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War on Gaza: Biden 'corners' Bibi at the UN, opening deep rift with ally

The decision to abstain from a UN Security Council resolution 'makes a point, not a difference', analysts say
Palestinians pray over shrouded bodies, killed in overnight Israeli bombardment, at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, on 25 March 2024 (AFP)

The relationship between Israel and the Biden administration has hit its lowest point since the start of the Gaza war, after the US abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote on Monday calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office lashed out at the US after it decided not to use its veto power, saying the move was a “clear retreat from the consistent position of the US" and that it “gives Hamas hope”, amid flagging negotiations in Doha, Qatar, to reach a hostage deal.

The US signalled earlier that it would support what it called the non-binding resolution which calls for an “immediate ceasefire” during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. While the text also calls on Hamas and Palestinian groups to free hostages they seized, it does not directly link their fate to a ceasefire.

In a remarkable public threat against the Biden administration just before the vote, Netanyahu’s office threatened to cancel the visit of a senior Israeli delegation to Washington, set to discuss the impending ground invasion of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip if the US didn’t shield it from censure at the UN. Last week, the US said it would provide Israel with "alternatives" to a ground operation in Rafah.

The visit of Israeli national security advisor Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer was cancelled immediately after the resolution passed.

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Netanyahu’s move to make the rift with the Biden administration public appeared to catch the White House off guard. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said “we're kind of perplexed" by the cancellation, accusing Netanyahu of creating “a perception of daylight here when they don't need to".

US officials insisted after the vote that the US’s abstention did not mark a shift in policy. But analysts predict this could be just the start of greater tensions with Israel, as Netanyahu vows to press ahead with an invasion of Rafah despite US warnings, amid a fight for his domestic political survival.

“This is very much Bibi-like,” Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East programme at the Wilson Center, told Middle East Eye.

“He doesn’t like to be cornered and he will continue to push back.”

'House on fire'

The Biden administration is at odds with Israel on an array of policy points.

Israel’s offensive on Gaza has caused more than 32,000 Palestinian deaths, mainly among women and children, according to Palestinian health officials.

The death toll has sparked domestic outrage against Biden among progressives and Arab Americans ahead of the 2024 US presidential elections. Netanyahu has also chaffed at US calls to bolster the Palestinian Authority and lay the groundwork for a resumption of talks on a two-state solution.

Until Monday, the Biden administration had been holding its “dry power”- or waiting before taking action - opting instead to signal its frustration with Israel mainly via intermediaries, verbal side-swipes, and media leaks.

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Biden used campaign events to slam Israel and labelled its bombing campaign as “indiscriminate”. Meanwhile, the White House leaked stories that the US president called his Israeli counterpart “an asshole”.

Earlier this month, the most senior Democratic lawmaker and Biden ally - Senator Chuck Schumer - delivered a speech calling for elections to replace Netanyahu.

Through it all, the US was unwilling to exert tangible leverage against Israel in a bid to alter its actions in Gaza to its liking.

For example, the Biden administration has continued to surge arms to Israel, often bypassing Congress to do so. Since 7 October when the war broke out, the US has also cast three vetos against calls for a ceasefire at the UN. Separately, Washington also blocked an amendment calling for a ceasefire that Russia tried including on a Security Council resolution in December.

Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic presidents, told MEE that Monday’s decision to abstain marked the “first empirical data point” of the US exercising its leverage against Israel.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and a peace negotiator for former President Barak Obama, said the US’s decision was “signaling Bibi that his house is on fire and he should not take the US for granted”.

Monday’s vote was met with applause at the UN Security Council, a rare moment for these proceedings, which has seen the US isolated on the world stage defending Israel among its Arab and European allies.

While Israel relies on the US to run interference for it at the UN, it's unclear whether the Biden administration’s diplomatic play at the international body will sway Israel and achieve the US’s foreign policy goals.

'Making a point'

Striking a hostage deal between Hamas and Israel that leads to a six-week pause in fighting has become the main axis around which US policy revolves, current and former US officials tell MEE.

The Biden administration hopes the agreement can be transformed into a lasting ceasefire that ends fighting in Gaza and allows for a resumption of negotiations on a two-state solution, with a strengthened Palestinian Authority governing the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.

More immediately, the US wants to surge humanitarian aid into Gaza and prevent a full-scale Israeli assault on Rafah, the southern Gaza border town where about 1.5 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

“Monday’s move makes a point, not a difference,” towards those goals, Miller told MEE, adding that the US’s vote and public rift with Israel could harden Hamas’s negotiating position, which has staked its claim to victory on merely surviving a ferocious Israeli assault.

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Talks in Doha brokered by Egypt and Qatar appear to have stalled. Hamas later welcomed the Security Council resolution and said it was prepared to negotiate the release of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

While the US hopes it can isolate Netanyahu politically, he is not the only senior Israeli official vowing to press ahead with the war in Gaza and launch an offensive on Rafah. A majority of Israelis are also in favour of attacking Rafah, where Israel says four Hamas battalions are based.

Speaking outside the White House on Monday just hours after the UN vote, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the war would not end until Israel secures the release of the roughly 130 hostages it believes are still in Gaza.

“If we do not achieve a decisive and absolute victory in Gaza, a bigger war in the north will come closer,” he said, referring to the ongoing fighting against Hezbollah along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

The Lebanese caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, used the UN resolution on Monday as leverage to call on countries to "pressure" Israel to stop attacking Lebanon. 

Gallant is slated to meet with US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and national security advisor Jake Sullivan. He is expected to discuss the Rafah invasion and is also seeking more munitions and weapons systems so Israel can continue waging its war.

A key metric of whether the US is willing to up its pressure on Israel could come in the following months when Blinken is expected to certify whether Israel’s use of US weapons systems is in keeping with international and humanitarian law.

Netanyahu is no stranger to tussling with US leaders and could exert pressure on Biden by leveraging his support among Republican lawmakers. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said last week that he intended to invite the Israeli leader to address a joint session of Congress.

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