It’s All Down to Him

RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL - MARCH 04:  Israel's Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the launch of the Likud party election campaign on March 4, 2019 in Ramat Gan, Israel.  (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL - MARCH 04: Israel's Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the launch of the Likud party election campaign on March 4, 2019 in Ramat Gan, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
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The killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers has over the last two days triggered a wholesale shift across the U.S. political spectrum. But most particularly and significantly it’s triggered a shift from the White House. Today President Biden called for an “immediate ceasefire” along with comments from other administration officials that elaborate on a broader policy shift. In response now there are cries of betrayal from Netanyahu dead-enders as well as misgivings even from some of Netanyahu’s fiercest critics that the upshot of these events is that Hamas will live to fight another day with its brigades still holding out in Rafah.

But coming to this crossroads, which to me is a very positive development, is really all on the current government in Israel and the man who orchestrates every one of its strategies, Benjamin Netanyahu. Joe Biden has gone to every possible length to support Israel in its quest to destroy Hamas’s military capability after the terrorist paramilitary group invaded Israel with multiple death squads on October 7th. He has done that even through vast destruction to the basic physical infrastructure of Gaza and vast loss of innocent human life. He has maintained this in the face of tremendous geopolitical fallout. He has continued to do this even in the face of real damage to his political standing at home and chances for reelection in November.

To remind ourselves of all of this, I want to go back to something I saw and was astonished by roughly six weeks after the October 7th attacks. It’s a brief video that comes from the Talking Feds podcast. It’s a snippet of Michael Oren, the Israeli diplomat and sometimes politician, also a historian of real note. In it he uses this bracing metaphor to describe what Biden was doing on Israel’s behalf. I’m just going to include the text here and then the video …

“Joe Biden — what he used to tell me, because I spent a significant amount of time with him — he used to always quote his father, and his father used to say to him, ‘[n]ever crucify yourself on a small cross.’

“He is crucifying himself on a very large cross, and that cross is us.

“And we have to be appreciative of that. We have to try to help him to help us as much as we can. We can’t always, we can’t agree to an open-ended, cease fire — I don’t know if he even wants that.

“But he’s really crucifying himself here. And it’s something that historians will write about, I’ll write about.

“I’ve never seen anything — I’ve been in U.S.-Israel relationships, I don’t know to tell you how long, as a practitioner and a historian for 50 years. And I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It is an arresting and powerful statement. And he uses a metaphor that is so profoundly loaded that I remember at the time being kind of floored by it. It’s worth remembering this as we hear the expected bad faith complaints coming from many of the usual suspects.

The shift, to the extent it is a shift (I will come back to that later), is entirely on the Israeli government. From the beginning of this horrid saga, the Biden White House has made a series of quite limited demands which do not impact any of Israel’s core security interests. Not just what might seem to be core interests from a U.S. perspective, or even that of a Democratic administration, but in fact what many Israel hawks recognize as its core interests.

Just a couple of examples: allowing or facilitating the Palestinian Authority’s return to Gaza at the end of the conflict. There is, unfortunately, very, very little constituency at the moment within Israel for a two state solution. But having the PA operate in Gaza hardly binds Israel to any such outcome. There are very legitimate criticisms of the PA. But again, allowing this or not impeding it doesn’t meaningfully limit Israeli policy. Being so implacably against it is simply a continuation of all the 21st century Netanyahu governments’ policy of building up Hamas at the expense of the PA. It’s quite literally how we got here.

Then there’s food. Many in the U.S. and internationally underestimate the complexities of getting a sufficient amount of aid into Gaza under current conditions. Israel demands, very reasonably, that it be able to inspect aid shipments for weapons and dual use smuggling. It’s also very hard and dangerous to oversee and secure aid shipments into a warzone. But these are the kinds of responsibilities you take on when you cause this level of destruction.

We could cite numerous other examples or go into greater depth on these. But what they amount to is the Biden White House saying to the Israeli government: we are going to support you, but don’t make it totally impossible for us. And that is what the Israeli government has done at every single stage of this. It’s really no surprise because it is quite simply in Benjamin Netanyahu’s nature, the casual duplicity. But it is also in his interest. His personal interest. These are decisions which not only match his beliefs and ambitions. They are key for keeping his current coalition intact. Which is to say, keeping himself in power and out of prison.

I often hear from readers who say, does it really matter if Benny Gantz becomes Prime Minister? Isn’t he a hawk too? Yes and yes. And to be clear, I don’t have any particular brief for Gantz. Would he have fought something like this war? Well, we don’t really have to ask. He has. He’s been part of the war cabinet since the first week. But it’s been widely understood that Gantz and his colleague Gadi Eisenkot, himself another former IDF chief of staff, were basically fine with the PA playing a role in or running a postwar Gaza. It’s really very literally not much skin off Israel’s back. Preventing it matters if you not only don’t want two states now but need to do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t happen 10 or 20 years from now. It matters if your power is based on the support of settler fanatics who want to keep building new settlements on random hilltops in the West Bank.

On food, I expect someone like Gantz would say, we really need to destroy as much of Hamas’s army and military infrastructure as possible. Joe, you tell us what you need to make it possible to support us in doing that. Netanyahu’s approach has been you give us the support we want and, as for the things you need, fuck you. And also fuck you again. And also I have a coalition to manage so don’t put me under this kind of pressure. And also fuck you.

A big reason we are here in the current standoff over Rafah is that the current Israeli government has steadfastly refused to make any plans for what happens after this war concludes. Even many IDF generals have been irate about this because generals need a political outcome they are fighting toward. But he won’t give one. And the reason is because his political coalition doesn’t allow it. And also because he doesn’t want to. And he’s the only thing that matters.

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