Decision Time in the Middle East

By | Jun 03, 2024
President Joe Biden stands at a podium

Jewish Politics & Power is published every other week. Sign up for our newsletter for updates.

1. Biden makes his move

On Friday afternoon, with very little notice and after Shabbat had already begun in Israel, President Joe Biden stepped into the White House State Dining Room and delivered his most detailed speech to date about the Gaza war.

In a move aimed at pressuring both Hamas and Israel to accept a deal that would release hostages, impose a cease-fire and eventually end the war, Biden basically outed Benjamin Netanyahu by detailing in public the outlines of the new proposal submitted by Israel and passed on to Hamas. “Israel has made their proposal. Hamas says it wants a cease-fire. This deal is an opportunity to prove whether they really mean it,” Biden said. “This is truly a decisive moment.” After explaining the three-stage deal proposed by Israel and promising American support and assurances, Biden stated that, “It’s time for this war to end, for the day after to begin.”

Immediately after, the administration launched a diplomatic effort to turn Biden’s vision into reality, with a series of phone calls by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to regional partners, seeking ways to drive Hamas back to the negotiation table.

What’s different this time around?

A senior administration official explained after the speech that Israel is now in a new position: Its military campaign in Gaza has been successful in degrading Hamas’s military power to the extent that it can no longer carry out an attack of the scale seen on October 7. This, Biden believes, is what allowed Netanyahu to make this offer, which was described by the senior official as “nearly identical to Hamas’s own proposals of only a few weeks ago.”

The White House has gone to great lengths trying to emphasize that the onus is now on Hamas and that it is now up to the terror group to prove that it is really interested in a cease-fire for the benefit of the Gazan people.

Pressuring Hamas has proved to be almost impossible. In more than seven months of fighting, the United States has learned the limits of its influence over Hamas: Even with Qatari and Egyptian allies willing to convey messages and to threaten Hamas with imposing limitations on their finance and movement in the region, Hamas remained a tough negotiator. And, as proven in previous rounds of negotiations, even when the group’s political leadership agrees, the final word belongs to its Gaza military leader Yahya Sinwar, who, from his command tunnels under Gaza, has struck down all proposals.

Biden didn’t put his reputation on the line Friday only for the sake of pressuring Hamas, a task he, too, knows is elusive. He also had in mind Netanyahu and his hardline coalition. By making the Israeli plan public (although Netanyahu is now arguing that Biden’s depiction of it wasn’t fully accurate), the president sought to make sure that his Israeli counterpart doesn’t back down or renege on his offer in the face of political pressure from Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and some Likud members.

2. Now It’s Bibi’s Turn

Was Biden’s reading of the Israeli political map accurate?

Yes. As expected, it didn’t take long for Netanyahu’s coalition partners to make clear that they’re not on board. Smotrich stated that he will not be part of a government that “agrees to the proposed outline and ends the war without destroying Hamas and returning all the hostages.” Ben-Gvir, who can always be trusted to one-up his right-wing rival Smotrich, called Biden’s plan “a victory for terrorism.”

Publicly, Netanyahu remained noncommittal. In closed-door meetings, whose content he knew would be fully leaked, Netanyahu argued that contrary to Biden’s depiction of the proposal, Israel did not agree to a permanent end of hostilities in the second phase of the plan and that it will limit the cease-fire to six weeks, if there is now a follow-up deal on moving into the second phase. “The outline presented by Biden is partial. There are many details that the U.S. president did not present to the public,” Netanyahu said Monday during what was supposed to be a classified meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

As always, Netanyahu is walking a thin line.

Biden has successfully boxed Netanyahu into having to live up to his own proposal, but Bibi also understands that this will spell the end of his coalition and early elections in which his chances of winning now seem extremely slim.

His approach is now centered on calming his political allies by focusing on the details of the deal. Netanyahu is out to prove that he did not cave to Hamas’s demands and that the proposal his negotiation team authored can somehow be squared with maintaining the goal of “fully defeating Hamas.” This can buy Bibi some political time during which the chances of this deal coming through will be made clear. If Biden’s pressure works and Hamas agrees to a deal, Netanyahu will—albeit reluctantly—go ahead with the plan which he himself proposed, knowing that the Israeli public, eager to see the 125 remaining hostages back home, will embrace the deal. If Hamas, on the other hand, lives up to its reputation of refusing any deal to end the war, Netanyahu can keep his coalition together, while demonstrating his good-faith effort and easing pressure from Biden.

3. In New York, Two Perspectives on Biden’s Speech

New York’s annual Israel Day parade along Fifth Avenue on Sunday turned into a massive call for release of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Leading the march was a group of 70 family members and former hostages, who were greeted all along the march with calls of “Bring them home now!” from thousands of New Yorkers gathered along the march route. 

As she got ready to embark on the march, Nitza Korengold, whose son Tal Shoham is being held hostage by Hamas, was visibly emotional. “I’m demanding that Israel accept the deal, because if it doesn’t we’ll have more bodies. We want them to come home alive,” she told me, standing alongside her husband Gilad. “As Tal’s mom, I’m demanding we accept the deal right now. We’re no longer asking, we’re demanding,” she said.

This was the overwhelming sentiment among most of the hostage families and their supporters gathered in New York. Liran Bergman, whose twin brothers Gali and Ziv were taken hostage and are held in Gaza, echoed the same feeling. “I keep hearing all this noise of people saying we shouldn’t agree to the deal and that they will bring down the government,” he said, standing outside Temple Emanu-El after concluding the 20-block march. “This is not the time for that. Vote for the deal. My brothers and all the hostages need to be home and this is the best deal we’ve seen.” 

Meanwhile, not far away in midtown New York, the annual conference of Besheva, a right-wing publication, was set to kick off. Here, the speakers conveyed quite a different tone. While the family members directed their pleading at Netanyahu and his government, speakers at the conference took another approach. “No surrender, not to American pressure, not to anything,” declared Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs Amichi Chikli, calling Biden’s plan “a joke.” David Friedman, who served as Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, said Netanyahu shouldn’t have even responded to Biden’s speech, which presented what he sees as a false choice between returning the hostages and defeating Hamas.

In a nutshell, these diverging approaches reflect Israel’s current dilemma: A majority of its people just want to see the hostages home, while the government and its many of its supporters insist that a deal cannot come at the expense of full and complete military victory over Hamas.

4. Netanyahu to Address Congress. Last Time it Didn’t End well.

Almost overshadowed by Biden’s speech was the official invitation sent out late Friday to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. The long-awaited invite was signed by leaders of both chambers, showing at least a semblance of bipartisanship regarding the idea of having Israel’s leader address the American people at a time of war.

But this is pretty much where bipartisanship ends. Democrats on the left have already made clear they will not attend the speech. “Netanyahu is a war criminal,” Independent Senator BernieSanders stated, adding that he will “certainly not attend.” 

Democrats are still trying to get over Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress, in which he came without notifying the White House with the sole purpose of convincing American lawmakers to undermine President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. 

Will 2024 be a replay of that speech?

Not necessarily. First of all, this time it is a bipartisan invitation and it is likely that Netanyahu will meet with President Biden during his yet-to-be-scheduled visit to Washington. Also, at a time of war, even politicians who strongly disagree with Netanyahu’s policies and conduct—such as Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who called for elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu—still feel the importance in hearing the leader of America’s ally at Israel’s time of need.

But that doesn’t mean Netanyahu will be met with a lot of love on Capitol Hill. 

Expect to see many empty seats during the speech and to hear Democrats criticizing the visitor from Israel before and after. However, if Netanyahu arrives in Washington after a cease-fire deal is reached and after accepting at least some of the requests put forward by the Biden administration, the tone might change and Democrats may afford him a warmer welcome.

5. Felons in Government? Israel Can Offer Advice.

Donald Trump’s conviction Thursday on 34 felony counts has led to a whirlwind of questions: Can he run for president? Can he serve as an elected official if convicted? Should he drop out?

Well, look no further. Israel, once known as the only democracy in the Middle East, has some experience America can draw from.

True, the legal and electoral systems are very different, but here’s a reminder of how the Jewish state has dealt with its leaders who found themselves in the defendant’s seat.

Take a look at former prime minister Ehud Olmert. He was charged with corruption and decided to resign from office, even though there is no legal requirement to do so. Olmert was convicted of fraud, breach of trust, and tax evasion and served 16 months in prison. He is now a private citizen and a frequent guest in TV studios, where he offers his sharp critique of Netanyahu and his government.

In 2007, Israel’s president Moshe Katsav was charged with rape and sexual abuse, regarding complaints of women who worked for him before he became president. The disgraced Katsav eventually resigned as part of a plea deal, several months before the end of his seven-year term. He was convicted in court and sentenced to seven years in prison of which he served five before being released on parole. Katsav has since disappeared from the Israeli public scene.

And then there’s Netanyahu. The current prime minister is serving in office while facing an ongoing trial for three corruption cases. Netanyahu rejected all calls for his resignation and argued he can lead the nation and navigate a criminal trial at the same time.

Trump and the American public can look at all these three options for possible guidance. Israel has tried them all.

Top Image: @potus / via Instagram

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.