Biden and Netanyahu relationship strained further as Israel cancels delegation visit

Biden and Netanyahu relationship strained further as Israel cancels delegation visit

Senior Biden administration officials believed they made clear to their Israeli counterparts in nonstop talks over the weekend the possibility that the United States would abstain from — rather than veto — a U.N. Security Council resolution Monday calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

But the White House was taken aback by what happened after the abstention vote was cast: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled a high-level delegation’s trip to Washington, specifically requested by President Biden in a phone call last week, to discuss U.S. concerns about Israel’s plans for a major military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

In a reaction that understated the administration’s shock, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called the cancellation “surprising and unfortunate.”

The remarkable turn of events has transformed a widening rift between Biden and Netanyahu into a public chasm. Administration officials hastened to insist there had been no U.S. policy change, that Israeli plans for a Rafah operation were not imminent in any case, that negotiations over the release of hostages would continue and that they looked forward to future conversations with Netanyahu and his government.

Despite the extensive weekend consultations, and with no effort by the Israeli leader to reach out to Biden directly, Netanyahu charged in a statement released by his office after the vote that the United States had “abandoned its policy in the U.N. today. … Regrettably, the United States did not veto the new resolution, which calls for a ceasefire that is not contingent on the release of hostages.” This, the statement said, was “a clear departure from the U.S. position.”

The meeting was off — a delegation headed by Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s senior strategic adviser, would not travel to Washington as scheduled.

The page-long resolution itself was born out of an attempt to bridge differences that had made the Security Council — the world’s primary body for maintaining international peace and security — seem weak and ineffective in multiple attempts to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. The United States had vetoed three earlier cease-fire resolutions; its proposal Friday of a measure tying an immediate cease-fire to a hostage release was vetoed by Russia and China.

Monday’s resolution was introduced by the 10 nonpermanent members of the body, representing the rest of the world beyond the five countries — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — with the power to veto it.

Israel had objected to much of the language, calling for removal of the word “permanent” before the cease-fire language and insisting that a demand for releasing Israelis held hostage by Hamas be tied to any stop in the fighting. The United States shared those concerns: It persuaded the sponsors to take out “permanent” and at least to put the call for a cease-fire and a separate hostage release in the same paragraph.

The final version called for an “immediate ceasefire” lasting at least until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan two weeks from now, “leading to a lasting sustainable” end to the fighting.

In the same lengthy sentence, it also demanded the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, as well as assuring humanitarian access.” It mentioned neither Israel nor Hamas by name.

“We did not agree with everything” in the final document, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the council. The United States still wanted a clear condemnation of Hamas and a link between the release of hostages and a cease-fire, as it continues to seek in ongoing Israel-Hamas negotiations.

But in the end, Washington felt it was enough.

Hours after the vote, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby sought to downplay the sense of bilateral tension, telling reporters at the White House that the United States would continue to “have Israel’s back” and push for the release of all hostages held by Hamas.

Still, he called Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the delegation’s trip disappointing. “We’re kind of perplexed by this,” Kirby said, reiterating the administration’s assertion that the abstention did not represent a change in policy. “It seems like the prime minister’s office is choosing to create a perception of daylight here when they don’t need to do that.”

For Biden, who has a deep and visceral attachment to Israel and has been highly reluctant to break with Netanyahu, the breach marked the culmination of months of frustration. Since the war began with Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack that killed about 1,200 Israelis and saw at least 250 hostages captured, Biden and his senior aides have backed Israel at nearly every turn.

Support continued even as Netanyahu publicly defied the United States on virtually all major issues, including the administration’s desire to see the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian into the enclave and a pathway to a Palestinian state.

Facing increased international isolation over the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed by Israeli air and ground strikes in Gaza and hundreds of thousands more nearing famine, the administration has repeatedly countered with support for “Israel’s right to defend itself” and continued to rush weapons to Israel.

Frank Lowenstein, a former State Department official who helped lead Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2014, said three major factors probably led to Monday’s events: the deep disagreements between Washington and Israel over a large-scale invasion of Rafah, where more than a million Gazans have sought refuge from Israeli attacks farther north; the catastrophic humanitarian situation; and Israel’s announcements of new settlements while Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting the country Friday.

“Biden did everything he could for months to avoid a big public fight,” Lowenstein said. “It reflects a very serious shift in the White House’s position towards how to manage the Israelis throughout the rest of this war. The Israelis are either going to pay attention now or we’re likely going to continue down this path.”

Over the weekend, Israel said it would no longer allow UNRWA, the main U.N. aid agency operating in Gaza, to make any humanitarian deliveries to the north. Despite private U.S. urgings, Israel has refused to take measures to accelerate the passage of aid trucks into and through Gaza, leading Biden to order the U.S. military to airdrop pallets of food and to build a temporary pier on the Gaza coast to begin a sealift of humanitarian supplies.

The administration has been especially incensed at aggressive activities by the Israeli military and settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, along with announcements of new settlements it has described as illegal. White House officials have told Israel that the new construction undermines its long-term security by further angering and radicalizing the Palestinian population and preventing the possibility of a two-state solution.

On Friday, as Blinken was visiting Tel Aviv for meetings with Netanyahu and senior aides, Israel announced its largest West Bank land seizure since 1993. The move was viewed as an enormous sign of disrespect. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — whom the United States views as an especially problematic member of Netanyahu’s government, along with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — boasted about the settlements.

Mara Rudman, who served as a Middle East envoy during the Obama administration, said that while the underlying relationship could withstand the latest spat, “the personal dynamics between Biden and Netanyahu likely are particularly strained” in ways that showcase why the Israeli leader is facing growing calls for a change in leadership.

“Geopolitical relationships, like personal relationships, go through rough patches, even in the most committed of marriages,” she said. “The U.S. and Israel are there now.”

Netanyahu also had a strained relationship with President Barack Obama, and the decision by the United States to abstain from a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements in late 2016 further inflamed tensions between them. The previous year, Netanyahu had traveled to Washington to deliver a joint address to Congress blasting Obama’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran, bypassing traditional protocol and leaving White House officials incensed.

The relationship with Biden, with stretches back over several decades, was expected to be different. Biden, who has often said he tells Netanyahu, “I love you, Bibi, even if I can’t stand you,” has long talked about his history with Israel, dating back to his time as a senator. Still, he has been under immense political and international pressure to publicly break with the Israeli leader and his far-right government in recent months.

The president has faced protesters at his political events and a sustained campaign by voters in key states to withhold their support for him during this year’s presidential race. More than 100,000 voters in Michigan marked their ballots “Uncommitted” during that state’s presidential primary, with many Arab American voters saying Biden has lost their vote in November.

While some activists welcomed the U.N. Security Council vote Monday, others called for Biden to go further by restricting the transfer of U.S. weapons to Israel.

“We’re glad that the U.S. is no longer actively blocking calls for a ceasefire, but it’s long past time for the Biden administration to use all of its leverage — including halting weapons transfers — to push for an immediate and lasting ceasefire, hostage exchange, and massive amounts of aid to Gaza,” said Eva Borgwardt, spokeswoman for the American Jewish group IfNotNow, which has opposed Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

The effort has gone beyond activists to include top lawmakers within the president’s own party. Some, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, have used their platform to publicly suggest Netanyahu be replaced.

John Hudson contributed to this report.

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