Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

When President Barack Obama hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in 2014, the Israeli leader lectured him about Gaza’s future, a Palestinian state and an Iranian nuclear deal in a tone that Obama found condescending and dismissive.

After the meeting, an aide asked how it went. Netanyahu “peed on my leg,” Obama replied, according to two people familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose a private conversation.

The moment was emblematic of a dynamic that is culminating in the bitter debates over Israel now erupting across the American political landscape. Over the past 16 years, Netanyahu has departed sharply from his predecessors’ studious bipartisanship to embrace Republicans and disdain Democrats, an attitude increasingly mirrored in each party’s approach to Israel.

The war in Gaza has vastly accelerated the shift, as the once-broad support from Americans for Israel is shattering along partisan and generational lines. The divide, playing out in angry protests and Democratic debates, marks a fundamental shift in U.S. politics.

“I don’t think there’s any other way to say it: Netanyahu has been an absolute disaster for Israel’s support around the world,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “Here in the United States, Netanyahu made a reckless decision to integrate himself with the Republican Party, taking very clear sides in U.S. politics, and it has come with serious consequences.”

Netanyahu is not solely responsible for the shift. Israel has moved steadily to the right and the Democratic Party to the left in recent years, while memories of the Holocaust, which long undergirded Americans’ sympathy for Israel, have increasingly faded into the past. But Netanyahu has led the change with a strategy of aligning himself with the American right, former aides say — a decision that underlies his growing rift with Biden, who personifies the traditional Democratic affection for Israel.

The stakes for Israel could hardly be greater, as leaders on all sides agree that American military and diplomatic support is critical to the viability of the Jewish state as it faces powerful neighbors and a growing number of diplomatic challenges. The United States is by far Israel’s biggest backer.

Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he has personally warned Netanyahu several times over the past 10 years about the risks of aligning himself so closely with Republicans. The prime minister, he said, “has never wanted to listen.”

President Donald Trump walks with Netanyahu to the Oval Office on Jan. 27, 2020.

President Donald Trump walks with Netanyahu to the Oval Office on Jan. 27, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In the past, Netanyahu’s strategy was reflected in such moves as going behind Obama’s back to address a Republican-led Congress in 2015 to blast the president’s Iran policy, or signaling his preference for GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. In the current conflict, his rejection of Biden’s pleas on delivering aid and protecting civilians have at times taken on an acid tone; a top Netanyahu cabinet minister recently went so far as to post on X, “Hamas ♥ Biden.”

Republicans, in turn, have rushed to highlight their embrace of Netanyahu and attack Biden over any sign of divergence from the prime minister’s policies. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has said he plans to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress at a time of deep White House concerns about his policies. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a member of her party’s congressional leadership, recently traveled to Israel to assure members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament: “There is no excuse for an American president to block aid to Israel.”

Some Israeli leaders are worried that Netanyahu is permanently wrecking the unified American support for Israel. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, a onetime member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said in an interview that the current leader’s partisan strategy has “caused an erosion in the public support for the State of Israel.”

“I think that this is an acute threat to the basic needs of the state of Israel,” Olmert said. “Once we have threatened this consensus that both parties are equally important for us, once it starts to erode, it can be a very serious danger to what the American system, the American political bodies, will feel obliged to as far as Israel is concerned.”

The currents of Israeli and American politics are far too complex to attribute to a single person, even one as influential as Netanyahu, 74, who has served on and off as prime minister since 1996. In Israel, an array of social, political and security factors have pushed the country steadily to the right, ending its tradition of left-leaning leaders like Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.

In the United States, Black activists increasingly identify with the Palestinian cause, even as they become a more important part of the Democratic Party and denounce Israel as a “colonial” entity. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement began years ago to protest Israel’s handling of the occupied territories.

But nothing has shattered progressives’ sympathy for Israel like Netanyahu’s rhetoric and actions, Democrats say, particularly the high civilian death toll in Gaza and widespread hunger gripping the enclave because of severely restricted aid.

“Historically, Israel has always had a lot of support in the United States and around the world, and that’s because it was home to Jews who suffered unspeakable crimes during World War II,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust. “But what I think is clear, especially among the younger generation, is the Netanyahu government’s war against the Palestinian people and their killing of tens of thousands of people … has significantly diminished support for Israel and especially among young people, which I think does not bode well for Israel’s future.”

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article, though in the past he has publicly said Israel must be on good terms with both parties. A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the matter, said Netanyahu has always acted in good faith with American leaders.

“The prime minister has made good on every commitment he made,” the official said.

But Netanyahu’s divisive strategy has been evident for years to leaders in both countries. It emerged with particular clarity when Obama took office in 2009.

Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington at the time, said there were two schools of thought in the prime minister’s inner circle. Oren, who was in the minority, advocated nurturing ties with both Republicans and Democrats to ensure Israel had a strong relationship with all U.S. presidents.

The stronger faction — spearheaded by Ron Dermer, who succeeded Oren as ambassador and is now Netanyahu’s chief adviser — argued that Democrats’ growing sympathy for Palestinians was beginning to threaten Israel’s interests. That side asserted that “it was too late” to find productive ground with most Democrats, “that bipartisanship was already dead and if you have limited resources and energy, you should devote them to building up your base,” Oren recalled.

Dermer declined to comment for this article.

Olmert, the former prime minister, recalled Netanyahu asking him for advice before traveling to the United States to meet Obama for the first time in 2009. Olmert cautioned Netanyahu against being condescending or lecturing the U.S. president, whom many conservative Israelis viewed as naively sympathetic with the Palestinians.

Instead, he said Netanyahu “did the opposite,” taking a dismissive tone. “He was very arrogant and very patronizing, and he started this process which drew apart Israel from not just the president, but the party that he represented,” Olmert said.

That frosty relationship lasted throughout Obama’s eight-year tenure. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said that whenever Netanyahu felt Obama was pressuring him, he would go to Republicans in Congress who would then issue statements blasting Obama and create a multiweek political headache for the White House.

“He was duplicitous, self-interested and relentlessly meddled in American politics to undermine President Obama, and frankly was indistinguishable from a Republican political operative in his tactics,” Rhodes said. “Bibi Netanyahu treated Barack Obama differently than any U.S. president had been treated by an Israeli leader.”

Biden, who was then vice president and had known Netanyahu from his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would often use private meetings to try to smooth over tensions, aides recalled. Biden, unlike other Obama officials, liked Netanyahu personally and felt he could be reasonable in private despite his public bluster.

One such incident came when Obama delivered a speech at the State Department in May 2011 that, among other things, laid out proposed parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The next day, Netanyahu dressed down Obama over the proposal in an Oval Office, aides say, and publicly misrepresented the president’s position.

Netanyahu walked into the White House a couple of days later and saw Biden, who said, “Let’s fix this,” recalled Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy who served in multiple administrations, including Obama’s.

“Biden saw himself as the guy who had to be constantly managing the relationship or repairing it when it looked like it was going off the rails,” Ross said. “He felt he understood the Israelis better and Bibi better” than Obama did.

Yet Biden himself could not escape Netanyahu’s snubs. When he visited Israel in March 2010, Netanyahu’s government provocatively announced a new set of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. Eight months later, Biden and Netanyahu met in New Orleans — and Israel again took the occasion to announce new settlements.

Oren recalled Antony Blinken, then Biden’s national security adviser and now secretary of state, saying to him, “You guys are really out to destroy this relationship, aren’t you?”

“What could I do?” Oren said. “I just shrugged.”

But Netanyahu’s most inflammatory snub of Obama was his surprise visit to the United States in 2015, when the president was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran that the prime minister, like many Republicans, strongly opposed.

Netanyahu accepted an invitation from then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to address a joint session of Congress. He did not tell Obama he was coming, a virtually unprecedented breach of protocol, and Obama aides say they learned about the planned speech from a news report.

The address came two weeks before Israel’s elections in which Netanyahu was campaigning on his ability to stand up for the country’s security in Washington. Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the prime minister had “basically used a joint session of the U.S. Congress for an election rally back in Israel.”

During the speech itself, Netanyahu acknowledged the controversy. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political — that was never my intention,” he said.

By the final year of Obama’s term, some at the White House had an unofficial policy that Dermer was banned from the premises, according to two former Obama officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. (One aide said Dermer still worked with the White House on myriad issues.)

Although many of Obama’s closest aides say privately they came to detest Netanyahu, Biden’s devotion to Israel overrode any annoyance he might have felt. Biden had first visited the country as a young senator in 1973, meeting Prime Minister Golda Meir when Israel’s leaders were socialists, the kibbutz movement was powerful and the Holocaust was less than 30 years in the past.

In the final month of Obama’s term, the president and his top aides were debating a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring Israeli settlements in the occupied territories illegal. Nearly everyone on the call agreed that the United States should abstain to send Netanyahu a sharp message, letting the resolution pass rather than vetoing it as usual.

Biden disagreed, warning Obama that doing so would be a “black mark” on his legacy. Obama moved ahead with the abstention anyway.

When Trump became president in 2017, he and Netanyahu formed an immediate alliance — fostered in part by son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had family ties to Netanyahu. Trump relocated the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something presidents of both parties had avoided to preserve options for the peace process. He also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, upending a half-century of U.S. policy.

Netanyahu, for his part, found numerous ways to show his attachment to Trump. He named a Golan Heights settlement Trump Heights. He erected a massive campaign poster of himself shaking hands with Trump over the slogan, “Netanyahu — in a different league.”

In recent weeks, Trump has waffled publicly about whether Israel should continue its war in Gaza or “finish it.” And he has made it clear that he resents Netanyahu for acknowledging Biden’s victory in 2020, and the two have not spoken in years.

By the time Biden took office, the rift between Netanyahu and Democrats was so marked that the president withheld the traditional White House invitation for almost a year. Relations grew even cooler when the prime minister introduced a controversial plan to rein in Israel’s judiciary, as Biden and other Democrats made clear that they saw it as a threat to the countries’ shared values.

But when Hamas attacked Israel last Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostages, everything changed — at first.

Biden unwaveringly backed Netanyahu in public in hopes of influencing him in private, even as the White House grew increasingly alarmed at the growing civilian death toll from Israel’s assault on Gaza, which has now surpassed 35,000. Netanyahu, whose political future was thrown into doubt by the attacks, initially appeared deeply grateful for Biden’s support.

But old tensions resurfaced as the conflict dragged on and Biden urged Israel to do more to protect civilians and let aid into Gaza. The two leaders’ private conversations have become testier and their public exchanges colder, as Biden’s own political prospects are threatened by anger from many Democrats over his handling of Gaza.

Rhodes, the former Obama official, said that for all Netanyahu’s aggressive policies and rhetoric, he is an accelerant rather than the cause of the growing rift between Democrats and Israel.

“It was building for a long time before this point. It will continue to evolve after this point. But unless there’s some totally unforeseen shift in Israeli politics, this is not just Netanyahu,” Rhodes said. “There was the artificial sheen of bipartisanship, but I think that’s in the past now.”

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