Netanyahu picks fight with Biden over arms transfers as US election heats up

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has escalated his feud with President Biden over the war in Gaza, accusing him of holding back arms transfers in a highly public dispute, which analysts say is meant to pressure and potentially even embarrass the White House ahead of the U.S. elections.

The weeklong clash began when Netanyahu released a video claiming he had spoken to Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a visit to Israel about how it was “inconceivable” the U.S. was holding back arms.

The accusation was quickly denied by Blinken and other officials in the Biden administration who criticized Netanyahu for sparking conflict.

But the Israeli leader has only doubled down on his claims amid speculation that Netanyahu prefers to see a return of former President Trump, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential candidate who is set to debate Biden on Thursday.

Laura Blumenfeld, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior policy adviser on the State Department’s Israeli-Palestinian negotiating team, said it was clear Netanyahu was looking to swipe at Biden.

“When you have one friend in the world, you don’t pick a fight with that friend, unless there’s a better friend coming along,” she said. “Part of this is about Netanyahu anticipating a Trump presidency and working with the Republicans in Congress to kind of box Biden in and embarrass him during the national presidential campaign.”

Former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert wrote a biting op-ed on Wednesday calling Netanyahu’s public criticism of the U.S. an “irresponsible provocation” that risked shattering the complex relationship between the countries.

“His displays of braggadocio and arrogance on television, in which he berates the president of the United States and his actions, are a master performance of irresponsibility, losing one’s cool and contempt for Israel’s most basic needs, and a calculated attempt to sabotage Biden’s reelection campaign,” Olmert said.

Trump had a close relationship with Netanyahu during office as his administration moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and officially recognized the historic city as the capital of Israel. His administration also established the Abraham Accords, which saw several Arab nations normalize ties with Israel.

Netanyahu and Trump had a falling out when the Israeli leader recognized Biden’s election victory in 2020, but that could be repaired, said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based Lafer international fellow of The Washington Institute.

“[Netanyahu] believes it can be reconstituted, this special relationship,” he said, as the feeling grows in Israel that “Trump may come again.”

Netanyahu’s spat with the White House contrasts with his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who is in Washington this week to meet with top officials, including Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Gallant is a member of Netanyahu’s far-right Likud party, but he has disagreed with the prime minister before, including on what he said was Netanyahu’s lack of a concrete post-war Gaza plan.

Blumenfeld said there’s a clear “difference in vision” between Gallant and Netanyahu, with the defense minister looking to work closely with the Biden administration as an ally.

“Netanyahu is thinking he can get the same results, but through conflict,” she said, adding that Israel relies on U.S. weapons and the “panic is palpable” from Netanyahu over Biden potentially holding back support. “If you watch that [initial] video, he looks like a teenager whose charging cord to his cell phone has been taken away.”

Looming over the dispute is Biden’s dissatisfaction with the war in Gaza and his concerns about a full-blown conflict with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed armed group in Lebanon that has been trading fire with Israel over the border in support of the Palestinian people.

The Gaza conflict has created a deep rift between Democrats and Netanyahu. After nearly nine months of war, more than 37,000 Palestinians have died, leading to protests in the U.S. and abroad and calls in Washington to minimize civilian suffering.

Netanyahu has also failed to heed U.S. calls to lay out a clear path to end the war against Palestinian militant group Hamas in retaliation for an Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that killed more than 1,100 people. Hamas also took some 250 hostages, about 120 who remain in Gaza.

This week, Netanyahu pledged a lower-intensity conflict would continue in Gaza once the last of the main fighting ends in Rafah, and he wants to retain indefinite security control over the coastal strip. The U.S. has said a permanent Israeli presence in Gaza is unacceptable, and suggested the Palestinian Authority should oversee the strip after the war.

The tensions between the U.S. and Israel reached a previous high point in March, when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for new elections in Israel in one of the most vocal challenges to Netanyahu from a high-ranking official in Washington.

Over time, Biden has also ramped up his criticism of Netanyahu, including in a June interview when said there was “every reason” to conclude that the Israeli leader was continuing the war in Gaza for his political survival.

Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio), who returned from a bipartisan delegation to Israel earlier this month, said it was not clear why Netanyahu has chosen to spar with Biden publicly, but said both countries were tackling the issues.

“A good deal of progress has been made over the last several months and weeks, and even more so the last couple of days,” he said. “There is an emerging alignment in terms of what has to happen moving forward.”

Although Biden is holding up some 3,500 high-payload bombs over concerns about their use in densely populated areas of Gaza, U.S. officials are adamant that no other weapons are deliberately being paused.

But Netanyahu has leaned into the fight and said he is “willing to suffer personal attacks” if weapons transfers go through.

In an interview with Israeli Channel 14 on Sunday, he claimed there has been a slowdown since around four months ago, when Biden began expressing concerns about an operation in Rafah, which at the time hosted more than a million sheltering Palestinians.

“I thought the only way to get out of this jam was to give it public expression,” Netanyahu said of his public criticism. “I didn’t do it lightly. “

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller again rejected the accusations at a Monday briefing, saying support for Israel remains “ironclad” and that nothing has changed.

“I don’t understand what that comment meant at all, in the same way that I didn’t understand the comments that we discussed last week when we heard them make similar claims,” Miller said, reiterating they have only paused the heavy bombs.

“Obviously, they were making intense requests at the beginning of the conflict, and we were fulfilling those requests. They continue to make requests and we continue to fulfill those requests,” he added.

The holdup on weapons may be a symptom of a bureaucratic delay rather than a specific policy, analysts say.

After Oct. 7, the U.S. accelerated arms transfers to Israel to quickly defend the nation after the surprise attack. But now, months later, those weapons may have been looped back into the regular process instead of under an expedited order.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, said at a Monday conference in Israel that weapons shipments are continuing, though “perhaps not at the speed of Oct. 8 when things were at an extraordinary pace of response,” which he added was not sustainable in the long run.

“We’re at a different point now in the war, in the process, but we’re not in a different point in terms of U.S. support for Israel,” Lew said.

Although the U.S. may not be deliberately slowing down transfers, the bureaucratic delays may be beneficial as Washington seeks to prevent a potential war with Hezbollah, said Yaari of The Washington Institute.

“It happens because of objective reasons, but it may also fall in line with the American desire to convince Israel not to go for a full-scale, devastating war in Lebanon,” he said.

A U.S. special envoy is in the region trying to de-escalate a wider Lebanon conflict at the same time as Israeli officials continue to publicly warn of all-out war. Netanyahu said this week that once the war in Gaza wraps up, his forces will be clear to move north to Lebanon.

But the Biden-Netanyahu rift also comes amid domestic turmoil in Israel, with protesters demanding that officials accept a cease-fire deal and return the remaining hostages in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s wartime Cabinet fell apart last week after centrist opposition leader Benny Gantz quit over the direction of the war, or lack thereof. Gantz has called for elections and accused Netanyahu of continuing the war for his political survival.

Russell Berman, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Middle East expert, said there are “multiple dimensions” to the clash between Biden and Netanyahu, including domestic concerns in Israel.

“There probably has been some genuine slow walking of shipments, or at least a reluctance on the part of the White House to speed up a normally bureaucratic process,” Berman said.

But it’s also to Netanyahu’s “political advantage to be seen as standing up to the White House,” especially amid criticism over the Oct. 7 attacks, Berman added.

“The liberal perspective in the United States is that Netanyahu is too strong on security,” he said, “and I think the criticism of him in Israel is that he’s maybe not strong enough on security.”

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