President Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu are not on the same side.
By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin, December 20, 2023
After the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, President Biden’s initial impulse was to align American policy as closely as possible to Israel, and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, but recently rifts between Biden and Netanyahu have become more apparent, and now the White House is formally asking the Israeli government to lower the intensity of its military actions in Gaza to minimize the number of casualties to civilian non-combatants. Rather than a difference in military tactics, this represents a change in foreign policy posture that was inevitable and necessary. Assuming the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is not ordered by Netanyahu to dramatically and immediately reduce the death toll for Palestinian civilians, the US should now be joining the United Nations in calling for a cease fire between Israel and Hamas and working for a broader regional peace process, as would be the normal role for the leader of the democratic global order.
President Biden faces a real dilemma because the elected leader of one of America’s strongest allies has not been a reliable ally in the global struggle of democracy and international order versus anti-democracy and international chaos. Netanyahu has recently been aligning himself with Vladimir Putin, who has also been working with the leaders of Hungary, China, North Korea, and many other of the world’s autocrats, as well as leadership of Iran and Hamas. President Biden wants to win reelection and he wants to strengthen democracy in the United States and in all the nations of the world. Vladimir Putin wants to stay in power, he wants to win anything he can label a “victory” in Ukraine, and he wants to destabilize democracy around the world. Putin has found allies like Netanyahu who wants to stay in power, and in recent years he has been the leading threat to peace and democracy in Israel.
Donald Trump is the leading threat to democracy in the United States but President Biden is trailing Trump in general election battleground state polls. The Biden White House and 2024 campaign know that Biden will need a strong economic message, and we have offered our thoughts about what is going right and wrong with “Bidenomics.” But Biden’s teams also know he needs a battle plan for his defense of democracy, our freedoms and rights, including civil rights, the right to health care, and especially women’s health care and reproductive rights. Even if the Biden/Harris 2024 campaign message is tightly crafted for American concerns and American audiences, the Biden presidency must be focused on the threats coming from the larger world.
Biden must understand the full scope of the battle he is in -- this is truly a global struggle. And he must understand the full array of the forces he is opposing, their power, reach, and ruthlessness. He must understand that he is not just in a political fight with Donald Trump. This is a realpolitik battle of ideas, propaganda, espionage, terrorism, and warfare, with Vladimir Putin, and his allies throughout the world including Donald Trump and his many Republican followers in congress and conservative media.
To win, Biden has got to bring game. This is the battle Biden signed up for in 2019, and he will have failed if Trump returns to the White House in 2025. Unless he chooses to step aside for another Democrat who could have a better chance, Biden must win, and this means he must go big, bold, and hard. He needs a Sun Tsu, “The Art of War” level understanding of the battlefield. He must anticipate the actions of his adversaries, Donald Trump but more importantly Vladimir Putin, who has been executing a decades long campaign to destabilize the United States, Europe, and the world political order.
As we detailed in our last post, the links between Trump and Putin are not just allegations, they have been investigated and proven and the Russian agents that helped Trump win the 2016 presidential election have been indicted in US federal court. The facts Trump tries to dismiss with the words “Russia, Russia, Russia…” and former Attorney General Bill Barr hid from the public with an artfully false and misleading press statement, press release, and redactions of the full report, were detailed in the report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election which proved that Russian agents violated US law to help Donald Trump win the White House. Trump repaid Putin with:
numerous efforts to undermine relations with America’s closest allies in Europe,
statements designed to weaken America’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) the military alliance that was designed to counter aggression and expansion from Soviet Russia,
sending US troops to Syria to hold Putin’s vodka while his forces pulverized towns containing political opponents of the murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad,
support for Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The failure of Putin’s military to completely overrun Ukraine in 2022 now binds Putin ever closer to Trump. We have written that Putin needs a Trump victory in 2024 to have any hope of claiming victory in Ukraine, but it now looks possible that Putin could achieve his goal of cutting US military aid to Ukraine in the current congress. Trump’s opposition to funding Ukraine’s defense, has spread to enough of his supporters in the right wing media and on Capitol Hill that it threatens to replace the Republican party’s “peace through strength” defense of democracy posture of Ronald Reagan with a peace through appeasement with dictators strategy that failed Nevil Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who negotiated unsuccessfully for peace with Adolph Hitler before the Second World War.
Another Putin ally, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, cast a “no” vote blocking European Union (EU) funding for Ukraine. Ties between Viktor Orban and the Trump wing of the Republican Party have broken into public view on many occasions. Orban delivered a keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas in 2022, and then in Budapest in 2023, Orban hosted a CPAC Hungary gathering of far right conservatives from the US, Europe, and around the world. The Guardian reported this month that Orban has Hungarian representatives in Washington strategizing for a cutoff of US aid to Ukraine in meetings with Republican lawmakers convened by the Heritage Foundation.
Putin also needs Iran. Iran has been supplying Russia with drones to attack civilian targets in Ukraine and along with China and North Korea has become his critical weapons dealers. Having Iran as an ally means Putin has a measure of influence over Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” the military and terrorist semi-alliance that includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthi forces in Yemen, and fighters in Iraq that have recently been firing bombs and missiles at US forces across the region. We are not aware of any evidence that Putin ordered or supported Hamas’s October 7, 2023, attacks, murder, rape, and hostage taking in Israel, but this certainly has dramatically furthered Putin’s aims by taking the world’s attention away from his own February 24, 2022 attacks, murder, rape, and hostage taking in Ukraine.
“Bibi” Netanyahu is no defender of Democracy or Peace
Benjamin Netanyahu has held the office of Prime Minister of Israel three times in his decades long career. Initially his Likud Party represented the center-right position on the Israeli political spectrum, but Netanyahu’s extremism, corruption, and opposition to a peace process with the Palestinians, caused him to lose elections in 1999, 2019, and 2020. Each time he returned to power it was achieved by forming alliances with political parties further and further to Israel’s militant right fringe. Netanyahu has been facing several felony bribery, fraud, and breach of trust charges, with investigations starting in 2016 and formal indictments brought in 2019, but in 2022 Netanyahu won a return to power by forming a government including leaders of ultra-orthodox Jewish minority parties that prefer Talmudic law over the Israeli Constitution.
Netanyahu’s 2022 return to power also relied heavily on his close alliance with Donald Trump including advertisements showing the two men together. Trump replaced the US government’s policy of supporting a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, with a policy of appeasing Netanyahu and the Israeli right by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and supporting the violence and territorial expansion of the “Jewish settlers” in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu and Trump were using similar rhetoric about strength, border walls, and deportations to divert attention away from their own self-dealing and corruption trials.
In the months leading up to October 7, Israel was divided in a constitutional struggle with massive, peaceful street protests against Netanyahu’s efforts to strengthen the power of his office and weaken the authority of the Israeli Supreme Court. In May 2023, the Biden Administration weighed in against Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken the Israeli constitution raising concerns about “shared democratic values and interest,” and then in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack, Netanyahu replaced the farthest right members of his cabinet and formed a war cabinet with centrist leaders, allowing Biden to pitch US aid to Israel as support for a democracy.
Conflict, chaos, corruption, and militarism.
It may seem strange that we are suggesting that Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Benjamin Netanyahu were ever on the same side when Hamas viciously attacked Israel on October 7. This is not unusual under Putin’s vision of the global chaos he perpetrates. It appears Netanyahu was playing at the authoritarian game of thrones, and he lost. When Donald Trump was in the White House, Netanyahu bragged that he had good relations with Washington and Moscow. He was also in secret and not so secret talks with Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states, and the New York Times reported this month that Netanyahu’s government was working with Qatar to send millions of dollars to Hamas. Netanyahu believed he was “buying quiet” in Gaza, a belief that would crumble when Hamas attacked on October 7.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, failed to win a quick victory, and turned to Iran for supplies of drones and other weapons, Netanyahu was pressured on both sides of the Russia Ukraine war, so he tried to chart a middle path giving the verbal support to Ukraine the Americans wanted to hear from an allied democracy, without sending the advanced air defense system Ukraine was desperately requesting for fear of alienating Putin. But when Hamas attacked southern Israel using many of the same total warfare tactics, targeting civilians, bodies left in the streets, systematic rape as an element of warfare, abductions of elderly women and children, Netanyahu may have felt betrayed by Putin, and he turned back toward the United States and Biden for support.
The indiscriminate bombing of an enemy hiding under densely packed neighborhoods, hospitals, and schools, is unacceptable as a matter of international law and cannot be justified because “Hamas started this” phase of the ongoing war, or because Hamas is wrong to hide among civilians. Israel’s indiscriminate attacks on Gaza are dividing democrats and even pitting some progressives against other progressives. Biden must lead, and in this case doing the right thing and protecting innocent civilians from slaughter, is likely to also be the best for Biden’s political necessities. Biden needs to stand with Israel, not Netanyahu. This requires that he stand up to Putin, Trump, and Netanyahu, and the anti-democratic far right in the United States and in Israel.