President Joe Biden and his top aides are absorbing the explosion of violence in Israel on Saturday and contending with a complicated diplomatic situation unlike any previous conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
- Ties between Biden and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, friends for decades, have been strained by Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition in Israel.
- A fractured political environment among the Palestinians will make it difficult for American officials to identify a reliable negotiating partner.
- In the US, an already active Republican presidential primary campaign appears destined to pin blame on Biden for helping fuel attacks on Israel through his recent deal with Iran.
- And looming in the background is a historic normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia that Biden had hoped was nearing the finish line.
It all amounts to one of the most volatile geopolitical situations of Biden’s presidency, which is also confronting a war in Ukraine that has become a politically fraught issue at home.
In a phone call Saturday, Biden told Netanyahu, “We stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the government and people of Israel.”
Biden said he would remain in close contact with Netanyahu.
Speaking from the White House later Saturday, Biden said his administration’s support of Israel’s security is “rock solid and unwavering.”
“When I spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning, I told him the United States stands with the people of Israel in the face of these terrorist assaults. Israel has the right to defend itself and its people, full stop,” he said.
The last time major violence broke out between Gaza and Israel, Biden and senior American officials played a critical behind-the-scenes role in brokering a ceasefire. The president spoke with Netanyahu six times, and once each with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (who has no real authority over Gaza) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
US officials were also in contact with officials in the region on an hour-to-hour basis and leaned on leaders in Egypt and Qatar to work with the Palestinian militant groups in Gaza to find agreement on a ceasefire.
Some of the president’s Democratic allies agitated for a more forceful response. But senior White House officials calculated that it was more productive to work quietly with allies to end the violence.
That was more than two years ago. In the time since, US-Israel ties have become exponentially more complicated.
Biden has spoken out forcefully against the Netanyahu government’s attempts at a judicial overhaul, which he and other officials have suggested amounts to an erosion of democracy. That has strained ties between the men and delayed a face-to-face meeting until last month, when they sat for talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. At the time, Biden acknowledged that the two men had plenty of “hard issues” – among them, matters related to “checks and balances” – to discuss.
That meeting was ultimately “very constructive” and “very candid,” one official said. It included a lengthy one-on-one component without any aides present, and Biden invited Netanyahu to visit the White House.
Still, Netanyahu’s attempts to keep his far-right governing coalition together could make American diplomatic intervention in the conflict even more difficult as he comes under pressure for a full-scale response.
And political stagnation among the Palestinians, whose leader, Abbas, was last elected to a four-year term in 2005 but remains in power since canceling several elections, has only complicated an American diplomatic response as it looks for which faction among the Palestinians to speak with.
As recently as this week, Biden had hoped to be nearing the completion of a major agreement with Israel and Saudi Arabia to establish formal diplomatic ties, potentially transforming the entire Middle East.
The expectation had been that the deal would include agreement from Netanyahu on certain concessions to the Palestinians, including potentially freezing settlements and agreeing to an eventual Palestinian state.
“It’s obvious that a move like this by Saudi Arabia will require a component dealing with the fundamental between Israelis and Palestinians,” one American official said after Biden’s meeting with Netanyahu, adding that was made clear in the leaders’ meeting.
The unleashing of violence Saturday makes it exceedingly difficult to imagine Netanyahu agreeing to those concessions now.
One thing seemed clear even in the immediate aftermath of the devastating attacks in Israel: It would only be a matter of time before the scenes of violence would become a political attack against Biden.
Republican presidential candidates slammed the Biden administration Saturday, with former President Donald Trump – the front-runner for the GOP nomination – pointing to the administration’s unfreezing of Iranian funds to claim that Biden “betrayed Israel.”
The Biden administration this year issued a waiver unfreezing billions of dollars in Iranian funds as part of a deal to free five Americans who the US government had deemed wrongfully detained by Iran. Critics have connected a line between those funds and the attacks in Israel, given that Iran funds Hamas.
“Joe Biden betrayed Israel, he betrayed our country. As president, I will once again stand with Israel and we will cut off the money to Palestinian terrorists on Day One,” Trump said while campaigning in Iowa.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another 2024 candidate, also linked the US-Iran deal to the violence in Israel, adding that Biden “has shown weakness and indecision.”
A senior administration official said Saturday the billions of dollars in funds that the Biden administration unfroze in the deal “did not go to Iran, are solely for humanitarian purposes and not a single cent has been spent.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.