Netanyahu pinned in tough spot after key ministers attack Biden
Bloomberg News February 6, 2024
(Tribune News Service) — As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shuttles across the Middle East in the hope of easing regional tensions and winding down the war in Gaza, far-right Israeli ministers are pulling in the opposite direction.
In recent days, two of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most important ministers have attacked U.S. President Joe Biden.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, said Biden was hindering the offensive against Hamas and too focused on getting aid to civilians in Gaza. He suggested that, from Israel’s standpoint, Donald Trump would be a better president.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich then assailed Biden for imposing sanctions on half a dozen Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Blocking their access to bank accounts amounts to an “anti-Semitic campaign,” he said.
The two politicians have long been controversial and outspoken. But their blunt criticism of Biden — who visited Israel soon after Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7 and has consistently defended its right to wage war in Gaza — underscores the strains between the two countries’ leaderships.
Netanyahu responded by thanking Biden for his steadfast support and for U.S. efforts to free more than 100 hostages held in Gaza by Hamas.
But he refused to condemn either of his coalition partners. And, like Smotrich, the prime minister rejected the sanctions, which the U.S. says are to stop violence against Palestinians by settlers.
“The overwhelming majority of residents of Judea and Samaria are law-abiding citizens,” he said, referring to the West Bank’s biblical name. “Israel acts against all Israelis who break the law everywhere. Therefore exceptional measures are unnecessary.”
Netanyahu’s narrow path — keeping the far right in his coalition while ostensibly cooperating with the Biden administration’s diplomacy — is becoming more difficult to tread the longer the war continues and the more Israel faces pressure to end it.
The U.S., while backing Israel’s right to attack Hamas, is trying to persuade Netanyahu to ease the scale of its military operations. Washington is also insisting — to the chagrin of Netanyahu and his ministers — that Israel accept a two-state solution as the only path to peace with the Palestinians.
Biden is running for reelection this year, probably against Trump, and has already faced a backlash from Arab-American voters and young Democrats. They feel betrayed by his support of Israel’s war, in which more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to officials at the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union.
This is posing a challenge to Biden in several key swing states like Michigan.
In Israel, Netanyahu is facing his own political challenges. Polls show the overwhelming majority of Israelis want early elections — the next ones aren’t due until 2026 — and would vote Netanyahu out of office. But as long as Ben Gvir and Smotrich remain at his side and their parties stay in the coalition, Netanyahu can hold out for another two years.
That gives him an incentive not to alienate them or their settler base, which is precisely what Biden and many of Israel’s other allies would like him to do.
Without the U.S. and its billions of dollars in military aid, though, Israel would find it harder to fight Hamas.
On Monday, opposition leader Yair Lapid said he’d offered Netanyahu a “security net” if he was prepared to abandon the far right parties and accept a cease-fire to free more hostages. There’s little sign Netanyahu’s willing to take up the offer.
Blinken is trying to mediate a deal that would pause fighting for around six weeks, while freeing several dozen hostages and more Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. That might lead to an extended cease-fire involving Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries committing to rebuild a devastated Gaza.
The Arab governments say that can’t happen without a clear path to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Polls show that most Israelis — not just Netanyahu and the ruling coalition — oppose such a plan, at least for now. They remain traumatized by Hamas’s rampage through southern Israeli communities, with 1,200 people killed and 240 abducted. They fear an independent Palestinian state will ultimately be taken over by Hamas or other militants.
Israel’s been deeply divided since Netanyahu’s decision to form a government with the far right in late 2022. Before Oct. 7, tens of thousands of mostly secular and liberal Israelis took to the streets weekly to oppose his plans to weaken the judiciary.
Protest leaders quickly switched to helping devastated communities and equipping soldiers. Now, with the war involving fewer troops — tens of thousands of the 350,000 reservists called up are heading home — some expect the demonstrations to grow again, with calls for a new election.
As the pressure builds, Netanyahu will face a tough choice.
“Netanyahu needs to decide in the long term which of the two to forgo: Ben Gvir or the United States,” Ben-Dror Yemini, a political moderate, wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
With assistance from Gina Turner.
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