Benjamin Netanyahu is Playing with Fire

Merkava Tank from Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu is Playing with Fire

Netanyahu must be aware that he has treated the president with disdain once too often. He is playing with American fire. If he does not take heed of American concerns, his country, already reeling from the horrors of October 7 and the plight of the hostages, will indeed be burned as a result.

“There is no greater commandment than the redemption of captives.” Thus states the authoritative Code of Jewish Law. The injunctions of his religion have cut no ice with Benjamin Netanyahu, however. Neither have the thousands protesting his refusal to prioritize the release of the approximately 130 hostages still held in captivity by the Hamas thugs. Instead, Netanyahu has only given vapid lip service to the importance of releasing the hostages while arguing that only a complete Israeli victory over Hamas will lead to their freedom.

To that end, he continues to assert that he will order the Israeli Defense Forces to attack Rafah, and with Ramadan at an end, that assault could come in a matter of days. That such an operation will automatically result in the freeing of the hostages is highly problematic, for as the veteran negotiator Gershon Baskin has pointed out, it could well lead to the death of many hostages if not most of them. 

Netanyahu’s indifference to the fate of the hostages is matched only by his resistance to President Joe Biden’s entreaties and those of Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that Israel first develops a credible plan to relocate the more than a million Palestinians who have fled to Rafah and its immediate environs from their own devastated towns.  When they met virtually with their American counterparts, the Israelis, who were led by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, claimed that Israel could implement a relocation plan in a matter of a few weeks. Their assertion met with considerable skepticism on the part of their American interlocutors, led by Sullivan himself. And rightly so. Neither Dermer, whose claim to fame is as a political operative rather than as a strategic analyst nor Hanegbi, a long-time leader of the settler movement who has never evinced any concern for Palestinians, ever actually outlined how Israel might implement the four-week plan.

The Israeli prime minister’s determination to have the IDF attack Rafah come what may has seriously undermined his already shaky standing with Biden. The president’s bona fides regarding his support for Israel are beyond doubt. For six months, Biden has resisted increasing pressure both from rank-and-file Democrats, notably young people, and from Congressional members of his party to block further military assistance to Israel. The pressure from Capitol Hill is no longer restricted to the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and other members of the so-called “Squad” who populate the left-wing fringe of the Congressional Democratic caucus. Most members of that extreme element unhesitatingly oppose the existence of a Jewish state. 

Nor is the pressure on Biden limited to the much larger Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives, nor to Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and other long-time critics of Israel. Indeed, in the wake of the tragic killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers, more Democrats, most notably the staunchly pro-Israel former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have called upon Biden to “withhold any offensive weapons transfers until the investigation into the [World Central Kitchen] airstrike is concluded and, if it is found this strike violated U.S. or international law, those responsible are held accountable.”

Having certainly demonstrated beyond the doubt of all but Israel’s most right-wing supporters that he remains a staunch supporter of Israel, Biden is finding that as long as Netanyahu remains at the helm of Israel’s government, he will not be able to resist taking stronger steps to restrict Israel’s ability to continue waging its all-out war against Hamas. Nor is it clear that Biden even intends to maintain that resistance. Already in the wake of the WCK tragedy, Biden rebuked Netanyahu in no uncertain terms, insisting that Israel do far more to permit humanitarian assistance to reach the Gaza Palestinians, even if Hamas purloined a portion of that aid, as it has done in the past.

Netanyahu, recognizing that he could no longer ignore Biden, almost immediately spurred his cabinet to announce that Israel would open the Erez crossing and Ashdod port to let food and other badly needed supplies enter Gaza directly. Not long after that announcement, Israel conducted a hastily completed investigation of the WCK incident and sacked two relatively lower-level officers for their role in the tragedy.

Whether Netanyahu has finally taken Biden’s remonstrations to heart remains unclear, however. The announcement regarding Ashdod stated that the port would be temporarily open for aid to enter Gaza. “Temporary” could mean days or months; Jerusalem has not indicated the length of time the port would remain a conduit for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. 

Similarly, the fact that one of the dismissed officers was a reservist who could, and no doubt will, simply return to his home and workplace hardly indicates a determination by the Netanyahu government to punish all those responsible for the attack on the WCK convoy. And Netanyahu still has not come up with a credible plan for relocating Rafah’s Palestinians, or for that matter, a blueprint for how Gaza might be administered whenever the guns finally fall silent. 

Should Biden finally cut a portion of arms transfers to Israel, other states will certainly follow suit. British prime minister Rishi Sunak is also under increasing pressure to halt arms transfers to Israel. Indeed, Canada has already announced that, for the time being, it is freezing arms shipments to the Jewish state. 

Biden also has other ways of pressuring Israel. He could limit the level of military-to-military cooperation with Israel. Or he could instruct the American delegation to the United Nations to support, rather than abstain on, a new resolution condemning the Israeli operation.

Surely, Netanyahu must be aware that he has treated the president with disdain once too often. He is playing with American fire. If he does not take heed of American concerns, his country, already reeling from the horrors of October 7 and the plight of the hostages, will indeed be burned as a result.

About the Author

Dov S. Zakheim is Vice Chairman of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a member of The National Interest Advisory Board. He is a former Undersecretary of Defense and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense.

Image: Creative Commons.