Biden and Bibi: A relationship in trouble 

This week, the U.S. vetoed a United Nations resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, circulating its own alternative resolution calling for a temporary pause in the fighting along with hostage negotiations. 

With concerns growing over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s vow to continue the military offensive in Rafah, relations between Joe Biden and Bibi are at a low point. The Biden-Bibi relationship has become increasingly fraught in recent weeks over issues like the conduct of the war and its outcome — and particularly the question of a Palestinian state. 

Netanyahu is in his sixth term of office; Biden is running for his second. These men have known each for decades. But long histories do not ensure lasting ties. And politics have a way of changing things. 

Bibi has a lot riding on the outcome of this war, which he defines as eliminating Hamas and bringing home hostages. He still faces legal troubles, a divided public, angry hostage families, a formal commission at home, and possibly a trial in the Hague. But the most important to him: his reputation is on the line.   

In his memoir, “Bibi: My Story,” Netanyahu quotes his brother, Yonatan, whom he says taught him the most important lesson of his life: “In battle lions become rabbits. In war, reputations evaporate—only character holds.”  

Biden has a lot riding on the outcome of this war as well. In the next few weeks, Rafah — home to 1.5 million Palestinians — will be a battleground and pressure will grow on the administration to counsel restraint. Already the war has robbed 29,000 Palestinians of life, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza. 

When Bibi launched full-scale war on Gaza in the early days after Oct. 7’s horrific terrorist attack by Hamas on innocent Israeli civilians, America stood firmly with the Israeli government. President Biden made a personal visit to support Netanyahu in October. But what most observers paid little attention to at the time: the warnings Biden made to Bibi. 

“I understand. Many Americans understand,” Biden said, likening the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. that killed nearly 3,000 people. “You can’t look at what has happened here … and not scream out for justice. While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.”  

As the months dragged on, though, and Israeli forces went to battle in Gaza, the U.S. administration watched with increasing worry as Palestinian deaths mounted to over 10,000, civilian targets were hit, and hostages came home — but not all of them.  

All politics is local, and in U.S. states like Michigan, an angry backlash against Israel and the Biden administration is growing. College campuses are in an uproar over the loss of life in Gaza, and antisemitism has fueled anger and fear among Jews. Israel is more isolated. 

Four months into this crisis, President Biden needs to change the narrative and make the argument for a political settlement, separating himself from Bibi Netanyahu more clearly. 

One thing the Biden administration could do is to better explain America’s past and present support of the Palestinian cause, quoting from its own policy pages. “Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the United States has been the largest provider of assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, providing more than $7.6 billion in economic development and security funding—in addition to humanitarian assistance.”  

Of course, the ultimate recognition of American support for the Palestinian cause would be recognition of a Palestinian state — something that has not happened. But in a surprise move, State Department officials have now been tasked with looking at options for a Palestinian state, should a ceasefire hold. 

Long-standing U.S. policy remains that any so-called “two state solution” should come from direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But Netanyahu’s intransigency and inflexibility has always stood in the way. At times he held out olive branches, but they always had sharp twigs. 

In 2009, Bibi said he would support an independent Palestinian State — with the condition that it be de-militarized and openly embracive of Israel’s right to exist. 

“If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel’s security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state,” Netanyahu told an audience at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. 

In 2015, Netanyahu repeated that a Palestinian state was possible, with essentially the same conditions. 

But that very same year, while running to be prime minister, Netanyahu retracted any offer 

“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state today, and evacuate areas, is giving radical Islam an area from which to attack the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “This is the true reality that has been created in past years. Those that ignore it are burying their heads in the sand.”  

In the last few days, Bibi has doubled down on his resistance to a Palestinian state: “We shall not bow down to international dictates regarding a future deal with the Palestinians. Such a compromise should be through direct negotiations with no preconditions,” he said. “How can we give recognition to such a state after the massacre of October 7. This would be a reward for terrorism.” 

In foreign affairs, the relationship between heads of state is critical — particularly in times of war, and especially when one combatant (in this case, Israel) is dependent on military supplies from (in this case) America. This provides President Biden with some leverage over Bibi. 

External forces — a presidential election, an ongoing war, and deep suspicion about Israel in the Arab world — all conspire to make creating a Palestinian state harder to achieve. But not impossible. 

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and current senior fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  

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