Israel’s war, Netanyahu’s Gamble

by | Apr 2, 2024

US Democratic Party support for Israel is fast fissuring – an “ideological tremor,” Peter Beinart (editor of Jewish Currents) calls it. Since 7 Oct “it has become an earthquake” – a “Great Rupture.”

This concerns the fusion of Liberalism to Zionism that long has defined the Democratic Party:

Israel’s war in Gaza has supercharged a transformation on the American Left. Solidarity with Palestinians is becoming as essential to leftist politics – as is support for abortion rights or opposition to fossil fuels. And, as happened during the Vietnam War and the struggle against South African apartheid – leftist fervour is reshaping the liberal mainstream.

Put plainly, in tandem to Israel moving to the far Right, pro-Palestinian support in the US has hardened. By November 2023, 49 percent of American Jewish voters ages 18 to 35 opposed Biden’s request for additional military aid to Israel.

That is one vector; one direction of travel within the American polity.

On the other path, American Jews – those most committed to Zionism; the ones who run establishment institutions – see that liberal America is becoming less ideologically hospitable. They are responding to this shift by forging common cause with the American Right.

Netayanhu had made the observation that Israel and a wokish Democratic Party were on divergent paths some ten years earlier – shifting the Likud and the Israel Right away from the Democrats to the American Evangelicals (and thus, broadly in the direction of the Republican Party). As a former senior Israeli diplomat, Alon Pinkas, wrote in 2022:

With Netanyahu it was always transactional. So in the last decade or so he developed his own vile version of ‘“’replacement theory’”’: The majority of evangelical Christians will replace the vast majority of American Jews. Since it’s all about numbers, the evangelicals are the preferred ally.

Beinart writes: “Supporters of Israel remain not only welcome in the Democratic Party but are also dominant. But the leaders of those institutions no longer represent much of their base.”

Senator Schumer, the highest Jewish representative in public life, acknowledged this divide in his speech earlier this month, when he said – the speech’s most remarkable line – that he “can understand the idealism that inspires so many young people in particular, to support a one-state solution.

A solution – to say it bluntly – that does not involve a “Zionist State”: “Those are the words of a politician who understands that his party is undergoing profound change.”

Numbers of younger “changelings” are larger than many recognize, especially among millennials and Gen Z; and the latter are joining a Palestine solidarity movement that is growing larger, but also more radical. “That growing radicalism has produced a paradox: It is a movement that welcomes more and more American Jews – but correspondingly finds it harder to explain where Israeli Jews fit into its vision of Palestinian liberation,” Beinart worries.

It was to bridge this Gulf that the Biden Administration confected its awkward stance at the UN Security Council this week, when the US abstained on a “Ceasefire and Hostage Release Resolution.”

The resolution was intended by the White House to “face both ways,” appealing to (older) American Jews who still identify as both progressive and Zionist, and – facing the other way – appealing to those who view the growing alliance between leading Zionist institutions and the Republican Party as uncomfortable, even unforgivable (and want the Gaza massacres to stop now).

The Resolution ploy however, was not well thought-through (the latter lacuna becoming something of a White House habit). The content was badly mis-represented by the US, which stated that the resolution was “non-binding.” The New York Times actually mis-stated the resolution, saying that it ”calls for” a ceasefire. It did not.

UNSC resolutions are legally binding documents [as described here]. They therefore use very specific language. If the UNSC ”calls upon” something to be done – it has no real consequences. The resolution on which the US abstained “does not “call upon” Israel or Hamas to do this; or that – It demands they do something.

The Biden Administration’s two-facing strategy predictably enough has fallen between two stools: As Beinart says, “it is not so simple.” A sticking plaster resolution will not solve a structural shift taking place – Gaza is forcing the issue. American Jews who had claimed to be both progressive and Zionist must choose. And what they choose will have huge electoral implications in swing-states, like Michigan, where American leftist activism potentially could determine the Presidential outcome.

Biden’s UN ploy likely will satisfy few. The Establishment Zionists are angry, and the “Leftists” will regard it as a placebo. The “non-binding” mischaracterisation though, will infuriate other Security Council members, who will now go for even tougher resolutions.

More significantly, the ploy showed Netanyahu that Biden is weak. The schism that has opened up in his party introduces a quality of instability: its political centre of gravity may move either way within the Party, or even serve to strengthen Republicans who see assuaging Palestinians through “US spectacles” equating it to their own identitarian politics.

Netanyahu (more than anyone) knows how to stir in troubled waters.

The UN ploy too, stirred an apparent firestorm in Israel. Netanyahu retaliated by cancelling the visit to Washington by a high level delegation to discuss Israel’s plans for Rafah. He said that the resolution “gives Hamas hope that international pressure will allow them to get a cease-fire without freeing our hostages”: “Biden is to blame” is the message.

Then Israel called its hostage negotiations team back from Qatar, as 10 days of talks reached a dead-end, sparking a blame game between the US and Israel. Netanyahu’s office blamed Hamas intransigence triggered by the UN resolution. Again the message: “Hostage talks failed; Biden is to blame.”

The White House, reportedly, see the “firestorm” rather as a largely manufactured crisis being leveraged by the Israeli premier for his war on the Biden White House. On this, the “Team” is right (though there is real anger on the Israeli Right at the resolution which is viewed as appeasing “progressives.” (“Biden is to blame”).

Clearly, relations are spiralling down: The Biden Administration is desperate for a hostage release and ceasefire. Their whole strategy depends on it. And Biden’s re-electoral prospects depend on it. He will be aware that tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza will likely die of starvation very shortly. And the World will be watching, daily, nightly, on social media.

“Biden” is furious. Electorally things are not going well for him. He knows it, and suspects that Netanyahu is deliberately picking a fight with him.

Just to be clear: The key question is, who is reading “the political lay of the land” correctly here? Netanyahu has many detractors – both at home and in the US Democratic Party – but during his cumulative 17 years in power, his intuitive feel for shifts within the US political scene, his PR touch, and his sense about Israeli voters’ sentiments, have never been in doubt.

Biden wants Netanyahu out from the leadership. That’s clear; but to what end? The White House seems to have great difficulty in assimilating the reality that if Netanyahu goes, Israeli policies largely would remain unaltered. The polls are unmistakable on this point.

The irascible and frustrated incumbent in the White House might find “Gantz” a softer, more amenable interlocutor, but so what? How would that help? Israel’s course is set by a huge shift in Israeli public opinion. And there is no practical “solution” evident for Gaza.

And maybe Biden is right that Netanyahu’s squabble with Biden is contrived. As leading Israeli commentator Ben Caspit argues:

Back in the 1990s, after a young Netanyahu’s first meetings with US President Bill Clinton, Clinton expressed surprise at Netanyahu’s arrogance. Relations with Clinton ended badly. Netanyahu lost the 1999 elections and attributed this to American meddling.

When Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, he confronted another Democratic president, Barack Obama. Having learned his lesson with Clinton, who was popular with the Israeli public, Netanyahu turned the American president into a punching bag within Israel.

‘Every time Netanyahu got stuck in the polls, he initiated a clash with Obama and came back up,’ said a source who worked with Netanyahu during those years, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘He managed to convince the public that Obama hates Israel and to position himself as the only one who can stand up to him’.

The point here is that Netanyahu’s challenge to Biden could serve another purpose. Put plainly, Team Biden’s “solutions” for Gaza and Palestine are unworkable – in terms of today’s Israeli sentiments. Twenty-five years ago, maybe? But then, the US overriding policy of “making Israel safe” eviscerated all political solutions, including two-states.

Netanyahu is (still) promising Israelis “total victory” over Hamas, although he knows that completely subduing the group is impossible. Netanyahu’s way out from this paradox therefore is “to blame Biden” as the one preventing Israel’s victory over Hamas.

Bluntly, there is no easy military solution to Hamas – none at all. Israeli stories about having dismantled 19 Hamas battalions in Gaza is just PR that is being fed to the White House who, seemingly, take Israel’s word for it.

Netanyahu likely knows that Gaza will become an unceasing insurgency – and will blame Biden, who is already being cast as the “punchbag” for trying to foist a Palestinian State on to an unwilling Israel.

Similarly, the White House seemingly has misread the “the ground” in respect to the hostage deal, imagining that Hamas was not serious in its demands. Thus there have been no serious negotiations; but rather, the US has relied on pressure – using allies to pressurise and threaten Hamas into compromise via Qatar, Egypt and other Arab States – instead of addressing Hamas demands.

But diplomatic pressure predictably was not enough. It did not change Hamas’ core positions.

“We are dramatically stuck. It’s not for show. There is a substantial gap. We can engage in a blame game but it won’t bring the hostages back. If we want a deal, we need to acknowledge reality,” one Israeli official has said, in wake of Barnea and his team’s return from Doha empty handed.

With some direct experience of such negotiations, I would guess that Netanyahu knows he would not survive politically the true price he would have to pay (in terms of prisoner release) to secure a deal.

So, in short, the clash engineered with Biden over the Security Council Resolution “non-vote” may be seen more as Netanyahu managing the unrealistic (from his perspective) Biden policy prescriptions that are drawn from a reality severed from today’s Israeli apocalyptic “Nakba” frenzy.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu will marshal his “troops.” Direct pressure will be exerted over the hugely powerful US pro-Zionist political structures, which – together with the self-generating pressures derived from Republicans and the pro-Zionist Democratic institutional leaders – might succeed in containing the rising timbre from the progressives.

Or at least, these pressures may create a counterweight to force Biden to quietly support Israel by (continuing to) arm it; and also publicly to embrace Netanyahu’s widening of the war as the sole way to restore Israeli deterrence, given that he knows that military operations in Gaza will not help to restore deterrence, nor to bring him an Israel “victory.”

To be fair, “Biden” has painted himself into a corner through his embrace of an outdated “policy toolbar” in the face of a rapidly changing Israeli and Regional landscape – no longer amenable to such irrelevancies.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is gambling hugely with Israel’s (and America’s) future – and may lose.

Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.