Israel & Palestine

Israel’s relations with America reach breaking point

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Economist
April 4, 2024 at 19:46
Photograph: AFP
Photograph: AFP

Following Israel’s killing of seven aid workers, Joe Biden delivers his sternest warning yet to Binyamin Netanyahu

After nearly six months of war in Gaza, America delivered an ultimatum to Israel on April 4th: act immediately to protect Palestinian civilians or face “changes in our own policy”. It was the strongest signal yet that President Joe Biden is prepared to reduce vital military or diplomatic support for Israel.

America’s backing is essential to ensuring Israel’s survival, yet Mr Biden will still find it difficult to halt the fighting, hard to find a political settlement in Gaza and impossible to forsake entirely the hard-right government of Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. The president’s intervention does, though, greatly raise the odds of a political challenge to Mr Netanyahu—which may be what the White House ultimately wants. Mr Biden’s warning came in a tense telephone call with Mr Netanyahu lasting about 30 minutes. The president demanded that Israel “announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers”. He also demanded that Mr Netanyahu give his negotiators authority to conclude a deal to release hostages and prisoners, and establish an “immediate ceasefire”. America’s policy, Mr Biden said, would be determined by Israel’s “immediate action”.

Not since the elder President George Bush crossed swords with Yitzhak Shamir over peace talks and Jewish settlements in 1991-92 has an American administration so publicly dressed down an Israeli government. That Mr Biden is a self-declared “Zionist” makes it all the more striking.

His words are a far cry from his unqualified embrace of Israel’s right to defend itself after Hamas attackers killed 1,200 and abducted over 200 more in Israeli border communities on October 7th. With growing qualms, and ever more insistent demands that Israel do more to protect civilians, the Biden administration has continued to arm Israel even as the reported death toll has grown to some 33,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians.

It was the death of seven humanitarian workers from an American charity, World Central Kitchen, which had been working to feed Palestinians, that prompted Mr Biden’s change of heart. The dead included an American-Canadian, an Australian, a Pole, three Britons and a Palestinian. “This week’s horrific attack on the World Central Kitchen was not the first such incident. It must be the last,” said Antony Blinken, the secretary of state.

The deaths caused an uproar among left-leaning Democrats in America, whose anger about the war has become a political problem for Mr Biden in an election year. Mr Biden and Democrats have been progressively turning up the pressure on Mr Netanyahu: imposing sanctions on violent Jewish settlers in the West Bank; air-dropping of food over Gaza; and allowing a un resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire to be adopted without the usual American veto. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader and close ally of the president, called for elections to unseat Mr Netanyahu.

Now, warns Mr Blinken, “if we don’t see the changes that we need to see, there’ll be changes in our own policy.” What, exactly, is America asking for? Some of its demands are clear. America wants to “flood the zone” in Gaza with aid. On military tactics America would like further commitments on civilian protection and for Israel to rule out or defer indefinitely an invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, where remnants of Hamas are holed up along with 1.5m desperate civilians.

America’s demands get more complicated with regard to a ceasefire. Mr Biden implied it would remain contingent on an agreement between Israel and Hamas to swap hostages and prisoners. That has so far proven elusive in part because of Mr Netanyahu’s scepticism towards negotiations but also because Hamas has made demands, such as the permanent exit of the idf from Gaza, that would be unacceptable to any Israeli government and probably America, too.

Mr Biden’s pressure swiftly produced a belated concession. Within hours of the call, the Israeli cabinet committed to opening the Erez crossing and to allow direct shipments from Ashdod, an Israeli port, opening major new conduits into Gaza. Mr Netanyahu, however, will be reluctant to yield much more. His hard-right coalition partners dislike the principle of taking more responsibility for Palestinians; indeed they have encouraged protests to stop aid convoys to Gaza. Mr Netanyahu has committed to an invasion of Rafah, making a u-turn difficult. And he may resist ceasefire talks because a pause in the fighting could embolden his political enemies and create a pathway to discussion of a Palestinian state, which is anathema to him and some of his coalition partners. All of which suggests there is much fighting to come.

Mr Biden’s biggest stick would be to withhold military aid. Whether and to what extent Mr Biden is prepared to hold back American weapons to Israel in the midst of a war—as predecessors such as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s—is still unclear.

Military aid to Israel has continued to flow even as relations between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu soured. In December, Mr Biden circumvented congress to approve the sale of tank shells and other equipment to Israel worth $107m. There have also been smaller transfers not large enough to trigger congressional notification of guided munitions, bunker-busting bombs and other important arms.

Americans could also pursue a less flashy signal of their discontent by slowing down deliveries of weapons and parts on order, says Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution, another think-tank. This might not immediately impede Israel’s fighting ability, but would constitute a clear warning: without American military backing, Israel’s long-term ability to defend itself in the face of myriad threats is in doubt.

As for Palestinian civilians, Mr Biden might not be able to do much more to help them directly. A recently struck budget deal, signed into law by the president, bars American funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (unrwa), the primary provider of humanitarian support in Gaza, for one year. America and other countries suspended payments after Israel accused unrwa staff of participating in the October 7th attack or otherwise colluding with Hamas. The idea of a temporary floating pier in the sea, announced by America weeks ago, is also unlikely to be operational for months.

In his call with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Biden made clear that despite their estrangement over Gaza, America “strongly supports Israel” in the face of Iranian threats—which have grown louder after an air strike attributed to Israel killed high-ranking members of Iran’s praetorian guard, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Iran’s diplomatic compound in Damascus on April 1st. idf sought to reassure Israelis, saying in a post on X that civilians do not need to “buy generators, stock up on food and withdraw money from atms.”

Mr Netanyahu is now caught in a tightening pincer. If he does what Mr Biden asks and softens his war strategy, he will alienate his hard-right coalition partners. If he refuses to comply and wrecks relations with Israel’s vital protector, the Israeli public may not forgive him. Mr Netanyahu’s vulnerability is increasingly apparent. Protests in Israel demanding the return of hostages and the resignation of Mr Netanyahu are building. And on April 3rd Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet and the most likely alternative prime minister, broke ranks and called for an early election in September to “renew trust” within Israel. An election and change of leadership, if it happens, would renew trust with America, too. 

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