Netanyahu clashes with Biden over arms transfers amid US election tensions

Netanyahu clashes with Biden over arms transfers amid US election tensions

**Netanyahu Clashes with Biden Over Arms Transfers Amid US Election Tensions**

President Joe Biden’s scheduled call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday is set to test the increasingly strained relationship between the two leaders. This conversation will not only highlight the growing tension but also underscore a significant contradiction in US policy towards the ongoing conflict in Gaza, a war that could potentially threaten both leaders’ political careers.

While Biden has expressed growing frustration over Netanyahu’s handling of the military offensive in Gaza and its impact on civilians, including the recent killing of seven aid workers, the fundamental US support for Israel remains unchanged. Despite the White House’s demands for changes in Israeli procedures to protect civilians and warnings that a planned assault on Rafah could cause a humanitarian disaster, the administration’s military support for Israel continues. Recently, the US authorized the transfer of over 2,000 additional bombs to Israel, and sources indicate that the US is moving towards approving an $18 billion sale of F-15 warplanes to Israel.

The Biden-Netanyahu call, scheduled after the killing of the aid workers, comes amid renewed fears in Washington that Israel’s actions could spark a regional conflict, which Biden has been desperate to avoid. A recent strike on senior Iranian officers in Syria, attributed to Israel, has drawn vows of retaliation, potentially putting US troops in the region at risk.

Both leaders are under enormous domestic pressure, with their political priorities appearing irreconcilable. Biden needs the war to end to ease anger among progressives, which threatens his weakened political coalition ahead of the November election. Conversely, Netanyahu may need to prolong the conflict to stave off elections that many US leaders believe he would lose. The crisis could potentially drive both leaders out of office.

Biden’s tough-talking phone calls with world leaders are routine, but Thursday’s chat with Netanyahu feels like a critical moment for both the Middle East and Biden’s presidency. The backdrop to the call is US fury over the killings of seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen in an Israeli strike in Gaza. Biden expressed outrage and, in unusually blunt language, accused Israel of doing too little to protect civilians and aid workers in the devastated enclave.

Despite rising domestic and international pressure for Biden to do more to constrain Israel, the White House insists there has been no change in its policy of supporting its ally in response to Hamas terror attacks. “No country should have to live next door to a threat that is truly genocidal as Hamas has been,” said White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby. “While we have certain issues with some of the ways things are being done, Israel will continue to have American support for the fight to eliminate the threat from Hamas.”

Kirby’s comment suggests that Biden’s toughened rhetoric will not come with measures designed to change Israel’s approach. US policy appears increasingly ineffective and at odds with itself. There is no evidence that months of signals of increasing frustration with Netanyahu and calls for Israel to do more to protect civilians are having any impact. The US strategy of pushing for a new temporary ceasefire and the release of Israeli hostages by Hamas has produced few concrete results. The killings of the aid workers threaten to halt a vital lifeline needed to mitigate famine in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, encapsulated the disconnect in US policy in an interview with Reuters. “It’s very complicated to understand. America is going to be sending its Navy and its military to do humanitarian work, but at the same time, weapons provided by America are killing civilians,” he said.

Recent events suggest that either Biden lacks leverage over Netanyahu or is unwilling to use it. The Hamas terror attacks on Israel in October, which killed 1,200 people and triggered the war, were heinous and made many Jews feel that Israel’s existence was threatened. However, Israel’s critics now question whether the ferocity of the response against an organization that uses civilians as human shields is justified after the killing of more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Some Democrats have called on Biden to impose limits on how US-made weapons are used by the Israel Defense Forces. However, Biden, the staunchest supporter of the Jewish state of any recent US president, has declined to do so. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to listen to Biden and his recent steps to forge closer ties with Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to cast doubt on Biden’s authority as the senior partner in one of America’s closest alliances.

For Israel, US support is now more crucial than ever. The deaths of the aid workers, some of whom were citizens of Britain, Australia, and Canada, have further estranged Israel from often friendly nations. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told Netanyahu that the situation in Gaza was “increasingly intolerable.” Israel’s growing isolation may explain the swift statements from Netanyahu and other top officials admitting that the attack on the aid workers was a mistake, a departure from how Israel has handled the deaths of many Palestinian civilians.

In the US, Biden is paying a steep political price for his forbearance of Netanyahu. In Wisconsin, nearly 48,000 voters in the Democratic presidential primary registered a protest vote against his handling of the war, following a similar show of dissent in the Michigan primary. Biden only beat ex-President Donald Trump by about 20,000 votes in Wisconsin in 2020, and the state could decide who wins in November.

White House efforts to ease Biden’s political exposure are backfiring. On Tuesday, Dr. Thaer Ahmad, a Palestinian American physician who intends to return to Gaza to treat war victims, walked out of a meeting with the president. Another physician, Dr. Nahreen Ahmed, who was also in the listening session at the White House, said Biden dismissed concerns that his political standing could be hurt by the war, including among Black voters. She said that he initially focused on Hamas terror attacks, saying, “He kind of went back to that and said, ‘You know, I hear what everybody’s saying, but like, think about the young people that were killed on October 7.’ And it kind of dismissed the over 30,000 people dead in Palestine.”

The White House said that Biden “made clear that he mourns the loss of every innocent life in this conflict.”

Biden is not alone in his political peril. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition is teetering. On Wednesday, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s rival and fellow war cabinet member, called for new elections in September. This followed the biggest demonstrations against the Israeli leader since the start of the war. Protests are being fueled by relatives of more than 100 Israelis held hostage or unaccounted for in Gaza who accuse him of doing too little to return them. Netanyahu also faces controversy about exemptions to military service for attendees at Orthodox religious schools, which threatens to splinter his coalition.

Before the deaths of the aid workers, the Biden administration was facing yet another crisis, following an attack in Damascus that Iran says killed two senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders. Biden has worked frantically since October to stop the war from widening. The effort has only been partially successful, as seen with US strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen in response to attacks by Iranian-backed militia groups on US forces and international shipping. The attack on what Iran says was a diplomatic consulate in Damascus – technically Iranian soil – threatened to further inflame the Middle East tinderbox.

Seeking to contain the consequences, the United States directly communicated to Iran that it was not involved and had no advance knowledge of the strike against the IRGC – an organization that has supported a vast network of proxy forces throughout the Middle East, including Hamas, that threaten Israel.

So far, long-held fears that tensions could boil over between Israel and Iran have not been realized. Lower-level clashes between the IDF and Iranian proxies like Lebanon-based Hezbollah have stayed below a threshold that would trigger more worrying hostilities that could draw the US further into the war.

The risk now, however, is that Iran would feel compelled to respond more robustly because of the visibility and symbolism of the Damascus attack. In that sense, Israel appears to be directly testing Iran’s own red lines.

The strike on Damascus also heaped more domestic political pressure on Biden from inside the Democratic Party. “The American people do not want a war with Iran. We do not want Israel to escalate a war with Lebanon. We do not want them to go into Rafah and kill civilians,” Rep. Ro Khanna told CNN. “This could be a regional war, and I’ll tell you one thing … Republicans, Democrats, independents, no one wants America entangled in another war in the Middle East,” the California Democrat said.

There is concern in Washington that Iran could respond by using its proxy groups against Americans. After three US personnel were killed and dozens more injured in an attack on a US outpost in Jordan in January, the administration hit back with a series of attacks against Iranian affiliates in Iraq and Syria.

However, some US observers believe Iran’s options are limited. “A trap has been set in some ways,” said Mark Esper, who served as Trump’s secretary of defense. “If they were to act directly and explicitly against US or Israel targets, then they risk provoking a much wider regional war that they certainly don’t want, and we probably don’t want right now either,” Esper told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “So they have to be careful, but I do think that they will step back up their proxy attacks.”

The situation remains deeply uncomfortable for Biden, for whom every development in the Middle East brings a reminder that events he can’t control pose a grave and growing risk to his hopes for a second term. And Netanyahu, facing his own existential political moment, seems in no mood to help.

Source: CNN, ABC News, The Washington Post

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