Biden’s Attempt to Get Tough on Netanyahu Quietly Failed

Nothing Joe Biden has done to rein in Benjamin Netanyahu’s brutality against the people of Gaza has worked. Biden has proven too weak, indecisive, and indulgent of Israel to even induce Netanyahu into making small tweaks to his behavior.

US president Joe Biden listens to a question during a press conference at the White House on April 10, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Andrew Harnik / Getty Images)

After six months, a spreading famine, the possible outbreak of regional war, and more than 33,000 Palestinians killed, President Joe Biden finally acted like the leader of the world’s only superpower, and one on which Israel’s war on Gaza is completely reliant. After what the president described as a “very blunt and straightforward” phone call with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, in which he at long last threatened some — any — consequences for Israel’s repeated, humiliating flouting of US requests, the Israeli government seemed to finally budge. Within hours, the Israeli government announced, as per Biden’s demand, that it was immediately opening the Erez crossing and Ashdod port to allow the humanitarian aid it had been blocking to finally flow into the famine-stricken territory.

The move was bitter vindication for the many voices who had spent months calling on Biden to use the United States’ enormous leverage over Israel to, if not end the genocidal war it has been waging on Gaza, at the very least minimize its barbarity. Others took the opportunity to laud the president’s leadership and toughness, however late it had come.

“This is as close to a ‘come to Jesus’ moment as you can get,” Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations told Reuters. Headlines blared that with Netanyahu quickly and obediently opening the aid corridors, the Israeli leader was “bowing to US pressure,” while the president was “watching Netanyahu after their ‘blunt’ talk.” A CNN report on the “pointed phone call” reveled in the details fed to the network by someone close to the president, with Netanyahu allegedly telling him, “Joe, we’re gonna do it.”

“But Biden wasn’t finished,” the CNN report stated. “The prime minister must announce the moves that evening, the president insisted.” And as we now know, Netanyahu quickly folded.

Except that’s not what ended up happening.

According to Israel’s N12 channel, nearly a week later, neither the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the authority in charge of coordinating humanitarian aid, nor officials at the Ashdod port had gotten orders from Netanyahu’s office to do any such thing. In fact, the report stated, Netanyahu seemingly went out of his way to thumb his nose at Biden yet again, appointing three officials opposed to opening the port to the team in charge of humanitarian decision making.

And despite the tough talk from US officials — “if we don’t see changes on their side, there will have to be changes on our side” — in reality, according to the N12 report, US officials simply meekly reminded Israeli officials about Biden’s demand before dispatching the US ambassador to Netanyahu’s office, where he “ran around the rooms” trying to find out how the Israeli government was making his promise to Biden a reality.

For the umpteenth time over the course of this war, in other words, the United States was yet again reduced to acting like a second-rate power, asking its own client state to follow through on its demands, only to be ignored — and simply swallowing the disrespect.

And in case you’re wary of relying on the word of a single report, aid workers confirmed to the Guardian just days ago that “there is a lot less than meets the eye so far” and that “very little has changed” in terms of aid coming in. Another told the paper that the IDF had shot at a United Nations–marked truck taking aid into the territory.

What we’re seeing here is the unbelievable and stomach-churning reality of the Biden administration’s Israel-Gaza policy on full display. On the one hand, both Biden’s phone call and the tidbits quickly and dutifully leaked to the press about it smack of the kind of public relations–minded kabuki theater we’ve seen from an administration that supports Israel’s war in both deed and in spirit.

Throughout the war, Biden officials have from time to time openly told the press that their aim has been to buy Israel as much time as possible to carry out its dreadful military operation to completion and eliminate Hamas, with their only disagreement being about how the brutal way it’s prosecuting the war has made it politically harder to keep their support flowing. As Just Foreign Policy communications advisor Aída Chávez recently pointed out, the Biden White House has been, here and there, surprisingly candid about its game plan, however delusional it may be: that after allowing Israel to destroy Hamas, regardless of the civilian cost and whether  that’s even possible, it will swoop in and set up a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and what’s left of Gaza in exchange for a (disastrous) Saudi-Israeli normalization deal.

In short, it benefits the Biden administration for the US public to believe the president is hapless and that Netanyahu has simply “played” the president once more here, as Democratic senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) recently put it. It’s better for Biden’s election prospects, after all, for an already disillusioned Democratic base to believe their standard bearer is simply weak and ineffective than to believe he and the people around him would make such a monstrous calculation. Sure enough, even after his phone call with Netanyahu, Biden is sending more weapons flowing to Israel anyway, undermining his leverage and rendering the threat he made meaningless.

Yet at the same time, even as he genuinely backs Israel’s war, Biden also really has been a weak leader whose demands have been serially ignored by Netanyahu — just not in the way many of his critics would assume. Biden’s rift with Netanyahu is not over the fundamental substance of the war, which he supports, but over its “over the top” conduct — or more specifically, the massive political problems it’s causing for both Biden himself and the United States as a whole.

Biden and his officials are quite clear, even in public, they’re not frustrated with Netanyahu about the war continuing. They’re frustrated that he won’t do the bare-minimum PR to help them sell the war to an outraged US public and world by letting in humanitarian aid, agreeing to temporary pauses in the fighting, refraining from occupying parts of Gaza, and reducing the scale and indiscriminate nature of Israel’s campaign to minimize civilian casualties.

They’re also frustrated by actions like Israel’s entirely pointless and provocative bombing of the Iranian consulate in Syria last week, which now threatens to trigger a massive, US-involved regional war that the Biden White House decidedly does not want. But Biden has proven too weak, indecisive, and indulgent of Israel to even induce Netanyahu into making these small tweaks to his behavior.

This is the Biden approach to Israel-Gaza in a nutshell: a surreal mix of monstrous cynicism and embarrassing spinelessness. It’s the worst of both worlds, and it may well be making the one we live in much more dangerous.