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Netanyahu's Appetite for Confronting U.S. Presidents May Cost Israel This Time

Credit - Photo-illustration by TIME; Getty Images (6); Reuters

It was fully expected that Israel would be displeased that the United States abstained on a United Nations resolution calling for a Gaza ceasefire—instead of blocking it with a veto. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction was outright ridiculous, as he announced he won’t send his top advisors to Washington for talks about the war. Why did he do that?

Netanyahu has a long history of angering presidents—mostly, although not exclusively, Democrats. After he lectured Bill Clinton in the White House in 1996, the President grumbled to his staff: “Who the f**k does he think he is? Who’s the f**king superpower here?”

While you might think that Israel’s longest serving prime minister would have learned from experience, think about this: He probably has concluded that he always gets away with it. Netanyahu, a self-described expert on the U.S., is taking U.S. support for granted—in the belief that Evangelical Christians and America’s tiny Jewish minority will ensure that Israel is always loved, constantly armed, and repeatedly forgiven for any missteps.

And yet, at this point, after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have said that Israel has been bombing indiscriminately in Gaza, and Biden said the military reaction to the Hamas massacres of October 7 has been “over the top,” Netanyahu still thinks he can take a slap at Biden.

It’s getting pretty clear that Israel’s prime minister is gambling, and he’s putting his chips on Donald Trump. Netanyahu—and the rightwing extremists in his government who want to annex the West Bank, and now would like to rebuild Jewish settlements in Gaza—feel that if Trump is back in the White House, he will again let Israel do whatever it wants. And, in their view, if Republicans can capture the Senate and keep the House, then Israel will really have it made.

That’s a lousy bet. No one can count on Trump to stick to whatever position he’s voicing at the moment. In fact, the former president bears a grudge against Netanyahu for congratulating Biden on his election victory in 2020. Trump harshly criticizes American Jews for voting for Democrats, and in an interview with an Israeli newspaper now says the Gaza war looks bad and tells Netanyahu to finish it fast and focus on peace.

For decades, in Israeli politics, the government wanted to look like it was 100% in lockstep with the U.S.—that beacon of a free country that, since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, has been Israel’s main arms supplier and protector in the world’s diplomatic arenas. Israel was proud to say that it maintained bipartisan support in the U.S., and both its diplomats and the American lobby AIPAC took pains to make friends with both Democrats and Republicans.

But Netanyahu has embraced the hubris of thinking he’ll look strong to his political base if he challenges American presidents and other foreign critics. He and his closest officials have strengthened ties with the Republicans—especially hawkish conservatives who admire what the small Jewish state is able to accomplish in an overwhelmingly Muslim region.

Read More: Israel Must Not Let Netanyahu Reject the Biden Peace Plan

When Israeli leaders perceived that many Democrats were questioning Israeli actions, especially its occupation of the West Bank since 1967, Israel turned a cold shoulder to the progressives. And the American Left, no longer admiring Israel as a liberal and enlightened enclave in the Middle East, made Zionism one of its main targets for condemnation.

As statistics and our own sensibilities show, that has contributed to an upsurge in antisemitism—in the U.S. and worldwide—notably since October 7 and the Israeli invasion of Gaza that followed. Jews in many countries are being harassed or attacked by anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, who are cut from the same cloth, on both the political Left and Right.

Netanyahu’s bull-headed insensitivity is partially to blame. In the U.S., he was turning off liberals long before his current feud with Biden. Recall his 2015 address to Congress, after an invitation extended only by Republicans. His speech called on America to reject Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu preached, then lost. The support Israel forfeited from Democrats has had lasting impact.

The alliance between Israel and the U.S. is not a force of nature that can be taken for granted. Thirty years ago, we wrote a book aimed at deciphering the secrets of an alliance between a superpower and a tiny country in a far-off strategic region. We outlined factors such as shared democratic values, the importance of the Jewish American community, the strong attachment of Evangelicals to the Holy Land, and memories of the Holocaust.

We also warned that the passage of time and changes in U.S. demography could erode support for Israel. It's happening now, with protests on American campuses against the war in Gaza. Many of the protestors consume a diet of self-selected, sometimes fake news and have little understanding of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel still enjoys widespread support in America, though it’s constantly eroded by the behavior of Netanyahu and the extremists in his cabinet. “It seems that U.S. officials speak politely but firmly to their Israeli counterparts,” former Israeli ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon told us. “But the Israelis pretend they don’t understand what they’re being told.”

For now, the Israeli government and military officials who were going to fly to Washington this week will stay home. They had been invited by the White House to hear alternatives developed by Pentagon and CIA strategists: ways of crushing the last remnants of Hamas, and hopefully liberating hostages, without a huge attack on Rafah, where over a million Palestinian refugees have gathered.

Netanyahu isn’t really interested in those talks. He explicitly declares that the Israel Defense Forces must enter Rafah, to kill or capture the top Hamas military chiefs. That means he, apparently backed by everyone in his post-October 7 war cabinet, feels it is necessary to restore Israeli deterrence by showing the power of the IDF.

To the Biden Administration and most of the world, that looks like indifference toward the tens of thousands of Gaza civilians who have been killed or wounded, and the hundreds of thousands made homeless.

Biden’s decision to abstain at the U.N. – rather than protect Israel, as usual, with a veto – was a message to Netanyahu that enough is enough. Netanyahu thinks he’s able to slap back, but his petulance reminds us of the satirical Peter Sellers movie of 1959, “The Mouse that Roared,” in which a tiny fictitious country declares war on the U.S. in the hope of receiving reconstruction aid.

That was farce, of course. The reality is that Israel cannot afford to endanger the aid that's already flowing. On top of $3.8 billion in annual direct military assistance, the U.S. has sent more than 400 transport planes and 30 ships carrying 20,000 tons of ammunition, rockets, and other essential military equipment to help Israel prosecute the Gaza war. "Without this re-supply, the Israeli army wouldn't be able to keep fighting beyond another six months," a former Israeli general told us.

Darker days for American-Israeli relations could follow, especially if Netanyahu keeps misjudging the country that’s been Israel’s greatest defender.

Contact us at letters@time.com.