columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Biden’s problem is with Democrats who hate Israel, not Netanyahu

The administration’s efforts to spin attacks on Jerusalem that validate Hamas propaganda as a critique of the prime minister and his policies are an effort to appease the left.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to reporters in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to reporters in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It seems that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is feuding with another American president. That’s what the White House and its corporate-media echo chamber cheerleaders at publications at The New York Times and broadcast outlets like MSNBC would like you to believe. As was the case during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Netanyahu has become the foreign leader mostly likely to be bashed by President Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team. They see him as an obstacle to the policies they wish to pursue, as well as a political problem heading towards the November election.

And they’re employing the same tactics that official Washington always uses when it comes to undermining Israeli leaders it doesn’t like or can’t seem to work with. But this time, it isn’t limited to presidential sniping at the prime minister in interviews, “hot mic” moments, and leaks aimed at discrediting and toppling his government. The administration is determined to make it appear that Netanyahu is conducting a brutal and losing war effort, trying to blow up the U.S.-Israel alliance and is on the brink of being tossed out of power by his own people.

It is entirely true that—as with Clinton and Obama, and despite Biden’s protestations that his feelings about the prime minister are not personal—Netanyahu is regarded with deep-seated animosity by the president and his aides. But it’s not a personal feud. Nor, unlike the problems with Clinton and Obama, is the animosity primarily driven by policy differences, though those certainly exist.

This time it’s not about Bibi

Instead, the dispute, which is rapidly taking on all the signs of a major crisis between the two countries, is something unprecedented in the 75 years of a relationship that has fluctuated between fractious and warm for decades. This time, it’s almost entirely driven by domestic American politics.

That is a first—and actually the opposite of the usual Washington spin about Netanyahu, which often portrays problems as the result of the prime minister’s domestic priorities and his endless scheming to hold onto power. After three separate terms as premier covering a record total of nearly 17 years, it’s never unreasonable to suspect him of playing politics. But for all of his hostility to domestic critics and political rivals, as well as his endless suspicions about his coalition partners and cabinet colleagues, his post-Oct. 7 policies aren’t about that.

His standing in the polls has improved since his most challenging times during the 2023 debates over judicial reform and then the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7. Yet Israelis remain divided about whether he should continue in office, especially after presiding over one of the country’s greatest military and intelligence disasters five months ago. Despite the calumnies being spewed at him by Biden and congressional Democrats, Netanyahu’s basic approach to the war against Hamas has the support of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. There is wall-to-wall backing for his goal of eradicating the Hamas terrorists who ruled Gaza as an independent Palestinian state in all but name. And there is no support for Biden’s plans to push for a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, as well as in the Gaza Strip, once the war ends.

That means that like the prime minister’s skirmishes with Obama, this fight is likely to help rather than hurt him. His political fate may ultimately be decided by a postwar commission that could demand his resignation, as well as those of the generals and heads of the intelligence services that failed so badly to anticipate and prepare for the Hamas assault on southern Israel. The Biden attacks on the prime minister, however, might lead to Netanyahu remaining in office indefinitely—something that most observers believed to be unthinkable after Oct. 7.

Hamas propaganda

Despite the drumbeat of criticisms lobbed towards Netanyahu, his government, and the strategies and tactics being used by the Israel Defense Forces in the war against Hamas, the rising tensions in the alliance is not the product of the Jewish state’s interests being at odds with those of the United States. In fact, since Oct. 7, the two countries’ common interest in decisively defeating Hamas—and deterring Iran and its other proxies and auxiliaries from further destabilizing the region—has never been more obvious or necessary.

Nor are Biden’s claims that Israel’s campaign against Hamas is “over the top” or “indiscriminate” remotely accurate. As Avraham Wyner, a professor of statistics and data science at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania discussed in a seminal article in Tablet, the Palestinian casualty figures provided by Hamas that are cited by Biden and the corporate media appear to be not just exaggerated but fraudulent. A more accurate assessment of the situation may bear out the claim that the ratio of non-combatant Palestinian casualties to combatants may be as low as 1 to 1. That is unprecedented in the history of urban warfare, especially because Hamas deliberately embeds its terrorist forces among Palestinian civilians—men, women and children.

Taken in context, that would mean that Biden isn’t just venting his pique at the hard-to-like prime minister but is knowingly recirculating the terrorist group’s propaganda talking points, despite his condemnations of Hamas and the Oct. 7 massacres.

So why then, did the president have far more harsh words for Netanyahu in his State of the Union address last week than he did for Hamas? And why did he double down on that in a subsequent interview on MSNBC in which he slammed Netanyahu, saying that the prime minister was “hurting Israel more than helping Israel,” and claiming the military strategy being used in the war against Hamas is “contrary to what Israel stands for, and I think it’s a big mistake. So I want to see a ceasefire.”

That was accentuated by the leaks intended to back up the belief that Biden will condition military aid to the Jewish state on a demand that the Israelis allow Hamas to remain in Rafah, the terrorist organization’s last remaining enclave in Gaza.

And if those verbal attacks, which went even further than the brickbats thrown at Jerusalem from Washington in the months since Oct. 7, were not enough, the administration also made sure that a new “Threat Assessment” report from the CIA was released in order to have its claims that a defeat of Hamas is probably impossible and that Netanyahu’s coalition is in “jeopardy.”

The reason for this campaign was made obvious by the tone and intended audience of Biden’s rhetoric in his State of the Union address. The president and his staff clearly believe that their dire political situation, in which he now trails former President Donald Trump, in battleground states like Michigan with its high proportion of Arab residents, as well as in national polls, require him to rally a faltering Democratic base to his cause. Love it or hate it, the speech was not pitched at winning over independents or those Republicans who are not thrilled with the prospect of voting for Trump. Instead, it was a combative and unusually partisan effort aimed at left-wing Democratic voters whose enthusiasm for the president has been waning in no small measure because of the Israel-Hamas war.

Biden’s falling poll numbers

While many in the pro-Israel community are focused on Biden’s threats to Israel, the intersectional activist wing of his party has swallowed Hamas’s lies about the Gaza campaign being “genocide” and the current conflict being due to Israel’s “occupation.” The mobs chanting for Israel’s destruction and in favor of Palestinian terrorism on college campuses and in the streets of American cities illustrate the way woke ideologies like critical race theory and intersectionality are not only dividing American society but also granting a permission slip for antisemitism. The supporters of these toxic ideas have real power within a Democratic Party that is trending more to the left, especially among younger voters.

This goes beyond his efforts to appease antisemitic Arab-American voters in Michigan. While Biden and his team can publicly dismiss the worries that leftist voters will stay home in November or vote for a third-party candidate, there is no question that his party base lacks enthusiasm for his re-election campaign. What’s more, these voters want an immediate and permanent ceasefire that would allow Hamas to get away with the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust.

That is the only explanation for the clear shift in U.S. policy away from a position calling for Hamas’s eradication in favor of one that would, as Biden seemed to let slip in his MSNBC interview, let it survive. That is what an administration “red line” opposing an Israeli offensive into Rafah to finish off Hamas would mean in practice.

His strategy to win over leftist and anti-Israel voters may not be as smart as he and his handlers think it is. An equivocal policy towards Israel—or even one that is overtly critical—isn’t going to be enough to win over those indoctrinated in critical theory who believe Israel and its Jewish supporters are “white” oppressors. They want a more overt pro-Hamas stand rather than one that is tacitly aimed at benefiting the terrorist group. And it is likely to alienate more moderate and independent voters who support Israel than it will win over stragglers from the activist base.

Helping, not hurting Netanyahu

America’s interests are not served by such a policy since Hamas’s survival will be an enormous win for Iran and a defeat for moderate Arabs and Muslims that will ensure that there will be more violence and bloodshed, both Israeli and Palestinian. 

On top of that, it will only strengthen Netanyahu because it will allow him to make a stand on an issue on which there is a political consensus in Israel: defeating Hamas and preventing it or other Palestinian factions from ever being able to repeat the horrors of Oct. 7. As much as Biden may try to pretend that he is in sync with the Israel people, the opposite is true. As controversial as he may be, Netanyahu is on solid political ground when it comes to finishing off Hamas and stopping the creation of a Palestinian state.

For a brief moment after Oct. 7, Biden’s pro-Israel stand, his visit to Israel during wartime and his commitment to Hamas’s total defeat brought an administration that had previously been bent on appeasing Iran back to sanity and a defense of U.S. interests. But the president’s sinking poll numbers and pressure from his intersectional base and liberal media outlets have sent him in the opposite direction. His problem is not so much with Netanyahu as it is with Democrats who hate Israel. Vainly seeking their approval will have grievous implications for the U.S.-Israel relationship, Israeli security and the fight against terror in the Middle East.

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

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