columnU.S.-Israel Relations

It’s Biden who’s playing politics with the Gaza war, not Bibi

Netanyahu is trying to defeat Hamas. The administration’s efforts—and its fictional “doctrine”—seek to depose the Israeli prime minister and re-elect the president.

From left: U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi gather in Tel Aviv to discuss the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Oct. 18, 2023. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO.
From left: U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi gather in Tel Aviv to discuss the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Oct. 18, 2023. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reputation as a master political schemer and a cynical seeker of power is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that there is literally nothing he can do without being accused of acting only to seek some sort of advantage over his opponents. Yet in the current crisis as he seeks to lead his wobbly unity government to achieve what may well be two mutually exclusive objectives—the elimination of Hamas and the freeing of the remaining hostages still being kept captive in Gaza—while being besieged by criticism at home and abroad, it may be that Netanyahu is not the one who is really playing politics.

While no one should ever underestimate the prime minister’s capacity for maneuvering even at a time when, after the Oct. 7 disaster, the end of his career would seem to be in sight, it’s not he who is cynically using the hostage negotiations or the talk about what would follow the end of the war in Gaza to score political points. Whatever one may think of Netanyahu’s character or policies, or whether he should be forced out of office because of the catastrophe that occurred on his watch, the person who is playing politics with the security of Israel and the fate of its citizens is President Joe Biden.

Netanyahu probably still hopes to salvage his reputation and serve out the rest of his term after being returned to office in November 2022. But the widespread characterizations in both the Israeli and the international press of his stand on the hostage negotiations, the conduct of the war and what will happen in Gaza once the fighting ends, as merely another example of his desperate attempts to cling to office is largely inaccurate. He may be pursuing two goals that cannot both be achieved as well as clinging to his pre-war strategic objective of getting Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel. Yet the real scheming going on right now is in Washington, not Jerusalem. It is Biden who is playing a double game in which he seems willing to ensure Hamas’s survival in power in order to settle scores with Netanyahu, as well as to defeat former President Donald Trump in November.

A hostage deal trap

That’s the context for the discussions about the latest proposal for a ceasefire and the release of 136 hostages—some living and some presumed dead—in which the double-dealing government of Qatar is playing a central role. Whether or not this effort, like previous ones, will be shot down by Hamas, Netanyahu will continue to face enormous pressure from both the families of the hostages and the United States to either pause or end the war.

Netanyahu’s government is currently beset by a host of domestic and foreign critics. The hostage families understandably want it to do anything to save their loved ones and will—like anyone in that awful position—demand concessions in the form of freeing terrorists or halting the Gaza campaign, whether or not it’s in the country’s best interests. They are being boosted by Netanyahu’s political foes. Most of the Israelis who spent the months before Oct. 7 demonstrating for Netanyahu’s ouster and against judicial reform have put politics aside in the name of a unified effort to defeat Hamas. But the hard-core anti-Bibi resistance has shown that, if given the opportunity, it will try to return to the streets with the aim of forcing the prime minister out of office.

At the same time, Netanyahu is also under fire from those Israelis who fault him for not prosecuting the war against Hamas more vigorously. In particular, they blame the prime minister for bowing to American and international pressure to allow aid to flow into parts of Gaza still under Hamas control, which, though ostensibly a humanitarian gesture, is almost certainly sustaining the terrorist forces and enabling them to continue to hold on. His right-wing critics are correct that the hostage deal is a trap for both Israel and Netanyahu.

Biden’s recycled doctrine

But looming over his domestic troubles is an even bigger problem. Biden and his foreign-policy team may still be sticking to their promise of supporting Israel in the war and the goal of eliminating Hamas. Still, as the war heads towards its fifth month, Biden’s practice of talking out of both sides of his mouth on the conflict—backing Israel while also bashing and pressuring it to scale down its military campaign—has escalated to the point where a tipping point may soon be reached. American involvement in the hostage talks seem not so much to be focused on freeing the captives as they are on hamstringing the Israeli war effort and wrong-footing Netanyahu.

While Washington’s focus on demands for the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a far-reaching postwar deal involving Saudi normalization may be wildly unrealistic, it is only understandable if seen in the context of a gambit to topple the Israeli coalition while winning Biden back the favor of left-wing and Arab-American voters whose anger over his supporting Israel’s right to self-defense has imperiled his re-election campaign.

There may be some credulous observers who take seriously the so-called “Biden doctrine” being touted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that will supposedly solve all the problems of the Middle East. Friedman has achieved new relevance in the last year because he has served as the administration’s faithful mouthpiece, using his perch at the paper to promote the Biden administration’s pathetic weakness and incompetent maneuvers as brilliant policy-making. He also shares the same bitter feelings toward Netanyahu as the Biden team of Obama administration alumni, who will never forgive. him for opposing their destructive policies on the Palestinians and especially their appeasement of Iran. Their ideas are—like everything else that emanates from Friedman—merely a tired rehashing of unsuccessful policies of the past that sensible people stopped paying much attention to a long time ago.

It would be a mistake to waste too much time unpacking this “doctrine,” whose particulars are also being put forward by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Democrats, but suffice it to say that its Palestinian state proposal is dead-on-arrival for the same reasons that similar ideas have failed before: Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis want one. The Palestinians have rejected numerous deals that would have given them an independent state because they would have required them to live in peace with Israel. And neither the supposed “moderates” of Fatah that run the Palestinian Authority or Hamas will accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

The majority of Israelis were ready to welcome a Palestinian state if it meant peace during the period of post-Oslo Accords euphoria in the 1990s. That foolish optimism died in the violence of the Second Intifada that followed Yasser Arafat’s rejection of statehood offers in 2000 and 2001.

More to the point, Israelis know that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disastrous withdrawal of every soldier, settler and settlement from Gaza in the summer of 2005 led to the creation of an independent Palestinian state in all but name ruled by Hamas. That allowed the terrorists to build a subterranean terrorist fortress from which they fired missiles and rockets at Israel for years, and eventually to launch the terrorist pogroms of Oct. 7.

Can Israelis be fooled?

After that, the Israeli constituency for allowing the Palestinians sovereignty and the freedom of action to repeat those atrocities from either a rebuilt Gaza or a state in Judea and Samaria that would likely also fall under Hamas rule became nearly nonexistent.

Nor should many Israelis, including Netanyahu, be fooled into thinking that a Palestinian state will convince the Saudis to normalize relations and join them in a grand alliance against Iran. No matter what they say publicly, the Saudis aren’t going to risk the wrath of the Muslim world by making a deal with Israel in the foreseeable future and are perfectly satisfied with the close under-the-table relations, including on security, they have with the Jewish state now.

Nor is it likely that anything that Biden does will undo the damage he did in his first three years in office during which he tried to resurrect former President Barack Obama’s dangerous Iran nuclear deal, while distancing the United States from both the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia. This strengthened and emboldened Iran, reviving the threat of Iranian-backed terrorism from the Houthis and other forces that Biden can no longer ignore after the deaths of three U.S. servicemen in Jordan this past week.

It’s also clear that Biden’s attempts to balance his support for Israel and not stopping the flow of arms resupply that enable the continuation of the war (which he has threatened to halt) with talk of a Palestinian state and gestures like sanctions on Israeli settlers accused of violence against Arabs are nothing more than cheap political maneuvers.

The narrative about “settler violence” is largely fictional since—although a few residents of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria have broken the law in confrontations with local Arabs—the overwhelming majority of the violence taking place comes from the other direction: the routine daily violent attacks on Jews in the territories. Those Arab attacks have escalated since Oct. 7 as Hamas cells have sought to create a second front against Israel. Yet Biden ignores this and instead talks about relatively rare incidents of Jewish violence.

Biden’s sanctions—a case of legal overkill against four insignificant people—was an attempt to change the conversation about him in Michigan among Arab-American voters. And the floating of Palestinian statehood is similarly a way to convince his party’s intersectional left-wing activist base that hates Israel (and which is in open revolt against his policies) to calm down and return to the fold in order to beat Trump.

Toppling Netanyahu

The only part of the Biden plan that is at all realistic is its impact on Israeli politics. Ending the war on Hamas prior to its complete defeat would topple the coalition of nationalist and religious parties that won a 64-seat majority in the last election. The idea is to try to make Netanyahu choose between the war aims that he has pledged himself to and the freedom of the hostages, and to tempt him with talk of Saudi diplomatic recognition. It also sets up the prime minister to be criticized for prioritizing keeping his government together, along with his hold on power over the fate of the hostages or even the theoretical possibility of normalization with the Saudis.

What that formulation doesn’t take into account is that the will to continue the war against Hamas until it is wiped out isn’t a matter of pleasing right-wing extremist voters or his coalition partners. It’s what the overwhelming majority of Israelis are demanding since they know that anything less than Hamas’s eradication will be a formula for more terrorist horrors in the future.

Netanyahu is in an impossible political position because he can’t both save the hostages and defeat Hamas. And it’s made it even harder by the kind of sniping at him from the military and security establishment, which is equally if not more responsible for the Oct. 7 disaster, and also preaching defeatism about the war in anonymous interviews given the Times. If he chooses to abandon the war effort in order to gain some cheap popularity by obtaining the freedom of the hostages—as he did in 2011 in the disastrous Gilad Shalit hostage-release deal—he might hold on to office for a while at the head of a coalition involving many of his opponents. But it would be a betrayal of his principles, his voters and the security of his country.

No matter how he navigates the current crisis or whether he survives in office, he seems not so much to be playing politics as his opponents claim as clinging to the only stand that makes any sense if Israel is to truly ensure that there will be no more Oct. 7 attacks. Biden, on the other hand, is doing nothing but playing to his party base, seeking to convince them that he shares their contempt for Israeli lives that is a key element in the calls for a ceasefire before Hamas is eliminated.

The president’s prioritizing the winning of Michigan and the seduction of his party’s many Israel-haters can’t be dignified by Friedman’s foolish talk of a doctrine that will supposedly solve the problems of the region with a Palestinian state that nobody really wants. His cynical tricks may or may not gain him votes, but the real loser in his politicization of Middle East policy is the security of a Jewish state that is being endangered by his vendetta against Netanyahu.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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