Will Netanyahu Be the End of Joe Biden’s Presidency?

Will Netanyahu Be the End of Joe Biden’s Presidency?

If Joe Biden loses the election in 2024, one of the reasons will be his embrace of a foreign politician who has no love for either U.S. interests or Biden’s political prospects.

Israel’s war in Gaza has become one of the biggest political negatives of Joe Biden’s presidency. Part of this political fallout was inevitable once Hamas staged its attack on October 7. The attack, like most conspicuously untoward events in the world, would be perceived as a black mark on whoever occupies the White House at the time, regardless of whether a U.S. president could have done anything to prevent the event. Moreover, the attack upset the Biden administration’s foreign policy strategy, which had assumed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would stay sufficiently sidelined, allowing the administration to focus more attention on other parts of the world.

But much of the fallout is of Biden’s own making due to his immediate and unconditional embrace of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government, an embrace that Biden has had difficulty backing away from since that same government started inflicting unspeakable death, destruction, and other suffering on the residents of the Gaza Strip. Now, Biden shares ownership of one of the largest manmade humanitarian catastrophes of the past half-century. His “bear hug” strategy of trying to restrain Netanyahu’s government by staying close to him has largely failed. He has lost favor with much of his base within the Democratic Party, whose active support he will need to win re-election.

The most important consequences of these events involve the blow to U.S. interests, which has been painfully obvious as anger and resentment against the United States have surged. Washington has become increasingly isolated in international diplomacy, with a loss of support among other nations for U.S. objectives. But there are parallels with how domestic politics works against Biden. The motivations of the man Biden embraced have much to do with this.

Benjamin Netanyahu is in plenty of domestic political trouble himself. Hamas’s attack shattered the prime minister’s long-cultivated image as Israel’s “Mr. Security.” That shattering was reflected in polls immediately after the attack that showed a plunge in support among Israelis for Netanyahu and his Likud party. 

To reverse this situation and rescue his political standing, Netanyahu has a strong incentive to continue Israel’s devastating assault in Gaza and to disregard American entreaties regarding either restraint in the military operations or the need for a political resolution that provides for Palestinian self-determination. In the near term, the assault caters to the still unsated Israeli thirst for revenge against Palestinians. And even if Netanyahu can never restore his previous “Mr. Security” reputation, he can now pose as a leader who is steadfastly opposing, through force of arms as well as obdurate diplomacy, any establishment of a Palestinian state.

The resulting friction with the Biden administration is not a negative for Netanyahu and is even a plus. The friction demonstrates to Israeli constituents the prime minister’s determination to stand up to any U.S. pressure to allow a Palestinian state. Besides, the current of influence in the U.S.-Israeli relationship still flows in the one direction in which it usually flows. U.S. military aid is still coming, and the dynamics within American politics that have always kept the assistance flowing continue to deter Biden from attaching meaningful conditions to the support.

Then there are the corruption charges against Netanyahu, the trial for which recently resumed after an interruption of several weeks because of the Hamas attack and the war. That personal legal problem provides additional motivation for Netanyahu to continue hardline policies that entail a war that distracts from everything else. Those policies also help to satisfy the most extreme elements in his right-wing coalition, thereby keeping that coalition together and further delaying the day when he might have to face the full legal consequences of his conduct.

As for the effects of those policies on American domestic politics and how they weaken Biden’s political position, this is a bonus for Netanyahu. Netanyahu would certainly be pleased to see Donald Trump beat Biden in the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Notwithstanding how far Biden has bent over backward to show support for Israel, the bending still does not match the flow of gifts Israel got from Trump, including moving the U.S. embassy to the contested city of Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, and advancing a “peace plan” that would consign the Palestinians to permanent subordinate status rather than ever having their own state. The past political alliance between Trump and Netanyahu has been extensive, to the point of featuring each other in each man’s campaign advertising.

This partnership reflects part of a longer-term trend, as documented by opinion polls, in American attitudes toward Israel increasingly breaking down along party lines. Although the Democrat Joe Biden personifies how the old bipartisan deference to Israel survives, it is the Republican Party that has become what former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller aptly calls the “Israel, right or wrong” party. The larger alliance is less one between the United States and Israel than between the Republican Party and the Israeli Right, which includes the Israeli government.

Amid these circumstances, Joe Biden appears to be a glutton for political punishment. Netanyahu has a long record of embarrassing and undermining Biden. Just hours after Biden, as vice president, visited Israel in 2010 and proclaimed unqualified U.S. support for Israeli security, a previous Netanyahu-led government announced more construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. After Biden became president in 2021, Netanyahu falsely suggested, based on a misleadingly cropped video clip, that Biden had fallen asleep in a meeting with Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister at the time.

In many ways, Joe Biden exemplifies an old-line American politician. In that respect, it was almost instinctive for him to resort to a traditional stay-out-of-trouble default position for American pols, which is to express at least as much love for Israel as any political opponent. Against the backdrop of the horrors in Gaza, that default is not working now for Biden. If he loses next year’s election, there will be many reasons, but one of them will be his embrace of a foreign politician who has no love for either U.S. interests or Biden’s political prospects.

Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier, he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA, covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. His most recent book is Beyond the Water’s Edge: How Partisanship Corrupts U.S. Foreign Policy. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.

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