider realignment that would finally end the fundamental conflict that has defined the Middle East for generations.

The disparity in visions reflects the opposing political calendars under which the two leaders operate. Mr. Netanyahu has a compelling interest in prolonging the war against Hamas in order to delay the day of reckoning when he will face responsibility for his failure to prevent the October 7 terrorist attack. Mr. Biden, conversely, has a strong incentive to end the war as soon as possible to quell anger on the left wing of his party before the fall election campaign when he will need all the support he can get.

At the same time, each has reason to think that he could get a better job if the other loses his position. Biden’s advisers are fully aware that Netanyahu’s government could fall in response to a terrorist attack, while the Israeli prime minister, who goes by the nickname Bibi, may prefer to buy time until November if former President Donald J. Trump retakes the White House.

“It’s absolutely fair to say that Biden and Bibi are on different political lines on the Gaza war — and I think that’s an increasingly important part of the equation,” said Frank Lowenstein, a former special envoy for Middle East peace under President Barack Obama.

A variety of goals are being pursued this week as negotiators try to reach a deal on the hostages before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next month. Mr Biden said on Monday that US-brokered talks were close to an agreement and that he expected a ceasefire to begin by the end of this weekend. But that depends on Netanyahu agreeing to a deal with Hamas.

The relationship between the two men had been complicated over the past four months. Embracing each other on the tarmac in Tel Aviv when Mr Biden visited just days after the terror attack that killed 1,200, their phone calls grew increasingly heated as they argued over an Israeli military operation that has claimed nearly 30,000 lives in Gaza.

At one point in December, the conversation became so heated that Mr. Biden declared that he was done and hung up on the episode previously reported by Axios. In public, Mr. Biden has resisted a more open break, continuing to support Israel’s right to defend itself and still describing himself as a Zionist, as he did again on Monday, even as he complained that “there are too many innocent people who have been killed.”

Mr Netanyahu has been more willing to publicly defy Mr Biden, which allows him to argue that he is the only person capable of standing up to US pressure for a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict – and should therefore be kept in office, regardless of the failings that have led to October 7.

“The further Netanyahu moves away from October 7, in his view, the less accountable and responsible he is,” said Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York. “And as time moves on from Oct. 7, so does Nov. 5,” the US election that could return Mr. Trump to power.

“But it goes deeper than that,” he added. “I think Netanyahu is looking for a direct confrontation with Biden because it is good for his political interests. He’s trying to change the narrative.”

However, it is a risky game. It has become clearer than ever how dependent Israel really is on the United States – not only for the ammunition it uses in its war against Hamas, but also for its defense in the international arena, where Washington has vetoed repeated UN Security Council Resolutions and supported Israel at the International Court of Justice against calls for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

Moreover, Mr. Biden offers Mr. Netanyahu something Israelis sincerely want: the prospect of normalizing diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, which would be a paradigm shift for the Jewish state after three-quarters of a century in a hostile neighborhood and the kind of historic achievement any prime minister would want for his legacy. Mr. Biden’s point is that such a breakthrough can only happen if the war is brought to an end and a Palestinian state is on the table.

Mr. Biden appeared to offer something of a concession to Mr. Netanyahu on that front during an interview on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” on Monday, making it clear that he was not pushing for “a two-state solution right away, but a process to get to a solution with two states.” Yet it is unclear whether Mr. Netanyahu, who has resisted such a solution for most of his long career, could even accept the process.

Part of the challenge for Mr. Biden is that when it comes to a military campaign, it’s not just about the president and the prime minister. Israel’s political establishment across the spectrum, from the left to the center to the right, supports the war against Hamas after the terror attack that traumatized the country. There is little sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza even among Mr. Netanyahu.

But there is light between Mr. Netanyahu and other political figures on the hostage issue. Although he expressed a hard line during the talks to pause the fighting to secure the release of some of the roughly 100 people captured on Oct. 7 and still being held by Hamas, others in the government pushed him to do more to free them, the families of the hostages and protesters in the streets.

Biden administration officials see it as a way to drive a wedge between Mr. Netanyahu and his other allies in the war cabinet. Either the prime minister will accept the ceasefire agreement, or he will lose the critical support he was counting on to stay in power.

For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has a vested interest in separating Mr. Biden from his political coalition. “Bibi could even benefit from driving a wedge between Biden and the Arab-American community — marginalizing them politically if not defeating Biden,” Mr. Lowenstein said.

It played out Tuesday in Michigan, where Arab-American voters and other supporters of the Palestinians cast “non-committal” votes in the Democratic primary to protest Mr. Biden’s support for Israel. Some expressed Mr. Biden’s optimism Monday that the near truce, which came in response to a reporter’s question during a visit to a New York ice cream shop, was seen as a last-minute attempt to calm the anger in Michigan.

Mr. Netanyahu is “entirely motivated by his own political survival — and by avoiding legal sanctions,” said Mara Rudman, a former deputy special envoy for Middle East policy under Mr. Obama. “And I suspect that Netanyahu would see playing a role in ousting Biden as a win-win, however much it actually goes against the interests of the Israeli and Palestinian people.”

If he can’t unseat Mr. Biden, perhaps he could blame him, some Israeli analysts believe. Mr. Netanyahu’s oft-stated goal of destroying Hamas may be militarily unrealistic, according to security analysts, so if he fails to do so, the prime minister could point to American pressure as the reason.

“Biden is abandoned, he’s losing votes, people are shouting genocide at him wherever he goes,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster and analyst who worked as an aide to Mr. Netanyahu in the 1990s. “And Netanyahu is not giving him any support because Biden is a good scapegoat for why Netanyahu won’t have a total victory.”

“We are getting an unprecedented level of support from Biden, both military, moral, emotional and global,” he added. “For our part, we return it with petty arguments, internal political declarations and baiting of extremism to make people angry.”

Biden’s team became increasingly frustrated by this. The president’s advisers hoped the war would be over by early January, so that by summer everyone would be focused on efforts to rebuild Gaza and on peace efforts leading to Palestinian autonomy.

That way, the theory went, left-wing voters and Arab Americans angry at Mr. Biden, especially those in swing states like Michigan, may have calmed down somewhat and, however reluctantly, returned to the president’s fold in time to defeat Mr. Trump.

But it didn’t work out that way, at least not yet. January is over and February is almost here. The calendar keeps slipping. Biden and Netanyahu’s schedules clash.

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