Netanyahu on collision course with Biden over future of Gaza as tensions erupt

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, speaks to  soldiers in the Gaza Strip  (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Handout via AP)
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, speaks to soldiers in the Gaza Strip (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Handout via AP)

It is a sign of the pressure that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is under that he felt the need to force growing tensions with the US over the war in Gaza into the open.

By angrily pushing back against the US over its call for the establishment of a Palestinian state once Israel’s war on Hamas comes to an end – with a two-state solution being Washington’s long-standing foreign policy – Netanyahu risks undermining his staunchest ally. In the wake of the Hamas attack on southern Israel on 7 October, in which 1,200 people were killed and another 240 taken hostage, US president Joe Biden came out strongly in support of Israel’s right to defend itself by going into Gaza. Leaders of other countries, including the UK, followed in his path.

But, as the death toll inside Gaza has continued to rise – with almost 25,000 people having died since the start of the conflict, according to health ministry officials in the Hamas-controlled territory – international pressure has grown for a ceasefire, particularly from leaders of the Arab nations, and the Biden administration has called on Netanyahu to rein in his military operation and go after Hamas in a more controlled manner in order to reduce civilian casualties.

Netanyahu said in his televised address on Thursday evening that Israel “will not settle for anything short of an absolute victory” over Hamas. He also said Israel must have security control west of the River Jordan, which would include the territory of any future Palestinian state. “This is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of [Palestinian] sovereignty. What to do? I tell this truth to our American friends, and I also stopped the attempt to impose a reality on us that would harm Israel’s security,” he said.

Smoke billows over the Gaza Strip as Israel carries out airstrikes (AFP/Getty)
Smoke billows over the Gaza Strip as Israel carries out airstrikes (AFP/Getty)

The Palestinians seek Gaza, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem for their state, in accordance with the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 242, passed unanimously in the aftermath of the 1967 war, which required Israel’s withdrawal from those areas based on the “inadmissibility” of the acquisition of territory by war.

Subsequent UN resolutions have demonstrated overwhelming support globally for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders – but despite the Biden administration publicly backing a two-state solution, a binding Security Council resolution on the matter has been blocked by the US for decades.

Speaking back in November, Biden made it clear that he saw a two-state solution as the only way to end the cycle of violence. “I can tell you, I don’t think it ultimately ends until there’s a two-state solution,” he said at a news conference.

But frustration has been growing in the US over Netanyahu’s attitude. Speaking at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said earlier this week that a two-state solution was the best way to protect Israel, unify moderate Arab countries, and isolate Israel’s key enemy, Iran. He said that Israel would not “get genuine security” without a pathway to a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s stance is also likely to imperil another key objective in Washington’s Middle East policy, which is the normalisation of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But Riyadh has insisted that any deal must include a genuine pathway to a Palestinian state.

In response to Netanyahu’s latest remarks, White House spokesperson John Kirby said: “We obviously see things differently.”

Netanyahu, left, with US president Joe Biden (via Reuters)
Netanyahu, left, with US president Joe Biden (via Reuters)

For many in Israel, Netanyahu’s stance comes as no surprise. “Bibi”, as he is known by Israelis, has spent the majority of his political career rejecting the notion of a Palestinian state, even if he has offered lukewarm endorsement of the idea at points.

“Any other stance would have been surprising, to be honest,” Sally Abed, a leader of Standing Together, the largest Arab-Jewish grassroots movement in Israel, told The Independent. “In many ways, I think Netanyahu’s relentless vision throughout his political career has been to ensure the prevention of any possibility of a Palestinian state.”

In December, Netanyahu publicly conceded to having worked to block a Palestinian state for decades. “I’m proud that I prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state because today everybody understands what that Palestine state could have been, now that we’ve seen the little Palestinian state in Gaza,” he said.

Netanyahu’s stance has been roundly criticised by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Issa Amro, a leading Palestinian activist in the territory, told The Independent: “Rejecting a Palestinian state by the Israeli leaders means rejecting peace, rejecting the end of the violence, and [the loss of] more Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives.

“It’s proof that Israel is not defending itself from the Palestinians, but it is defending its occupation,” he said.

The rubble of a demolished house in the refugee camp in Tulkarem, in the occupied West Bank (AFP/Getty)
The rubble of a demolished house in the refugee camp in Tulkarem, in the occupied West Bank (AFP/Getty)

A spokesperson for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said late on Thursday that there can be “no security and stability in the region” without a Palestinian state.

“The entire region is on the verge of a volcanic eruption due to the aggressive policies pursued by the Israeli occupation authorities against the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

But it is the manner in which Netanyahu has made his comments – a televised public rejection of the United States’ diplomatic efforts coupled with renewed conviction in favour of a military campaign in Gaza – that shows he is increasingly pinning his political future on what happens in Gaza. A poll released earlier this month by the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute showed that just 15 per cent of Israelis want Netanyahu to remain in office after the war ends – a finding that echoes other polls, which indicate that his popularity has plummeted. But with general support for the war on Hamas still relatively stable, Netanyahu clearly believes that this is how he stays in power.

The cracks are also showing in his coalition government, particularly as members of the families of those still being held hostage inside Gaza step up pressure to bring their loved ones home. Only a ceasefire deal can win the release of the dozens of hostages still held by Islamic militants in Gaza, and claims that they could be freed by other means amount to spreading “illusions”, said former army chief Gadi Eisenkot, one of the four members of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, in his first public statement on the course of the war.

Eisenkot, whose son was killed in December in Gaza, told Israel’s Channel 12 television station late on Thursday that “the hostages will only return alive if there is a deal, linked to a significant pause in fighting”. He added that dramatic rescue operations are unlikely because the hostages are apparently spread out, many of them in underground tunnels.

In a thinly veiled criticism of Netanyahu, Eisenkot also said that strategic decisions about the war’s direction must be made urgently, and that a discussion about an endgame should have begun immediately after the war began.

Even if domestic pressure is forcing Netanyahu to double down on his stance over the conflict and beyond, it is unwise to go after his staunchest international ally so publicly. Given the tensions that have been building between the Biden administration and the Israeli president, there is only so much the White House is likely to take.