Could Gallant and Gantz Deliver for Biden?

By | May 20, 2024
Gallant and Gantz

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1. Can Joe Biden micromanage Israeli politics?

For President Biden and his administration, Israel’s war on Gaza and the conduct of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have been sources of endless frustration. 

Biden has tried every trick in the book to get Netanyahu back on course. He first tried embracing Israel publicly and privately. Biden demonstrated genuine empathy after the October 7 Hamas attack, traveled to Israel in the early days of the war, opened all lines of military supply with no questions asked, sent massive U.S. forces to the region and passed an unprecedented military aid package. In return, the administration had hoped Netanyahu would be attentive to America’s advice and to be mindful of the need to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, to allow humanitarian support for those impacted by the Israeli incursion, and—most important—to come up with a plan for the day after the war in order to ensure long-term stability.

It didn’t work. Netanyahu and his cabinet members were more than happy to accept America’s support, but when Biden came up with demands, Israeli leaders promptly rejected many of them, questioning Biden’s “bear hug” and the earnestness of his support.

Next, Biden tried using increasingly tough language toward Israel. Alongside the sympathy and support, Biden and his top advisers began speaking more forcefully about the heavy toll Israel’s war is taking on Gazan civilians and of the absolute need to prepare an endgame.

That, too, led to no results.

Next came actions. A shipment of bombs to Israel was put on hold, and days later Biden came out with a shocking statement that the future of some arms supplies to Israel will depend on whether or not the IDF launches a major attack on the city of Rafah, a move that America and its allies strongly opposed.

Results have been mixed. Israel has thus far “minimized” its incursion into Rafah—causing over a million Palestinians, many of whom were already displaced, to evacuate in the past two weeks—and at the same time made clear it still intends to launch a full-scale attack.

Now, Washington is seeing a glimmer of hope for change. And it’s coming from inside Israel.

Last week, Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant, who along with Netanyahu is facing a potential arrest warrant from the ICC, broke ranks with the prime minister and came out publicly demanding that he declare a “day after” plan for Gaza, one that will make clear that Israel will not remain the managing occupying power. Gallant warned that the absence of such a plan “would erode our military achievements, lessen the pressure on Hamas and sabotage chances of achieving a framework for the release of hostages.”

A couple of days later, war cabinet member Benny Gantz, who is Netanyahu’s leading potential political rival, spoke out too. “If you choose the path of zealots, dragging the country into the abyss, we will be forced to leave the government,” Gantz said, setting a June 8 ultimatum for Netanyahu to either declare a war strategy or face the departure of Gantz and his party from the war cabinet and the coalition.

Washington is watching these developments very closely.

On the one hand, this may be Biden’s golden opportunity: a chance to realize the needed Israeli policy shift from within, and not as a result of international pressure. On the other hand, Biden understands the need to demonstrate caution so as not to be seen as meddling in Israeli internal politics or taking sides in a domestic political debate. 

That is why response from the administration thus far has been measured. “We share the concern that Israel has not developed any plans for holding and governing territory the IDF clears, thereby allowing Hamas to regenerate in those areas,” a U.S. official said in response to Gallant’s remarks. This muted reaction may signal America’s way forward: a wait-and-see policy, combining gentle prods with a hope that internal Israeli political divides can lead to results where months of American pressure has failed.

2. Legislating the crisis

In his threat to withhold arms transfers to Israel if it invades Rafah, President Biden consciously opened himself to an almost unprecedented barrage of criticism from Israel, from pro-Israeli groups in America, from moderate Democrats and, of course, from Republicans. 

The latter group pounced on the opportunity to portray Biden as a stealth enemy of Israel who is willing to hand victory to Hamas in order to satisfy his political base.

In Congress, GOP lawmakers translated this sentiment into a long-shot legislative effort, putting forth the Israel Security Assistance Support Act, which aims to bypass Biden’s threat and ensure that Israel receives all military aid shipments from the United States regardless of whether or not it launches a military operation in Rafah.

The bill stands no chance. It is bound to fail in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and even if it did pass, the White House already has made clear Biden would veto it.  

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a smart political move. The proposed legislation may not advance, even by an inch, the cause of ensuring there are zero restrictions on providing arms to Israel, but the bill can still go a long way in embarrassing Democrats.

The House approved the proposed bill in a 224 to 187 vote. All but three Republicans voted in favor, but all eyes were on the Democratic side, where 16 lawmakers defied the party’s line and voted with Republicans. Among the Dems voting with Republicans on this bill were Jared Moskowitz of Florida and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.

In political terms, this isn’t much. If Republicans expected to drive a wedge between Democrats or to sow dispute, the result indicated they did not succeed. Only a small minority of Dems broke with the leadership, indicating that even on such a touchy issue in which all mainstream pro-Israel groups have taken a stand against Biden, the party is, by and large, united behind the president and its congressional leadership.

3. So, did Biden take away aid from Israel?

Speaking of putting a political spin on this dispute, the White House also had a trick or two up its sleeve. Last week, the Biden administration informed Congress that it intends to send for formal approval a new arms deal with Israel estimated at more than $1.2 billion. The shipment will include $700 million in tank ammunition, $500 million worth of tactical vehicles and $60 million in mortar shells.

On the one hand, this is no more than a technicality. As required by law, the administration informs Congress of upcoming arms deals, allowing lawmakers an opportunity to ask questions and present their concerns, before formally submitting the notice and then moving ahead with the deal, which will only be shipped months later.

But on the other hand, there’s a wink and a nod. By leaking information about the request sent to Congress, the White House reminded the public and pro-Israeli activists that arms sales to Israel are continuing as planned, despite Biden’s threat. The move helped highlight the fact that Biden’s threat is by no means an arms embargo on Israel. It is, at most, a specific concern regarding specific military items that might be used in a specific military operation. In other words, Biden may have put a hold on one shipment of high-powered bombs, but all the rest is flowing freely, just as planned and as expected. 

4. A Maryland test case

Maryland Democratic primaries don’t usually make headlines, but last week’s elections provided an interesting indicator for those following the pro-Israel political scene.

The battle to represent Maryland’s 3rd congressional district was crowded and tough, with many local politicians vying to become the Democratic nominee for the seat opened by Rep. John Sarbanes’ decision to not seek another term. Two candidates stood out as having the best chances: Maryland State Senator Sarah Elfreth, known for her effective across-the-aisle political skills, and Harry Dunn, who when serving as a Capitol Police officer fought off the January 6 insurrectionists trying to take over Congress and overturn election results. Dunn had a war chest of $4.5 million, Elferth had only $1.5 million. 

And then AIPAC stepped in. Or, to be precise, United Democracy Project, a PAC run by the pro-Israel lobby group. They poured in $4 million in outside spending in favor of Elfreth, who ultimately won the primary. “Activists from the pro-Israel community were actively engaged in supporting her campaign,” AIPAC said after Elfreth’s victory.

This would all make sense if Elfreth and Dunn had significant differences on the issue of Israel. But they don’t. Both are pretty much on the same page. So why did AIPAC inject massive amounts of cash to crown Elfreth? The lobby says it was not against Dunn, but rather in order to make sure a pro-Israel candidate wins the multi-candidate race, which included at least one contender seen as problematic by AIPAC. Others claim the lobby’s PAC was just mad at Dunn for calling out dark money donors and claiming that AIPAC funding comes from Republicans.

Either way, this somewhat marginal political race served as a much-needed opportunity for AIPAC to flex its muscle. After several defeats in this year’s primaries, the pro-Israel lobby demonstrated again that it is not a force you want to mess with and that it has the resources to make or break a campaign. 

5. Another Maryland test case

Still in Maryland, here’s what happened in a race in which AIPAC had a favorite but did not put money in.

Two candidates were running in the Democratic primary for the coveted Senate seat vacated by retiring Senator Ben Cardin: Rep. David Trone and Angela Alsobrooks, the Executive of Prince George’s County. Trone is a top friend of AIPAC as well as a major donor to the pro-Israel lobby. Alsobrooks was endorsed by J Street, AIPAC’s rival. But for the most part, even though Alsobrooks has been a tad more critical of Israel’s policy in Gaza, there were no major differences between the candidates when it comes to Israel.

AIPAC clearly wanted Trone to win, but this was a race in which money made little difference. Trone, a self-made multimillionaire, funded his own $60 million campaign. There was not much AIPAC’s super PAC could do to help. Trone lost the race despite the massive amounts of his own wealth poured into the campaign.

Bottom line: AIPAC is working this election cycle with tons of cash and a willingness to use it wherever it sees fit. But money has its limits, even in American politics. 

Top Image: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Could Gallant and Gantz Deliver for Biden?

  1. Nancy Kaplan says:

    In topic #2 above why is there no mention of the fact that it was REPUBLICANS in the US House who for MONTHS blocked action on President Biden’s bill to provide Israel with critically-needed military assistance? And I didn’t notice any Senate Republicans charging in to lambaste their House colleagues for this unconscionable delay. I think the way the Republicans have responded to POTUS’s decision to pause delivery of 800- and 2,000 pound bombs to Israel – to prevent Israel from dropping those weapons on densely-populated neighborhoods in Rafah – absolutely hypocritical and I wish reporters would point this out.

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