With the Gaza war testing the U.S.-Israel relationship, my colleague Michael Crowley uses today’s newsletter to explain why each partner sees the next phase so differently. — David Leonhardt
An awkward dance
It’s a tough time for the U.S.-Israel alliance. The death toll from the Gaza war has shaken Washington officials. President Biden wants Israel to recognize a Palestinian state, something its current government opposes. Top Israeli officials openly criticize Biden. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, is just concluding a trip there to seek common ground — his seventh visit to the country since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain the strain that the Gaza war has placed on the U.S.-Israel relationship, how serious it is and what might come next.
A deepening distrust
In the days after Hamas’s surprise attack, which left about 1,100 Israelis dead, Biden and Blinken rushed to Israel. They proclaimed their support for the country and its “right to defend itself.”
But the U.S. tone changed as Israel’s response destroyed much of Gaza and killed at least 25,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities. Biden reportedly called the bombing “indiscriminate.” He is said to be exasperated with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who yesterday rejected Hamas’s response to a new cease-fire proposal.
The American public is not happy either. Polling shows widespread disapproval of Israel’s campaign and of the way Biden has handled it (although some of those who disapprove believe Biden is too hard on Israel). Younger Americans are far more sympathetic to Palestinians than older generations are.
Anger at Israel is mounting in Congress, as well. Many Democrats want an immediate cease-fire, which Israel and the Biden administration oppose.
Members of Israel’s right-wing government have watched all this with mounting rage. “Instead of giving us his full backing, Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel, which goes to Hamas,” Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, told The Wall Street Journal this week.
The coming tests
Atop all those frustrations, a new one is looming for the two countries: the long-term fate of the Palestinians.
Before Oct. 7, the Biden administration didn’t do much to help create a Palestinian state, even though the U.S. has long supported the idea. But the mayhem of the past few months has convinced Biden officials that they can’t wait — the status quo just isn’t working. Now they say a “pathway” to such a state is a priority. In Qatar on Tuesday, Blinken said that it needed to happen quickly.
This is especially important because the Biden administration wants to broker a deal under which Saudi Arabia and Israel would normalize relations, a move that could ensure greater stability and prosperity in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia won’t agree if Israel doesn’t help improve Palestinians’ lives and give them a chance at statehood. Saudi rulers are concerned that anger over the issue could undermine their own support at home.
Yet Netanyahu says he will never allow the creation of such a state. His conservative allies, and many Israelis, agree.
That may not stop the White House. Sources tell me the U.S. could soon recognize a Palestinian state, albeit one with borders and other details to be determined later. One way that could happen is through a United Nations resolution that the United States would, at a minimum, not block.
The U.S.-Israel relationship has weathered storms before. Both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan had major disagreements with the Israeli prime ministers at the time.
Still, for the first time in decades, each side is pushing ahead with little regard for what its partner wants. A U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood would be only symbolic so long as Israel occupies much of the Palestinians’ territory. But it would signal that American patience with Israel on the issue had reached its lowest point in decades.
Shadowing it all is enormous political uncertainty. Biden is running for re-election against a former president who shares Netanyahu’s hard line toward the Palestinians. Netanyahu is clinging to power himself. If he can outlast Biden, he may find in Donald Trump a tolerant counterpart who will reset U.S.-Israel relations — on Netanyahu’s terms.