Will Netanyahu defeat Biden?

Politics abounds in paradox. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overwhelming assault on Gaza threatens more than the desperate victims there. It jeopardizes the critical bond between the United States and Israel, and raises added obstacles to the reelection of President Joe Biden, one of the most devoted supporters of Israel ever to occupy the White House. Biden is becoming collateral damage in Netanyahu’s war.

President Biden faces an “Eisenhower moment.” In 1956, when our closest allies, Britain and France, joined Israel in an invasion of Egypt to reverse Gamal Nasser’s takeover of the Suez Canal, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was fiercely opposed. He led the United Nations to condemn the attack in a sharply worded resolution. His powerful denunciation quickly led the United Kingdom to recognize that it could not sustain operations without U.S support, and London aborted the military campaign. All this occurred during a presidential campaign in which Ike’s recent health episodes raised concerns about whether he was well enough to continue in office.

Biden confronts even more excruciating decisions than Eisenhower did. The president could not have expected the Netanyahu government to act so brutally, but Biden’s policy response lacked the promptness and clarity that Eisenhower displayed. Gradually, however, with his hopeful expectations shattered, the president has increased pressure on Israel to restrain its retaliation against Hamas and facilitate essential humanitarian relief in Gaza. He has restored longstanding U.S. support for the international consensus condemning Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as illegal. He has begun to sanction some Israeli settlers for violence and intimidation in the occupied area.

Yet air drops of supplies by the U.S., Jordan and others are utterly inadequate to help those suffering on the ground, and the promised sea delivery of aid will come too late to ease urgent requirements; they do nothing to alter Netanyahu’s determined vengeance. Nor do they contribute anything to revive the special ties that have been severely frayed by the Israeli government’s conduct during this crisis.

Belatedly, but emphatically, Vice President Kamala Harris issued an adamant demand by the administration for a cease-fire in Gaza. After vetoing some U.N. resolutions, the Biden team has now endorsed a clear call to suspend attacks immediately and begin massive relief for the victims in Gaza; it urges the Security Council to demand that Hamas release the hostages it is holding.

And, against heavy odds, President Biden has reiterated the ambition for a two-state solution with an independent Palestine alongside a secure Israel. In his State of the Union address, Biden escalated the stance, highlighting Israel’s legal and moral obligations to avoid killing civilians and to give priority to their imperative humanitarian needs.

Pressures continue to mount for Biden to exert greater leverage on Netanyahu. A number of Senate Democrat have written to the president demanding that he curtail shipments to Israel of weapons being used in the Gaza war. Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community have testified that children are now suffering malnutrition as a result of Israeli attacks and that starvation is becoming a reality in the region. In an extraordinary development, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for elections to replace the Israeli government, saying that Netanyahu has lost his way.

Many Americans, appalled by the Gaza war and the Hamas massacres that occasioned it, are opposing Israeli abuse of Palestinians by protesting Biden’s response to it. Those sentiments could be lethal to the Biden campaign. Both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian voters will need to muster unaccustomed maturity to avoid an outcome that frustrates their larger intentions. Will they recognize the pernicious consequence of venting their distress with Biden’s balancing act? Sitting out the election or voting against Biden is sure to be self-defeating — it would mean ceding power to Trump, who is far less likely to urge restraint on Israel.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, those who have been most sympathetic to Israel are placed in an impossible position by the brutality Netanyahu is directing. They support vigorous responses to Hamas, but they cannot condone the killing and wounding of so many other Palestinians. Individual voters face choices that parallel the ones that have so troubled the Biden administration. How can they express through their ballots the multiple, cross-cutting verdicts appropriate to the crisis?


Designing and implementing bolder action to stymie Netanyahu is one of the most complex foreign policy challenges in recent history. Hamas’s October terrorism has provoked devastation for many thousands of Palestinians who did not volunteer for a suicide mission. Biden cannot and should not abandon U.S. affinity for Israel, but the administration will have to distance itself definitively from the personal policy of Benjamin Netanyahu in order to stop the erosion in support for a second term.

Eisenhower’s decisiveness in 1956 brought the fall of Anthony Eden’s government in the U.K., ending the career of a notable leader. In 2024, will it be Netanyahu or Biden who pays the greater political price? How perverse it would be if the colossal tragedy of the Gaza war were compounded by the political defeat of the American president standing against the excesses of both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump.

Alton Frye is the presidential senior fellow emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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