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What is behind the ongoing conflict between Biden and Netanyahu?

June 20, 2024 at 10:30 am

US President Joe Biden (L) and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on 18 October, 2023 [BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images]

If further proof of the limits of traditional “representative democracy” is needed, the Israeli political scene is a prime example. Although Operation Al-Aqsa Flood turned the Israeli political climate to the disadvantage of Benjamin Netanyahu and the ruling bloc that he formed with the Zionist far right at the end of 2022, we see him in power and able to stay there constitutionally until 2026. Netanyahu was able to absorb some of Israel’s popular anger — there are those who hold him responsible for failing to deal with the armed attack that took place on 7 October — by creating a “war cabinet” that included one of the two main poles of the Zionist opposition. This portrayed him as a man keen on Zionist “national unity” when facing the Palestinian people.

In addition to the political aspect of the manoeuvre, Netanyahu wanted to involve his political opponents in the responsibility for managing the war against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, by involving two former army chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who both belong to the opposition bloc in the Knesset known as the National Camp. The war cabinet channelled the retaliatory Zionist consensus that has led to the destruction of Gaza and the massacre of about 50,000 of its residents so far, with Washington’s help.

However, the Zionist consensus embodied by that government ended with the completion of the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the question of its political fate. At this point, the wartime regime snapped when it came to the position on the “solution” sought by US President Joe Biden and his administration, which is based on at least part of Gaza and some of the West Bank being a nominally-independent state of Palestine governed by an altered Palestinian Authority; the Gaza Strip overall would be subject to joint Israeli and Arab (primarily Egyptian) military supervision. Although the Zionist opposition supports this “solution”, Netanyahu cannot announce that he accepts it without breaking the alliance he made with the far right and thus becoming dependent on what his current political opponents decide.

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The problem for Netanyahu is that the balance of power is completely different between the two cases. While the participation of his “neo-Nazi” allies in power is dependent on him — they would not have dreamt of being in government had it not been for Netanyahu’s deep opportunism and his willingness to do anything in order to remain in power (and avoid trial on fraud and corruption charges) — the Zionist opposition can look forward to assuming power without him via an early parliamentary election, through which the opposition hopes it can achieve a majority in the Knesset.

Ever since last October, opinion polls in Israel indicate that the opposition is favoured over the current regime.

Netanyahu’s manoeuvre to involve his rivals in the war cabinet, coupled with his appearance as a stubborn defender of the Zionist interest in the face of American pressure, has succeeded somewhat in changing public opinion. Two polls published a few days ago showed an increase in Netanyahu’s popularity, accompanied by a decline in the popularity of his rival Gantz from the peak it reached following Al-Aqsa Flood and his joining the war cabinet on behalf of the National Camp. This is because Gantz began to bear with Netanyahu the responsibility for the failure to eliminate the armed resistance inside the Gaza Strip after eight months of a brutal military offensive, and the absence of a clear vision regarding the “day after”, which is what Gaza’s political and security fate has become known as. This new trend in Israeli public opinion was certainly a major factor in Gantz’s decision to end his participation in the war cabinet.

However, polls still indicate a possible defeat for the existing alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud party, and the “neo-Nazis” in the face of the opposition blocs. While one of the two recent polls indicates that the opposition could win a majority of the Knesset seats (61 out of 120), the other indicates that it needs only three seats in order to achieve that goal, and that these are seats that may be provided by the Mansour Abbas bloc (which has been expressing its willingness to continue engaging in the Zionist political game), by one of the Zionist groups affiliated with the current ruling coalition, or by other small Knesset blocs.

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As such, Netanyahu will not risk breaking his alliance with the Zionist far right and facing the possibility of an early election, unless he obtains guarantees and gains, one of which will be granting him immunity from prosecution. He can remain in power with his allies despite polls confirming that they have become a minority in the country, even though the current stage is one of the most dangerous that the Zionist state has gone through in its short history. Netanyahu is also clearly betting on the possibility of Donald Trump winning the US presidential election in November.

The Israeli prime minister’s position is a source of great embarrassment for Biden, who needs to achieve the “solution” he seeks before that November election. That’s why the Biden administration invited Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, a Netanyahu rival within the Likud Party itself, to visit Washington in the coming days, before the prime minister visits to deliver a fourth speech to the US Congress on 24 July. That, by the way, is a privilege that no other foreign leader in the history of the US has ever received. There is no doubt that the Biden administration is exploring ways to pressure Netanyahu through Gallant, including the possibility of the latter defecting from Netanyahu with a number of Likud MKs sufficient to overthrow the current government and force an early election.

Translated from  Al Quds Al Arabi  18 June 2024 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.