Biden and Netanyahu Ease Their Feud But Suspicions Linger

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(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu sought to turn down the heat in their unusually public feud over Israel’s war in Gaza Monday, but there was little sign the domestic political pressures that have pushed them apart are easing.

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After weeks of growing vitriol between the two leaders over Israel’s punishing ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the American president won a valuable concession in a telephone call with the Israeli prime minister on Monday — their first in more than month.

Netanyahu, widely known by his nickname Bibi, agreed to send a group of advisers to the US to talk about Israel’s planned invasion of Rafah, where more than 1 million people have sought shelter from the fighting.

Global opposition to the plan is mounting. Israel insists an offensive on Rafah is needed because it’s the last bastion of Hamas, an Iran-backed Islamist group. Netanyahu has said he will allow civilians to leave before any assault, but there’s skepticism, including in the US, that this can be done.

The visit will buy some crucial time for Biden, who has been the target of withering criticism from the left in the US to do more to halt the bloodshed in Gaza after some 31,000 deaths and amid warnings of imminent famine.

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“I continued to affirm that Israel has a right to go after Hamas, a group of terrorists responsible for the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Biden said of the call. He added he had asked Netanyahu “to send a team to Washington to discuss ways to target Hamas without a major ground operation in Rafah.”

While celebrating the concession on Monday, officials were already speculating on how long it would last given the pressure both leaders are under from political forces back home.

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners want a more aggressive military posture in Gaza and reject a Palestinian state. The constituents Biden worries about — progressives, Muslim-Americans and young Democrats — want a permanent cease-fire and Palestinian sovereignty. It’s an existential threat for the US leader given that they may withhold votes from him in the November election in key states such as Michigan.

“There’s a strange symmetry because both leaders are appealing to political groups they need to survive,” said Eytan Gilboa, a professor who specializes in US-Israel relations at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “The problem is that they’re on opposite sides.”

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On Tuesday, Netanyahu said there’s no way to destroy the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah without a ground incursion. He said he “made this as clear as possible” to Biden.

“We need to complete the military elimination of Hamas,” Netanyahu said in remarks in Jerusalem to Israeli lawmakers. “There is no alternative to this. We cannot go around it. Neither can we say ‘we will destroy 80% of Hamas and leave 20%’ because from that 20%, they will reorganize and take over the Strip again and – of course – constitute a new threat to Israel.”

The agreement for a visit by Israeli officials, which came from a phone call from the two leaders, was a rare bright spot in a relationship that’s grown more and more strained in the months since Hamas fighters attacked Israel on Oct. 7, and Israel responded with a punishing air and ground campaign. The two leaders’ governments have taken to openly criticizing each other, and last week a group of senators urged Biden to halt military aid to Israel.

Schumer’s Speech

The animosity reached a fever pitch last week when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the US, said in a floor speech that Netanyahu “has lost his way.” Netanyahu, Schumer said, is becoming beholden to right-wing extremists and it’s time for new elections in Israel. The next ones aren’t due until 2026.

An Ex-Israeli Leader Warns His Nation Against Attacking Rafah

Netanyahu shot back quickly, saying it was “inappropriate” to “go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there.”

Biden stopped short of endorsing Schumer’s call for an early Israeli vote. But he said his fellow Democrat “made a good speech, and I think he expressed serious concern shared not only by him, but by many Americans.”

People familiar with the administration’s strategy say Biden’s team, like Schumer, has adopted a “strategy of distinction” — criticism of Netanyahu while reaffirming support for Israel. Netanyahu has done something similar, casting himself as the only one who can stand up to Biden’s demands for an independent Palestinian state.

‘Weird’ Dynamic

“You have this weird corrosive dynamic where both men see advantage or virtue in picking a fight with the other for their own political fortunes,” said Michael Singh, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “In a way that masks what I think has been a pretty cooperative relationship between the US and Israel throughout this conflict.”

Although a person familiar with the matter said Biden’s team has discussed the possibility of restricting military aid to Israel in some manner, Biden told MSNBC that the US would never “cut off all weapons” to Israel.

Still, there are precedents. In 1975, President Gerald Ford ordered a “reassessment” of US policy toward Israel, slowing the sale of F-15 fighters and freezing other arms deliveries when it refused a fuller withdrawal from parts of Egypt after the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan delayed delivery of F-16 warplanes after Israel bombed the Beirut headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And in 2014, President Barack Obama’s administration slowed the supply of Hellfire missiles during a round of fighting in Gaza.

Biden could follow suit, delaying weaponry from F-35s to heavy bombs. Yet such a move would pose its own political problems at home, especially with Jewish voters and other supporters of Israel. And there are signs that the two sides continue to cooperate even as their leaders squabble.

There has been tentative, and halting, progress toward a cease-fire and hostage deal. Israeli officials, including David Barnea, the head of intelligence agency Mossad, traveled to Qatar on Monday for indirect talks with Hamas. Many of the group’s political leaders live in the Gulf state, which is a key mediator between the two sides.

An agreement with Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union, may ease global tensions. The talks center around the release of hostages from Gaza and Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, and getting more aid into Gaza. The shooting and bombing would stop for at least six weeks. Efforts by the US to bring together Israel and Saudi Arabia with a diplomatic accord might also accelerate.

“What’s really surprising is not that this is happening but that it took so long to happen between Biden and Bibi,” Singh said of the tensions between the two leaders. “We’re five or six months into this, and President Biden has been quite supportive of Israel far longer than anyone would have thought.”

--With assistance from Jordan Fabian, Jennifer Jacobs, Josh Wingrove and Alisa Odenheimer.

(Updates with Netanyahu comments starting in 10th paragraph)

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