Biden V. Bibi (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- December 18, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Against the backdrop of the Gaza war and Israel’s far-reaching reliance on American military and diplomatic support, US President Joe Biden has become very explicit in his criticism of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. What are the areas of disagreement?

A. First, let’s note what the two leaders agree on: dismantling Hamas and removing it from power in the Gaza Strip, and freeing the hostages that Hamas still holds, including some eight US citizens. To this end, the Biden administration recently vetoed a UN Security Council call for a ceasefire, and Biden last week reiterated that “we’re not going to do a damn thing other than protect Israel.”

As for areas of disagreement, tension, and American criticism of Israel’s war effort, I count six. First and foremost and most blatantly, Biden and Netanyahu disagree regarding a strategy for the Gaza Strip after the war. A second topic of dispute is the scope of Israeli bombing and the resultant high percentage of Palestinian casualties that are civilian. Third and fourth, both related to the second topic, are the timetable for deescalating the intensity of the war and the timetable for eventually ending the war. Fifth is the scope of humanitarian aid that Israel allows into the Strip.

Sixth, the US wants to avoid expansion of the war to additional Middle East theaters--Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, even Iran--while Israel is already fighting Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and threatens to expand the war there and to Yemen unless its urgent security needs are met.

All these areas of disagreement are being discussed, as we write, by a series of high-level American visitors to Israel: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Head of the Joint Chiefs General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Back in Washington, Biden has sent unprecedentedly blunt notice to Netanyahu that his coalition is too extreme and that in the post-war era a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority must be installed to administer the Strip.

Netanyahu, for his part, is desperate to shore up extreme right-wing support and is ideologically committed against a Palestinian state. Accordingly, he has publicly rebuffed these American positions, all the while expressing his gratitude for US military and diplomatic support for Israel’s war effort.

Q. Start with the most strategic issue: what to do with the Gaza Strip once Hamas has been removed from power there . . .

A. This is the crux of the two leaders’ confrontation. Biden not only genuinely cares about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, but toward that end he acutely needs a Middle East peace plan--a peace vision that will justify his support for Israel’s war effort as the US enters an election year. In sharp contrast, a weak and bumbling Netanyahu desperately needs an anti-Palestinian-state platform in order to remain in office, and out of jail, after the war. Meanwhile, Bibi has no effective strategy at all for the post-war Gaza Strip.

Biden wants to reinstall the PLO-dominated Palestinian Authority to power in Gaza--Hamas forcibly expelled it in 2007--while recognizing that the PA with its corrupt and undemocratic institutions and over-the-hill leader must first be “revitalized”. And he wants to fold this process into a renewed effort to recruit Saudi Arabia and perhaps others to the cause of ‘normalization’ with Israel. This scheme in its latest iteration is understood by Netanyahu as conditioning relations with Saudi Arabia on the emergence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

Netanyahu rejects the PA, PLO and Hamas (which he cynically endorsed prior to October 7) as administrators of the liberated Strip--"neither Hamastan nor Fatah-stan”--but without offering a viable alternative. Note that regarding the sad state of the PA Netanyahu is, according to Palestinian polling, backed up by a majority of Palestinian opinion which rejects the PA as corrupt and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), as unfit for office.

Netanyahu’s position potentially dooms Israel to reoccupation of Gaza. And this is exactly what Netanyahu’s fascist-messianic coalition partners envision in order to rebuild Israeli settlements there. In Netanyahu’s desperation to counter large-scale Israeli public anger over his failure to prevent this war, those partners appear to him to be his lifeline.

If the Gaza war ends tomorrow, US-Israel relations will enter crisis mode over this ‘day after’ issue.

Q. Moving on, Biden has lately accused Israel of indiscriminate bombing, and American generals have begun publicly arguing that Israel is using far too many ‘dumb’ bombs that cannot be aimed accurately. Both claims are linked to a heavy civilian death toll among Gazans that Israel is hard put to explain or justify . . .

A. It appears almost as if Israel has given up on explaining the deaths of some 18,000 Gazans thus far in this war. After all, it could be argued that some 7,000 of the 18,000 are Hamas terrorists; that the laws of war permit killing civilians when the enemy, Hamas, is embedded among them; that the IDF had warned the civilians to leave; etc. Nor are Israel’s bombings ‘saturation’, ‘carpet-bombing’ or (Biden) “indiscriminate”, but rather targeted bombings. It looks like, as Gazan civilian losses pile up, no one is interested in these rationales any more.

Here it hardly helps--indeed is counter-productive--when poorly informed Israeli spokespersons cite World War II precedents like the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo that are today universally condemned and regretted. Or when we are informed that IDF targeting is now AI-generated, as if that is reassuring.

Then there are the undeniable basic facts: the Gaza Strip is one of the most crowded pieces of real estate in the world; and Israelis entered this war thoroughly traumatized, furious and unforgiving over Hamas’s opening act of rape, butchery and mass murder of civilians. Biden’s timely admonition to Israel in October not to repeat the excesses of America’s knee-jerk acts of revenge and occupation after 9/11 appears in some instances to have fallen on deaf ears.

(Apropos trauma and excesses, last Friday Israelis were again traumatized by the IDF’s inadvertent ‘friendly fire’ killing of the first three escaping hostages. At the symbolic level, this abject moral failure was understood by many in near-existential terms: the very soldiers who had been sent to free the hostages and whose campaign was supposed to pressure Hamas into releasing them . . . ended up killing them.)

Here we come to American pressures on Israel to, in Sullivan’s words, “transition from a high-intensity operation to a targeted” or “low-intensity” operation within weeks, looking to an end to the war in months. This is also explained as a move away from bombings and bombardments and toward special operations by commando-like forces. Clearly this would save Palestinian civilian lives. At least theoretically (after last Friday) it might even facilitate hostage-rescue.

But would it advance the objective of dismantling Hamas and killing its leadership? And would it not cost the lives of more Israeli soldiers? A recent spike in IDF losses in close-quarter fighting in refugee camps in the northern Strip appears to drive home the point.

Q. Is humanitarian aid still a focus of US-Israel disagreement?

A. Far less than in the early weeks of the war, when Israel rashly declared a total blockade on even water supply to the Strip. Nowadays there is still ‘blockade’ advocacy by a few retired IDF generals, who believe this would hasten Hamas’s capitulation. But by and large, Israel has yielded to the US view that humanitarian aid must be delivered to the Strip in quantity, even including dual-use items like fuel.

It is clear that the alternative to massive aid is human disaster, laid at Israel’s doorstep. Indeed, the large-scale physical destruction of Gaza dwellings and the Israeli tactic of pushing most of the population toward the southern end of the Strip may in any event eventuate in human disaster.

Q. Finally, the issue of expansion of the war: north to Lebanon, south to Yemen, or against additional Iranian proxy groups . . .

A. Here Washington has from the outset tried to anticipate Israel’s needs and deal with them through deterrence and the deployment of American and US-led military force. In general, Israel is threatening the use of force only if the international community does not take action.

It is precisely this that the international community is doing at least regarding Yemen’s Houthi blockade of Bab al-Mandab. The US and its allies have been impelled to act insofar as Houthi aggression is being directed against non-Israel-related shipping as well as Israeli shipping. This is actually fortunate for Israel, since the IDF would be challenged alone to counter the Houthis so far from home, due to both geography and logistics.

Regarding Hezbollah, Israel’s threat to escalate appears to be intended to incentivize the US, the ineffectual Lebanese government and component contingents of UNIFIL (the UN force in southern Lebanon) to find ways to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1701 from 2006. The resolution, never fully enforced, requires Hezbollah to deploy further north of the Israel-Lebanon border where it does not directly threaten Israeli border communities. Successful enforcement would enable some 70,000 displaced Israeli border residents to return to their homes and would presumably end the current border war in Israel’s north.

Here, as regarding Yemen, Israel has international law on its side. Failure to enforce 1701, Israel threatens, would leave it with no alternative but to escalate radically against Hezbollah and to pressure Lebanon by targeting its infrastructure. The danger of escalation with Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, would ostensibly be mitigated by the US naval deterrent in the eastern Mediterranean.

Washington would by far prefer a diplomatic solution along the Israel-Lebanon border and is working toward that end. Israel, too, would prefer a diplomatic outcome, but in view of experience is far more skeptical.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Notwithstanding the US president’s occasional tongue-in-cheek banter about “how much I love ya, Bibi”, it is no secret that PM Netanyahu is at heart a Republican and that President Biden has never particularly liked him or tolerated his problems with credibility or his slippery-slick style.

There is no symmetry here. Biden appears to genuinely love and care about Israel, and Israel clearly needs him. Yet Netanyahu’s brutal drive to survive this crisis politically and avoid a criminal conviction on corruption charges could lead him to favor Israeli military and political moves that openly defy US strategic needs, flout the requests of the US president, and disserve Israel.

Wiser heads in both Washington and Israel should be on guard.