A Biden-Netanyahu rift? ‘Distraction’, Palestinian rights advocates say

Palestinian rights supporters dismiss reports of US-Israel disagreements as Biden maintains staunch backing of Gaza war.

US President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on arrival at Ben Gurion international airport, October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv
President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving in Israel on October 18 [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – Rock-solid. Unwavering. Unshakeable. After months of describing his commitment to Israel in fervent terms, United States President Joe Biden shifted his rhetoric this month — and issued his most firmly worded criticism of the country since the start of the war in Gaza.

At a December 12 fundraiser, Biden warned that Israel is losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” in the Palestinian territory.

Those two words launched hundreds of headlines. The “rifts” between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had finally “spilled into public view”, CNN wrote. The Washington Post signalled the two leaders were headed for a “collision”.

But Palestinian rights advocates have questioned how much of a “rift” exists — or whether Biden’s words were merely a means of allaying criticism without taking substantial action.

Biden has faced intense scrutiny for his support of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians since October 7. And the US remains one of the last countries in the world to oppose ending the war.

The president’s statement on December 12, however, did not signal a shift in policy. Rather, his administration has reasserted that it will draw “no red lines” to restrict Israel’s actions or what it does with US military aid.

Some advocates, therefore, argue that the reported disagreements between Biden and Netanyahu are inconsequential so long as the US continues to back Israel.

“It doesn’t matter whether Biden and Bibi [Netanyahu] like each other or not because, at the end of the day, American money is still being transferred to fund the Israeli army. Weapons are still being sent with or without Congress’s approval,” said Laura Albast, a Palestinian American organiser in the Washington, DC, area. “Biden did not come out and call for a ceasefire.”

Advocates denounce political ‘theatre’

Albast said the Biden administration is engaging in occasional criticism of Israel to address growing domestic concerns about the atrocities in Gaza. She noted that Biden’s popularity in the US has plunged during the war, particularly among young people.

A Monmouth University poll this week showed Biden’s approval rating at a record low of 34 percent. Among voters under 34, that number tumbled to 23 percent.

“They think that average voters in the United States are not critical thinkers, so they’re putting together this theatre,” Albast said.

Hours after Biden made his comments about Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, the US voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Days earlier, Washington had also vetoed a similar measure in the UN Security Council.

Still, US officials have said on several occasions that they are raising concerns with their Israeli counterpart over civilian harm in Gaza.

“It’s clear that the conflict will move and needs to move to a lower-intensity phase, and we expect to see and want to see a shift to more targeted operations,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday.

But the bombing nevertheless appears to be intensifying despite Washington’s demand. More than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting resumed on December 1 after a brief truce.

Amer Zahr, a Palestinian American comedian and activist, said Biden is trying to avoid responsibility for the carnage in Gaza, even as his administration seeks billions of dollars in additional assistance to Israel. He called reports of a feud between Biden and Netanyahu a “distraction”.

“This is an attempt by the Biden administration to distance themselves from the genocidal policies of Netanyahu, which they have supported from the beginning,” Zahr told Al Jazeera.

‘Clown show of foreign policy’

Adam Shapiro, the director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), said the Biden administration was fully committed to the Israeli war in Gaza since its earliest days.

But as the “horrific” reality of the Israeli offensive becomes more apparent, the Biden administration does not know how to disengage from it, he added.

“It’s a ship without any kind of direction at this point. It’s like a drowning man, in a way, who’s just flailing,” Shapiro said. “That’s how I interpret all these random statements that come out from the administration. Meanwhile, the reality continues: Israel does what it wants. The weapons continue to flow.”

Since the war broke out on October 7, some points of contention have emerged between the Israeli and US governments.

They have, for example, articulated different visions for post-war Gaza. The US wants the Palestinian Authority to eventually govern the territory, but Israel wants Gaza to remain under its security control.

Disagreements about the future, however, have not shaken Washington’s support for the ongoing war, the scale and intensity of which puts Palestinians at “risk of genocide“, according to UN experts.

US officials, including Biden, have also emphasised the need for a two-state solution to the conflict, putting them again at odds with Netanyahu’s government, which opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But on Tuesday, the US was one of four countries, along with Israel, to vote against a UN General Assembly resolution reasserting Palestinians’ right to self-determination. The measure was backed by 172 other nations.

To Zahr, the vote is yet another example of how US policy remains behind Israel even when Biden’s rhetoric appears to diverge from that of Israeli leaders.

“How can you dare to say that you want to be an honest broker, that you want to create ‘peace’ between Palestinians and Israelis when you say you believe in the right to self-determination of one party and not the right to self-determination of the other?” Zahr said. “This is a clown show of foreign policy.”

Shapiro, meanwhile, said the Biden administration was committing “unforced errors”. Its position towards the bloodshed in Gaza undermines its credibility and the principles it claims to support on the world stage, he explained.

“This administration is so tied up in a pretzel; it doesn’t know the beginning from the end.”

Source: Al Jazeera