A tale of two Benjamins, only one of whom Biden wants to deal with

A tale of two Benjamins, only one of whom Biden wants to deal with

A tale of two Benjamins, only one of whom Biden wants to deal with
Benny Gantz, a key member of Israel's War Cabinet and the top political rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AP)
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This is a tale of two Benjamins and one US administration. The first is Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister; the other is Benjamin (Benny) Gantz, a member of the war Cabinet, yet a political rival of the prime minister. To put it plainly, President Biden and his administration can’t wait to see the back of the first Benjamin, that is Netanyahu, and in this they have joined the majority of Israelis, who share the same sentiment.
From once being a political celebrity in Washington, Netanyahu has become a cause for concern, especially since at the beginning of last year he formed his populist, ultranationalist coalition, mainly to ensure his own political survival. Since then, he has been banished from Washington, becoming persona non grata in the White House. His extremely irresponsible and  brutal behavior since the onset of the war with Hamas only enhanced that sentiment.
In his place, the Biden administration was looking for a “responsible adult” in the government, hence they turned to the second Benjamin: Enter Benny Gantz, whose National Party leads the opinion polls by a large margin and who arrived in Washington this week. Breaking with protocol, the White House had invited him to visit Washington for talks with the most senior members of the administration short of the president himself, but including Vice President Kamala Harris, while neither side consulted Netanyahu, let alone asked for his approval.
It took nearly five months for Washington to take this decision, an unusual one in the world of diplomacy, especially between close allies, but an inevitable expression of exasperation at the policies of the Israeli government before and after Oct. 7. In the final analysis, Israel under Netanyahu has switched from being a strategic ally of the US to being a burden that is not only directly endangering America’s national interests, but negatively affecting its domestic politics, threatening regional and international stability, becoming detrimental to the very survival of Israel itself.
From the outset of the sixth Netanyahu government, Biden was deeply perturbed by its assault on the democratic system and especially on the judiciary. Hence the US president refused to meet with Netanyahu for the first nine months of the current Israeli government, again a rarity in relations between the two countries. When a meeting eventually took place, last September, it was held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly — there was no much-coveted visit to the White House for the Israeli prime minister. It was an uneasy meeting, during which Biden made it clear that what bonds the two countries is their shared democratic values. This can be seen only as a coded warning to Netanyahu that straying from these values risks the special relationship between the two administrations.
Washington is under no illusion that should Gantz become Israel’s prime minister, the path toward serious negotiations on a two-state solution will not be easy, painless, or rapidly established. Yet, at this point, this is their best bet, gambling on a centrist candidate who responds to reason, has no ulterior motive, and whose considerations, unlike those of his rival Netanyahu, are not dominated by either a corruption trial or an increasingly megalomaniac and general detachment from reality.
At this point, with less than a year until the US presidential election, it is far from guaranteed that Biden will win a second term, but after more than 150 days of the war in Gaza, there is a rethink taking place as to whether Israel can be regarded as a strategic asset beyond America’s commitment to the long-term security and well-being of Israel. However, as it stands, the Biden administration is becoming increasingly alarmed and annoyed that Netanyahu is treating the alliance as a one-way street in which the tail wags the dog, and is doing his best to sabotage any chance of a post-war Israeli-Palestinian peace, and more generally the security and geopolitical architecture of the region as envisaged by Washington. 

The Biden administration is becoming increasingly annoyed that Netanyahu is treating the alliance as a one-way street.

Yossi Mekelberg

Biden must also feel a strong sense of personal betrayal. Since Oct. 7 he has stuck his neck out in support of Israel, and in a manner which might cost him the presidency come November. His administration has not shied away from blocking UN Security Council resolutions calling for at least a humanitarian truce, although they are calling for a ceasefire elsewhere beyond the halls of the UN.
Moreover, the US has been supporting the continuation of Israel’s military campaign, even while most of the world opposes it in the face of the horrific images of the mass killing of Palestinians and the desperate humanitarian situation that has brought Gazans to the point of starvation. America’s ongoing support for Israel can only be deeply damaging for its reputation and standing in the region.
The “gratitude” that the Netanyahu government has shown is in the form of bluntly ignoring US requests for it to define its war aims beyond the open-ended and unachievable one of the “total destruction of Hamas” with no timeline or operational plan. From his first visit to Israel after the Hamas attack, Biden has urged Israel to learn from his own country’s mistakes in the aftermath of 9/11, in addition to his caution that democracies must conduct war in accordance with international law, which means with proportionality.
However, five months into this war, and with more than 30,000 Palestinians killed and most of the Gaza Strip becoming uninhabitable, it is obvious that Israel has failed to heed this advice. Israel has continued throughout to ignore US requests to allow for humanitarian pauses, to present a workable plan for the day after — not the one that Netanyahu recently presented that has no partners and no chance to become a reality — and to play ball with the plan Washington is putting together with regional powers that will lead to a peace with the Palestinians based on a two state-solution.
The invitation of Gantz to Washington for high-level discussions was a clear message about who Washington thinks should be in power in Israel and who the US is looking forward to doing business with. Kamala Harris’ recent speech calling for an immediate truce, and laying the blame for the mere trickle of humanitarian aid to the Strip squarely with Israel, was Washington taking the gloves off by publicly rebuking Israel’s conduct of the war. Parting with Netanyahu and his dangerous government might take longer than is desirable, but the Biden administration has now made it very clear that by not hastening its demise, Israel is in danger of losing the support of its biggest and most important ally, something it cannot afford to let happen.

Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House.
X: @YMekelberg

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