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1. Ben Gvir Says the Quiet Part Out Loud
On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal profiled Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s far-right cabinet minister, who has made no secret of his wish to encourage Palestinian civilians to “voluntarily” leave the Gaza Strip and to see Jewish settlers return to the region.
In the interview, Ben-Gvir took aim directly at President Joe Biden, stating that “Instead of giving us his full backing, Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel, which goes to Hamas. If Trump was in power, the U.S. conduct would be completely different.”
This is a common sentiment within Israel’s far right.
Biden’s overwhelming support for Israel, his insistence on massive military aid and his full diplomatic backing in the international arena have not gone unappreciated by most Israelis. But the further right you go on Israel’s political spectrum, the more resistance you’ll find: Biden’s focus on providing humanitarian aid to Gazans, his repeated calls for protecting civilians and, moreover, his demand that a post-war solution include an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, have led Ben-Gvir and his followers to pigeonhole Biden as yet another Democratic president whose ultimate goal—a two-state solution—is Israel’s nightmare.
But Ben-Gvir’s direct and unapologetic rhetoric, his clear denunciation of Biden and his endorsement of Trump, seemed a bit too much. Biden, bleeding in the polls, due in part to his support for Israel, now must deal with a resentful—and clearly ungrateful—Israeli faction.
And if there’s one thing Biden has learned dealing with Israel’s current coalition government, it is that these far-right voices must be taken seriously. Netanyahu will reassure Biden time and again that Ben-Gvir and his allies are all talk and that they do not have a say in determining policy, but the past year has taught Biden that when it comes to Netanyahu’s government, today’s far-right declarations are tomorrow’s mainstream policy.
Officially, the White House chose not to respond directly to Ben-Gvir. “I’m going to let the Israeli government and Israeli politicians speak for themselves; they certainly have no trouble doing so,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Margaret Brennan on CBS. But the tensions are growing.
The longer Netanyahu refuses to entertain any thought about Gaza’s post-war solution and the deeper he digs his heels into a complete rejection of a two-state solution, the more frustrated Biden and his advisers get. Yesterday, Politico’s Jonathan Martin wrote that Biden “privately has called the Israeli prime minister a ‘bad fu**ing guy.’” The White House categorically denied this claim, but even if Biden refrained from foul language, there’s no doubt he doesn’t have the kindest of words right now for Netanyahu or his cabinet members.
2. Going After Violent Settlers
Last week Biden took an unusual step that only increased the ire of Israel’s far-right. On Thursday, the president signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Israeli settlers involved in acts of violence in the West Bank. The first batch of settlers designated under this new order includes four individuals, among them one who initiated the Huwara pogrom, in which a Palestinian was killed, and another who led a group of extreme settlers who harassed West Bank Bedouins and burned their fields.
The sanctions may not seem too restrictive. Those on the blacklist will face freezing of all their U.S. assets; Americans will be prevented from doing business with them or donating to them, and they will not be allowed into the United States.
Given that the four settlers currently on the list are private citizens with no known business attachment to the United States, they can probably go on with their lives without being bothered by Biden’s sanctions (although one, Yinon Levi, has had his accounts frozen by an Israeli bank in accordance with the order).
But even without a real-life pinch on the violent settlers, the move sends a strong symbolic message. The president of the United States has just placed Jewish Israeli settlers under the same set of sanctions that are imposed on terrorists, human traffickers and rogue players of the worst kind. The message is clear: Biden may be pro-Israel all the way and may give Netanyahu all the backing he needs to fight Hamas, but this doesn’t mean the United States will turn a blind eye to violence against Palestinian civilians. Nor will the Biden administration allow a small group of extremists to drag Israel, and by extension itself, toward an even broader Middle East war.
There is also an important political element to the decision: Biden signed the executive order hours before leaving for a visit to Michigan, a state in peril in 2024 due to the strong resentment felt by Michigan’s Arab American and Muslim voters toward Biden because of his pro-Israel stance. This move aimed at extreme Jewish settlers was clearly also a nod to these disaffected voters.
3. Biden’s Terrible Numbers
Small gestures, such as sanctioning violent settlers, probably won’t be enough to save Biden’s Arab American constituency or improve his standing with young progressives. A recent NBC poll published Sunday found that only 29 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza, down 5 percent from November. Overall, only 34 percent approve of Biden’s handling of foreign policy.
Biden has a lot to do to get these numbers up. The war in Gaza may not be the decisive factor in 2024 (his biggest issue, according to the polls, is the economy), but trailing Trump by 5 percent nationally, Biden can’t afford to lose a single vote.
In terms of pure politics, Biden needs a Gaza cease-fire as soon as possible, one that will allow the region to restabilize and that will get Gaza and Israel out of the headlines. If and when the war in Gaza moves to the rearview mirror, Biden will be better positioned to make his pitch to progressives and others who oppose his pro-Israel policy, and it will be something along the lines of: “Yes, you have your qualms about the way I managed the war, but hey—Trump would have handled it much worse.”
4. Trump Is Going After Bibi—Again
Speaking of the former president, he never misses an opportunity to rehash his old gripe with Netanyahu. On Fox News, Trump went back to the U.S. killing of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force leader, back in 2020. As Trump has already noted several times, Israel was supposed to be part of the U.S. operation, but Netanyahu got last-minute cold feet, leaving Trump to carry out the mission without Israeli participation. “When we took out Suleimani, you know Israel was supposed to do it with us. Two days before the take-out, they said, ‘We can’t do it. We can’t do it.’ I said ‘What?’ ‘We can’t do it,’” Trump recalled. This is a slightly milder version of his October 12 comments, made only days after Hamas’s attack on Israel, in which he vowed to “never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down.”
Does this matter?
In a normal world, Trump’s grievances against Bibi would have made no real difference. Leaders sometimes have their disagreements, and as Netanyahu can personally attest, disagreeing with a sitting U.S. president doesn’t mean the end of the alliance between two nations.
But Trump’s not just any leader, and the world is no longer normal. The former president is driven by loyalty and betrayal. And having been removed from the list of loyal partners, it will be very hard for Netanyahu to buy back Trump’s goodwill.
Bad news for Bibi, but maybe good for his partner Ben-Gvir, who is telling anyone willing to listen how he misses good old Trump.
5. It’s Raining Cash
A quick look at the end-of-year political funding numbers made public last week reveals that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the centrist pro-Israel powerhouse, is doing really well.
“The AIPAC-backed super PAC, United Democracy Project, will report more than $40 million in cash on hand as it enters the election season, giving us the tools to consider a number of races where anti-Israel candidates are trying to win a seat in Congress,” AIPAC wrote in a memo to its supporters.
This means more money for AIPAC to challenge congressional candidates deemed anti-Israel by the lobby. AIPAC was successful in doing so in the 2022 midterms and is now poised to go after members of “the Squad,” the progressive House Democrats known for their critical views on Israel.
One of them, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, sent out a fundraising email to supporters warning that “AIPAC is seriously scaling up to spread their regressive and right-wing agenda. When a right-wing group attacks Alexandria and our entire progressive movement, it’s imperative that we have the resources to fight back.”
The war in Gaza is the most divisive issue for Democrats in the upcoming elections. Pro-Israel Dems (and also GOP megadonors) will use their dollars to make sure progressives don’t make it to Congress. They feel more strongly than ever that support for Israel is in danger. Progressives, on the other hand, feel emboldened by the wave of support the war in Gaza has brought to their cause and expect this support to translate into campaign contributions.
Taken together, this means that many, many millions of dollars will be spent in the next ten months on arguing over Israel.
Top Image: Alon Nuriel (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Trump White House Archived / Yossipik (CC BY-SA 4.0) / U.S. Department of State