Biden’s gamble to rein in Netanyahu

In December, US President Joe Biden warned Israel that its “indiscriminate bombing” campaign in Gaza was putting at risk the vital backing of its allies. The war with Hamas was then two months old and at least 18,000 Palestinians had already been killed, more than half of them women and children. 

Even so just two days later, an Israeli cargo plane took off from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Biden’s own state, carrying weapons to Nevatim air base in southern Israel, according to open source data reviewed by the FT. It was one of dozens of such voyages that have delivered US arms and equipment to be deployed in Gaza. 

Since then, the US has steadily ramped up its criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war as the death toll has risen to 35,000. Yet the weapons have continued to be delivered, at times after the US received urgent requests from the Israeli military.

Until now. Increasingly alarmed at the human toll of the war and under intense political pressure within his own party, Biden has decided to try to deploy his leverage. 

The president took the decision to pause the delivery of a shipment of offensive weapons, including 1,800 bombs weighing 2,000lb each, amid concern over their impact in urban settings in Gaza, where they have destroyed entire apartment blocks.

Biden also warned Israel that the US would no longer supply certain offensive weapons if Israel proceeds with a full-scale assault on Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where more than 1mn people have been seeking refuge, and where Israeli shelling has escalated this week.

“If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities,” the US president said during a CNN interview taped during a trip to the swing state of Wisconsin. 

An unexploded Israeli bomb sits in an alleyway in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip. Despite the US ramping up its criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war, it has continued to supply weapons © Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Reuters

Biden’s move was the most dramatic and potentially consequential break between the US and Israel since Ronald Reagan paused military aid in 1982 in reaction to the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon.

Although the president is a self-described Zionist and one of the most ardent defenders of Israel to sit in the Oval Office, his administration has decided to try to use its position as Israel’s most important ally to bring the conflict towards an end.

The reality is dawning on Biden that “the Israeli move into Rafah — despite his many, many requests not to go forward — is under way,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to four US presidents. The US now risks being even more diplomatically isolated in support of Israel, he says, while tensions escalate throughout the region. 

But the decision also has big political ramifications. With the November election looming less than six months away and parts of the Democratic party coalition wavering about Biden out of rage at his support for Israel, the president has been desperate to avoid a new flare-up in the conflict in Rafah that would further raise the civilian death toll. 

Instead, Washington is pushing hard for a negotiated deal between Israel and Hamas that would involve the phased release of hostages held by the terrorist group paired with a ceasefire lasting at least six weeks.

US officials see this as a pivotal stepping stone towards an end to the conflict and the start of wider talks for the stabilisation of the region, including a pathway towards a Palestinian state alongside Israel and normalisation with Saudi Arabia. A ceasefire deal would also create an opportunity to ease tensions between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon, officials said.

“We are offering essentially a different vision for the near-term and medium-term future and urging our Israeli partners to seriously consider it,” a senior Biden administration official tells the FT. “We are very much still laser focused on trying to get a hostage deal.”

Yet this week, as Israel was preparing for an assault on Rafah, hostage talks that were taking place in Cairo involving Egypt, Qatar and including CIA director Bill Burns appeared to break off without a deal.

“On some of the basic things [the US] wants to get done — like getting more hostages home, an end to the hostilities and preventing a regional war — they’re not anywhere close to where they hoped they would be at this particular moment,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Biden appears to have calculated that applying pressure on the Israeli prime minister might be the only way to achieve those goals. “Belatedly, the president has come to realise he has got to rein in Netanyahu,” Riedel says.

But will US pressure eventually prevail on Israel? Netanyahu has adopted a defiant tone, announcing that Israel would act unilaterally if it needed to. “If we need to, we will fight with our fingernails,” he said.

In a febrile pre-election US political climate, Biden’s move faced an instant backlash from the right of the political spectrum.

“What Biden is doing with respect to Israel is disgraceful. He’s totally abandoned Israel,” said Donald Trump, the former Republican president running again for his old job. “If any Jewish person voted for Joe Biden, they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Jim Risch, the Idaho senator and top Republican on the foreign relations committee, told reporters Biden was “pulling the carpet out from underneath” Israel in the middle of a conflict. “I suspect this is a nod to his far left flank,” he added, “but it is almost impossible in this kind of situation to keep one foot on each side of the fence.”

IDF soldiers walk amid a sea of armoured vehicles near the Gaza border in southern Israel © Amir Cohen/Reuters

Yet many Democrats felt it was overdue. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland senator who has been critical of Biden for being “feckless” in dealing with Netanyahu, praised the president for moving to enforce a “red line” he had set with respect to Rafah. “The United States will not be complicit in this suffering,” he said.

“Maybe it took him a long time to get here but he has gotten there,” says Matt Duss, a former foreign policy aide to Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. “I really do think we have to appreciate that.”

In Israel, the move has been portrayed by Netanyahu and his allies as an existential betrayal.

Benjamin Netanyahu, in an interview with US talk show host Dr Phil McGraw on Friday, said Israel would ‘do what we have to do’ even if it cannot overcome its differences with the US © YouTube

After a day of silence, the prime minister released a video comparing this moment to the painful birth of Israel in 1948, when it prevailed over its enemies despite an arms embargo. Netanyahu later granted an interview to US talk show host Dr Phil McGraw where he said Israel will “do what we have to do” even if it cannot overcome its differences with the US.

Other members of his war cabinet lashed out at Biden and Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s ultraconservative national security minister, went so far as to post “Hamas loves Biden” on his X account.

But Riedel says the message sent by Biden’s decision may resonate elsewhere in Israel. “Whether it will stop Netanyahu I think is anyone’s guess,” he says, but it “will get the attention of the Israeli military leadership” since they have been on the defensive since October 7 over their failure to stop the Hamas attack.

Senator Lindsey Graham and Republican colleagues condemned President Biden’s decision to withhold a weapons shipment to Israel during a news conference at the US Capitol on Thursday © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The IDF has historically treated the US-Israel relationship “like a delicate, but professional, flower”, says a senior Israeli military official with deep experience in dealing with the US on the military assistance. “This partnership has grown year by year to become the foundation of the IDF.”

Outside the “up and down of politics” the “daily reality” is that Israeli and US officials must have “complete trust, complete faith” in one another, adds the official, who requested anonymity since he has been called back to reserves duty.

“Jews like to say that ‘we have no other country’ [but Israel],” he adds. “The truth is, we have no other friends than the Americans.”

US support has remained the backbone of Israel’s military strength — and has been vital during the war in Gaza.

Not only does the US guarantee that Israel will at all times have more advanced weapons — such as the F-35 fighter jet — than its neighbours, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, it pays billions more each year to fund Israel’s advanced “Iron Dome” missile defences. 

US administration officials say that Israel is continuing to receive significant quantities of weapons and much of that would not change, no matter what. “I can imagine no scenario in which [the White House] would withhold the types of systems that Israel needs to defend itself, like Iron Dome,” says a senior administration official. “There are a whole range of systems that I can’t imagine being impacted by any considerations, even if Israel ultimately decided to go into Rafah.”

The FT worked with Haaretz reporter Avi Scharf to track at least 65 flights by American C-17 aircraft carrying weapons into Israel. At times, so much lethal cargo was being transported that “there weren’t enough planes to carry them fast enough,” says a former official.

Thousands of people last week protested outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, against the planned ground invasion of Rafah in Gaza © Allison Bailey/NurPhoto/Reuters

One Israeli official, working out of its embassy in Washington, recalls frantically sorting pending orders into immediate priority lists after the war began, with Pentagon officials working with a US weapons supplier to push deliveries then scheduled for years in the future to the front of their delivery schedules. “There was at least one instance where an order for precision munitions that was due [years later] was brought to Israel within a week,” the person says. 

At least twice, Israeli demand for artillery was so urgent that the US took shells from its own stores — despite a global shortage amid the war in Ukraine — and notified Congress that it was allocating funds to replace them at a later stage.  

The relationship between the two militaries is close, according to nearly a dozen current and former US and Israeli defence officials. One US official based in the region describes the IDF as “as a peer army”.

“Given the visibility we have into Israel’s operations, there is not enough acknowledgment of the incredibly difficult and complicated battlefield the IDF was encountering in Gaza,” says the official, describing weekly briefings at the Tampa-based Centcom, where individual IDF missions are studied. 

But Israel is now on notice that it cannot take unconditional American assistance for granted any more under Biden — and if the Rafah assault expands further, more of it could be in jeopardy.

“I think the president was crystal clear . . . that if they do smash into Rafah, go in and invade in a major way, then he’s going to have to make future decisions,” John Kirby, White House spokesperson, said on Thursday. “We hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Additional reporting by Martha Muir in Washington

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