US President Biden and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu held their first phone call in nearly a month on Friday following the Israeli PM’s rejection of a Washington-backed call for Palestinian sovereignty, with Biden and Netanyahu appearing to be at odds on the issue of a two-state solution to follow the war in Gaza. FRANCE 24 spoke to David Khalfa, co-director of the North Africa and Middle East Observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, to shed more light on the situation.
US President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the first time since December 23 on Friday, a day after the Israeli PM reiterated his opposition to the idea of Palestinian statehood and a post-war future for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank backed by the US.
Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel “must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan [River]”, saying he had made this clear to Israel’s “American friends”.
“This is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of [Palestinian] sovereignty,” Netanyahu said in a televised news conference.
Seeking a more permanent solution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict that forms the backdrop of the current war between Israel and Hamas, the United States has pushed Israel for steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.
US authorities have called for a reformed Palestinian Authority, which currently governs semi-autonomous zones in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to govern Gaza after the war. The Gaza Strip is currently ruled by Hamas, which ousted the Fatah government of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections.
Despite the Israeli premier’s open resistance, Biden said Friday after their phone call that Netanyahu might eventually agree to some form of Palestinian statehood, such as one without armed forces.
“The president still believes in the promise and the possibility of a two-state solution” for both Israelis and Palestinians, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a briefing after the call, adding that Biden “made clear his strong conviction that a two-state solution is still the right path ahead. And we’re going to continue to make that case.”
The United States does have some leverage over its main Middle East ally, given that Israel has been the main beneficiary of US foreign aid since World War II, receiving more than $260 billion in military and economic aid. Whether Netanyahu – who said this week that “a prime minister in Israel should be able to say no, even to our best friends” – can be convinced remains to be seen, however.
FRANCE 24: Are we witnessing a turning point in US-Israel relations?
David Khalfa: The US-Israeli bilateral relationship is said to be “special” because it is based on shared values and strategic interests. However, relations between America and Israel have never been idyllic.
It is an ardent relationship between two friends and allies, but one that has known periods of tension. In fact, these tensions go back a long way: we could easily see this in the presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter or, more recently, Barack Obama.
Even Donald Trump, described by Netanyahu as “Israel’s best friend”, did not hesitate last October to call Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant a “jerk” or to criticise the Israeli prime minister in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 massacres.
The establishment of a Palestinian state is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, and even by some of the Israeli ruling class. Can Netanyahu continue to resist it?
In the short term, yes. Binyamin Netanyahu will do absolutely anything to stay in power, and his strategy is very clearly to wage war for as long as possible because he knows he is unpopular and facing multiple charges (for corruption, bribery and fraud). He is therefore trying to buy time, hoping to win back public support by assuming the role of warlord.
Netanyahu is a shrewd and calculating politician, but he is weakened by his Faustian alliance with the far right, which opposes any prospect of a two-state solution to the conflict.
Moreover, he is old and on borrowed time, and will sooner or later have to step down. Beyond the national unity discourse fostered by the war and the trauma of October 7, the Israeli population has largely withdrawn its support for him. Polls show his popularity plummeting, even among moderate right-wing voters.
But the Gulf states’ offers to normalise relations with Israel in return for substantial progress towards the establishment of a Palestinian state will outlast Binyamin Netanyahu (Saudi Arabia on Tuesday said it would recognise Israel if a Palestinian state is established). This is even more so as the leaders of the petrostates are young and will probably remain in charge for decades to come.
Finally, it should be noted that the Israeli political configuration will change profoundly after Netanyahu’s departure. The centre, embodied by Benny Gantz (a centre-left MP who has repeatedly challenged Netanyahu for the premiership), is likely to take over with the right and far right serving in the opposition.
By refusing Biden’s proposals, is Netanyahu betting on Trump winning the 2024 election?
Absolutely, but it’s a risky bet. After all, relations between Binyamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, whose temperament is extremely volatile, are now very cool. The former US president feels that Netanyahu betrayed him by recognising Biden’s electoral victory in November 2020.
Next, let’s remember that the $14.5 billion in additional emergency aid promised to Israel by Joe Biden has still not been endorsed by the Senate because the Republicans are opposed to it for purely political reasons, which have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but everything to do with the polarisation of US politics.
Any Democratic proposal is a pretext for systematic Republican obstruction, even if it means putting their immediate political interest ahead of the US strategic alliance with Israel. Conversely, if Trump comes to power, the Democrats are likely to adopt an identical strategy of systematic obstruction.
Could Washington’s $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel be at stake?
There is a pro-Israel tradition that goes beyond the White House to the Pentagon, where most US strategists believe that the alliance with Israel is, first and foremost, in the US interest.
But even if US aid is not called into question, the conditions under which it is granted are likely to become more complicated, as we are witnessing a politicisation of American military support for the Hebrew state, an issue which up until now had avoided any real debate in the United States.
The Republicans are turning towards isolationism and the Democrats towards progressivism: in the medium term, changes in the US political game will lead Israel to make more concessions if it intends to maintain a high level of US diplomatic and military support.
Israelis are more dependent than ever on military aid due to their recent focus on high-tech weapons, while urban fighting in Gaza demands artillery munitions of all kinds – including “low-tech” ones such as tank shells – which are not made in Israel.
This gives the United States leverage over Israel’s conduct of the war. The setting up of humanitarian corridors in Gaza, the increase in humanitarian aid and the scaling back of Israel’s offensive on the Palestinian enclave were all achieved under pressure from the US administration – contrary to what Netanyahu would have his people believe.
This article was translated from the original in French.
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