Biden & Bibi: From frenemies to enemies

by Andreas Kluth

You know frenemies are becoming enemies when they’re drawing each other red lines. That’s what President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are now doing. Just over five months after Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorized Israel and Biden promised his unequivocal support, the two leaders, if not yet their countries, are preparing to split.

The first to pull out the metaphorical red marker was Biden. For months, he’s been distraught at what he called the “indiscriminate” Israeli bombing of Gaza in its retaliation against Hamas, a campaign that has killed more than 30,000, wounded more than 70,000 and left nearly all of Gaza’s 2 million people homeless, hungry and traumatized. He’s also angry that Israel hasn’t let in more humanitarian aid. And he’s livid that Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners are snubbing Biden’s long-term vision for peace, which culminates in a sovereign Palestinian state.

So Biden warned Bibi, as Netanyahu is known, that invading Rafah, where about half of Gaza’s displaced population now huddles, would be a red line. The president didn’t spell out what consequences its crossing would bring, and his national-security staff subsequently tried to soften the message. But Biden has now cast the relationship in a new hue.

Bibi then whipped out his own marker and escalated, as is his wont. (He once physically drew a red line at the United Nations as a visual aid.) He retorted that he will certainly send the Israeli army into Rafah, because he too has a red line, which is to make sure that “Oct. 7 doesn’t happen again.” That’s sophistry: Biden doesn’t want another Oct. 7 either. The question is when collateral damage becomes collective punishment of Palestinians, and thus a crime under international law.

And so a bilateral relationship that stretches back three quarters of a century faces unprecedented strain. More than in 1956-57, when President Dwight Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw from Egyptian territory, even threatening to stop all aid to Israel. And more than in 1982, when Ronald Reagan called up Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister at the time, and ordered him to stop the mass bombing of Beirut: “Menachem,” Reagan said, “this is a holocaust.” Both times, the Israeli side heeded the U.S.

Netanyahu, by contrast, is unlikely to yield. His own recalcitrance and solipsism are too extreme, as is the ideology of his coalition partners, who in effect want an apartheid-style permanent reoccupation of Gaza. The relationship increasingly looks like dialectic when it fails: Instead of thesis and antithesis eventually producing a synthesis, the clash just leaves both sides alienated, from each other and from the rest of the world.

In the process, the contradictions in Biden’s policy are becoming too glaring to overlook. Just look at the skies above Gaza: It’s in large part American bombs that the Israelis are dropping, even as the U.S. is simultaneously parachuting boxes of meals, water bottles and medicine on Gazan beaches. (It will also build a floating pier to bring in more aid by sea.) The White House acknowledges that these efforts resemble Band-Aids after open-heart surgery. Adding irony to injury, some of the humanitarian air drops have even killed Gazans by accident.

So Biden had to strike a new tone. But is a red line the best way? It’s a hackneyed metaphor, and one that’s landed a lot of people in trouble. When Biden was vice president under Barack Obama, the latter drew a red line against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to deter the dictator from using chemical weapons against his own people. But when Assad did just that, Obama didn’t retaliate.

That’s the problem with red lines: If you just spray-paint pinkish blurry areas you don’t intend to enforce, you lose even more credibility and clout. To be taken seriously, by contrast, you must act when the red line is crossed, even if you don’t really want to. Netanyahu, having drawn his line, will probably go into Rafah and cause more suffering. Biden, seeing his own line crossed, must then do something.

I’ve already suggested a first step: The U.S. should stop vetoing resolutions in the UN Security Council that call for an immediate ceasefire.

An additional step is the one Eisenhower threatened: curtailing or pausing American aid to Israel. Eight U.S. senators have written Biden demanding exactly that, arguing that arming Israel violates a law barring support for nations that restrict the delivery of humanitarian aid. Biden wouldn’t even have to be so drastic. He could keep supplying Israel with defensive systems (such as Iron Dome, which protects against incoming missiles) but cut off offensive arms. Or he could attach conditions to their use, as the U.S. does when equipping other countries.

The next measure would be, for lack of a better word, regime change. Biden is a true and life-long friend of Israel. His problem is with Netanyahu and his coalition, whom plenty of Israelis also want to drive from office. So Biden could address the Israeli population directly. His vice president, Kamala Harris, already welcomed Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, at the White House the other day, even though Netanyahu had tried to prohibit Gantz, a member of his “war cabinet,” from visiting.

Any and all of these measures would be an escalation by Biden. But it wouldn’t be a unilateral escalation. Having talked tougher on Israel in his State of the Union address and then drawn his red line, Biden must follow through, if he wants to prevent a terrible conflict from becoming even worse.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. diplomacy, national security and geopolitics.