Rifts between Biden and Netanyahu spill into public view

Dec 12, 2023, 2:40 PM

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netany...

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 18. (Miriam Alster, Reuters)

(Miriam Alster, Reuters)

Washington (CNN) Rifts between the United States and Israel spilled into public view Tuesday as President Joe Biden warned that Israel was losing international support for its campaign against Hamas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejected American plans for post-war Gaza.

The divides, which until now had mostly been contained behind the scenes, reflected growing differences between the two staunch allies as the civilian death toll in Gaza mounts.

Speaking to Democratic donors in Washington, Biden voiced criticism of Israel’s hardline government and said Netanyahu needed to alter his approach.

“I think he has to change, and with this government, this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move,” Biden said, calling Netanyahu’s government the “most conservative government in Israel’s history.”

He warned support for the country’s military campaign is waning amid heavy bombardment of Gaza and added that the Israeli government “doesn’t want a two-state solution.”

Speaking ahead of Biden’s comments at the fundraiser, Netanyahu admitted Tuesday that he and the US president disagree on what should happen to Gaza after the war. In a statement, the Israeli leader said: “Yes, there is disagreement about ‘the day after Hamas’ and I hope that we will reach agreement here as well.”

The pair of remarks amounted to some of the most candid to date when it comes to the persistent differences between Israel and the United States, its top international ally.

Before the war broke out following Hamas’ terror attacks on Oct. 7, Biden had been open in his criticism of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which includes far-right parties. But he has mostly stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Netanyahu in public since the conflict began, despite mounting criticism of the Israeli campaign.

Netanyahu has been asked repeatedly for his vision for a post-war Gaza in interviews with international media since Oct. 7, telling CNN’s Dana Bash in an interview last month that he did see a role for “some kind of civilian Palestinian authority,” albeit one that had been “reconstructed.”

But in his statement Tuesday before Biden’s remarks at the Democratic fundraiser, Netanyahu said: “I would like to clarify my position: I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo.”

Biden’s comments Tuesday – in particular, that the current Israeli government “does not want a two-state solution” — suggest major differences with his Israeli counterpart.

That idea – of a Palestinian state existing alongside the state of Israel – took off in the 1990s, with a series of agreements known as the Oslo Accords, which created, among other things, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which assumed partial control over the West Bank and Gaza.

The PA was effectively driven out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007 but the Biden administration has made increasingly clear it believes the PA should resume governance of the enclave when the war is over.

“After the great sacrifice of our civilians and our soldiers, I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism, support terrorism and finance terrorism,” Netanyahu said.

“Gaza will be neither Hamastan nor Fatahstan,” Netanyahu’s statement concluded, a reference not just to Hamas but also to Fatah, the largest Palestinian faction, which was instrumental in the signing of the Oslo Accords, and continues to control the Palestinian Authority three decades later.

Israel began its assault on Gaza shortly after Hamas’ terror attacks, which left more than 1,200 people dead. Biden has said Israel has a right and a responsibility to defend itself.

In phone calls, however, Biden has encouraged Netanyahu to do more to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza, and top administration officials have said there is a “gap” between Israel’s intentions and the realities on the ground.

Speaking Monday evening at a White House Hanukkah reception, Biden acknowledged Israel was in “a tough spot” following the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza. And he alluded to differences with Netanyahu amid the current fighting.

“We’ll continue to provide military assistance to Israel until they get rid of Hamas, but we have to be careful – they have to be careful,” Biden said. “The whole world’s public opinion can shift overnight, we can’t let that happen.”

Biden and Netanyahu have a decades-long relationship that has at times been strained. At the Monday evening reception, Biden said he once gifted Netanyahu a photo and wrote at the top: “I love you but I don’t agree with a damn thing you had to say.”

“It’s about the same today,” Biden said, adding he’d “had my differences with some Israeli leadership.”

Biden administration officials have been pressing their Israeli counterparts in recent weeks to begin planning for what happens in Gaza once the military campaign ends, including insisting on keeping the door open for an eventual Palestinian state.

The US says it would reject any proposal that includes Israeli control over Gaza and has warned against shrinking the Palestinian territory’s boundaries.

The US is also pressuring Israel to open the Kerem Shalom border crossing to allow humanitarian aid trucks to go directly into Gaza on an emergency basis, US officials told CNN.

The Israeli government on Tuesday allowed aid trucks to be inspected at Kerem Shalom for the first time since Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7, but those trucks must still drive back through Egypt before entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing. While the move doubles Israel’s capacity to inspect aid trucks, it does not resolve the bottleneck that is emerging at the Rafah crossing.

Biden raised the issue directly with Netanyahu during their last call last week, the US officials said. National security adviser Jake Sullivan also urged his Israeli counterparts to open up the Israel-Gaza crossing before he arrives in Israel for meetings on Thursday, the officials said.

“Rafah cannot absorb a sufficient amount of aid to meet the needs of the Palestinian people which are only growing as there have been more people displaced,” Sullivan told CNN in a phone interview Tuesday.

“We need the capacity that Kerem Shalom provides – on an emergency basis – to get more food, water, medicine and essentials in to be distributed to Palestinian civilians and we’re putting that quite urgently to the Israeli government to say, ‘We are asking you to do this ASAP because of the nature of the humanitarian situation on the ground,’” he added.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister’s office declined to comment on the US move. Israel has so far resisted the idea. It cut off all commercial and humanitarian aid traffic from Israel into Gaza since Hamas launched its surprise terrorist attack on Oct. 7 and has vowed to sever all ties with Gaza.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to include Biden’s full remarks regarding Netanyahu and the Israeli government.

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Rifts between Biden and Netanyahu spill into public view