Benjamin Netanyahu Defying Biden’s ‘Red Line’ Would Be a Disaster

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty

Benjamin Netanyahu has brought the U.S.-Israel relationship to the breaking point.

The tensions between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s government have grown steadily worse since Israel’s invasion of Gaza. But until recently, the U.S. side was inclined to keep disagreements in the background, hoping to avoid a direct clash with the Israeli prime minister that could undercut U.S. leverage with its ally. In the past few days, however, the relationship has gone from bad to worse. Now neither side is making an effort to hide the divergence in their goals and views.

We have gone from leaks about President Joe Biden thinking Netanyahu was an “asshole,” to Biden publicly making his unhappiness over Israel’s Gaza war policy a centerpiece of his recent remarks. Then, over the weekend, Biden declared that if Israel went ahead with its planned operation in Rafah, it would be crossing a “red line.”

Biden and Netanyahu Both Hope the Other Is Out of Power Soon

Netanyahu’s public response was to say he would ignore the “red line” and that Israel would proceed with the Rafah operation. He argued that his red line was avoiding another Oct. 7-type attack—implying that further operations in Gaza would help ensure Israeli security, a statement that itself contradicted an earlier Biden observation that Israel’s Gaza operations were actually putting Israel at greater risk.

While Biden walked this back somewhat by saying, “It is a red line but I’m never going to leave Israel.” He added that he would not cut off “all” weapons to Israel, and noted his intention to continue to provide defensive weapons, like support for Israel’s “Iron Dome” system. But this did leave open the possibility that some weapons or other forms of aid might be withheld.

Even though he qualified his point, the message therefore remained loud and clear. The president was, it seemed, finally considering using what many consider the only real leverage the U.S. has over the Israelis—reducing the provision of the kinds of support that have thus far been useful to their war effort.

At the same time, Biden, in his State of the Union, committed the U.S. to helping to build a temporary port in Gaza to help enhance the flow of aid to the besieged citizens of the territory. The U.S. has also continued to airdrop food into Gaza to help relieve growing famine conditions that threaten as many as a quarter of the residents of the war-torn area.

Such efforts come as a direct result of U.S. dissatisfaction with Israeli support for humanitarian relief in Gaza and, of course, as a consequence of the horrific destruction wrought by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

In other words, Netanyahu’s government has rewarded the support Biden initially provided Israel with such contempt in its words and actions that Biden, one of the most stalwart supporters Israel has ever had in Washington, is now being forced into the awkward position of both backing Israel’s right to self-defense and trying to ameliorate the consequences of Israel’s wanton brutality.

(Even Netanyahu’s own dubious estimates of the civilian casualties in Gaza suggest that 1.5 Palestinian civilians have died for every Hamas terrorist killed—which would put the civilian death total at 17,000. Other estimates suggest a much higher civilian casualty total including those referenced by Biden—which imply the number of just the women and children killed by Israelis alone is nearly 17,000.)

Trump Embraced an Authoritarian the Day After Biden Fiercely Defended Democracy

Netanyahu argues that the majority of Israelis support his policies, including his rejection of the two-state solution that the Biden administration has publicly stated is part of what it sees as essential to long-term stability in the region. However, even Israelis are showing unease with Netanyahu's policies, with a majority saying there was a “low likelihood” that his stated goal of “eliminating” Hamas could be achieved.

There are also growing divisions within the war cabinet about how to conduct the war. And families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza have held large public protests in recent days, which have eaten away at Netanyahu’s already low public support.

America’s frustration with Netanyahu manifested itself last week in meetings with Benny Gantz—a political opponent of Netanyahu’s and a member of the war cabinet—who came to Washington on a visit without the permission or support of the Israeli prime minister. That too was seen as a way of publicly indicating frustration with Netanyahu.

The question at the moment is how will Biden avoid falling into the same trap as bedeviled his former boss President Obama—who declared a red line in the Middle East, in his case concerning Syrian President Assad, that he then did not follow through on, undermining his credibility.

What would a U.S. response to Netanyahu crossing the “red line” look like? Would some military support be stopped? Would the U.S. continue to back Israel, as it has in multilateral institutions?

The Biden Administration’s Going All-In on Its Push for a Gaza Ceasefire

Further, if the civilian toll in Gaza gets much worse for reasons other than operations in Rafah, how would that impact the relationship, already dysfunctional?

What would an even more toxic relationship look like? Could steps finally be taken that would have a material impact on Israel’s ability to conduct its war, and what would be the consequences of such steps on the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship? On Biden’s political support in the U.S.? On Netanyahu’s political support in Israel?

One thing is clear: the Biden-Netanyahu relationship has been deeply damaged and will likely never be the same. For an Israeli government to have a long-term positive or even constructive relationship with the current administration in Washington, one thing is clear: It will have to be an Israeli government without Netanyahu or the most extreme members of his cabinet.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.