WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally spoke Friday after a glaring, nearly four-week gap in direct communication during which fundamental differences have come into focus over a possible pathway to Palestinian statehood once the fighting in Gaza ends.
Biden and his top aides have all but smothered Netanyahu with robust support, even in the face of global condemnation over the mounting civilian death toll and humanitarian suffering in Gaza as the Israelis have carried out military operations in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
But the leaders’ relationship has increasingly shown signs of strain as Netanyahu has repeatedly rebuffed Biden’s calls for Palestinian sovereignty, gumming up what the U.S. president believes is the key to unlocking a durable peace in the Middle East — the oft-cited, elusive two-state solution.
Neither side shows signs of budging.
Friday’s phone call came one day after Netanyahu said that he has told U.S. officials in plain terms that he will not support a Palestinian state as part of any post-war plan. Biden, for his part, in Friday’s call reaffirmed his commitment to work toward helping the Palestinians move toward statehood.
“As we’re talking about post-conflict Gaza … you can’t do that without also talking about the aspirations of the Palestinian people and what that needs to look like for them,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
The leaders spoke frequently in the first weeks of the war. But the regular cadence of calls between Biden and Netanyahu, who have had a hot-and-cold relationship for over three decades, has slowed considerably. Their 30- to 40-minute call on Friday was their first conversation since Dec. 23.
Both sides are hemmed in by domestic political considerations.
The chasm between Biden, a center-left Democrat, and Netanyahu, who leads the most conservative government in Israel’s history, has expanded as pressure mounts on the United States to use its considerable leverage to press Israel to wind down a war that has already killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians.
There is also growing impatience with Netanyahu in Israel over the lack of progress in freeing dozens of hostages still held by Islamic militants in Gaza.
“There is certainly a reason to be concerned,” says Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, “The more and more we see political considerations dominating the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu, which is likely to continue because of the upcoming presidential election and the weakness of both leaders, the more we will see them pulling apart.”
In their most recent calls, Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu has grown more evident, even though the U.S. leader has been careful to reaffirm his support for Israel at each step, according to U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss the leaders’ private interactions.
Yet, Biden, at least publicly, has not given up on the idea of winning over Netanyahu. Asked by a reporter on Friday if a two-state solution is impossible while Netanyahu is in office, Biden replied, “No, it’s not.”
Aides insist Biden understands the political box Netanyahu finds himself in with his hard-right coalition and as he deals with ongoing corruption charges that have left the prime minister fighting for his freedom, not just his political future.
Biden, meanwhile, faces American voters in November, in a likely rematch with former President Donald Trump. Netanyahu and Trump forged a close relationship during the Republican’s term in office. Biden faces criticism from some on his left who believe he hasn’t pushed the Israelis hard enough to demonstrate restraint as it carries out military operations.
Key Democratic lawmakers, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, this week warned that Netanyahu’s position on statehood could complicate negotiations in the Senate on a spending package that includes military aid for Israel.
Expect Netanyahu to “use every trick that he has to keep his coalition together and avoid elections and play out the clock,” said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum. ”And I’m sure that part of it is a conviction that if he waits until November, he may end up with Donald Trump back in the Oval Office.”
In recent weeks, some of the more difficult conversations have been left to Ron Dermer, a top aide to Netanyahu and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. The two top aides talk almost daily — sometimes multiple times during a day, according to a U.S. and an Israeli official, who were not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Other senior Biden administration officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as well as senior advisers Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein have been at the forefront of the administration’s push to engage the Israelis, and other Middle East allies, as the Biden-Netanyahu dialogue has become less constructive.
Netanyahu, who has opposed calls for a two-state solution throughout his political career, told reporters this week that he flatly told U.S. officials he remains opposed to any post-war plan that includes establishment of a Palestinian state.
The prime minister’s latest rejection of Biden’s push in that direction came after Blinken this week said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that Israel and its Middle East neighbors had “a profound opportunity” to solve the generational Israel-Palestinian conflict. Asked if he thought Netanyahu was up to making the most of the moment, Blinken demurred.
“Look, these are decisions for Israelis to make,” Blinken said. “This is a profound decision for the country as a whole to make: What direction does it want to take? Does it see – can it seize – the opportunity that we believe is there?”
The Biden-Netanyahu relationship has seen no shortage of peaks and valleys over the years. As vice president, Biden privately criticized Netanyahu after the the Israeli leader embarrassed President Barack Obama by approving the construction of 1,600 new apartments in disputed East Jerusalem in the middle of Biden’s 2010 visit to Israel.
Netanyahu publicly resisted, before eventually relenting to, Biden’s calls on the Israelis to wind down a May 2021 military operation in Gaza. And in late 2019, during a question and answer session with voters on the campaign trail, Biden called Netanyahu an “extreme right” leader.
The path to a two-state solution — one in which Israel would co-exist with an independent Palestinian state — has eluded U.S. presidents and Middle East diplomats for decades.
But as the war grinds on, Biden and his team have pressed the notion that there is a new dynamic in the Middle East in which Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors stand ready to integrate Israel into the region once the war ends but only if Israel commits to a pathway to a Palestinian state.
Biden has proposed that a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank, could run Gaza once combat ends. Netanyahu has roundly rejected the idea of putting the Palestinian Authority, which is beset by corruption, in charge of the territory.
Netanyahu argues that a Palestinian state would become a launchpad for attacks on Israel. So Israel “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River,” Netanyahu said. “That collides with the idea of sovereignty. What can we do?”
White House officials have sought to play down Netanyahu’s public rejection of Biden’s call for a two-state solution, noting that the prime minister’s rhetoric is not new.
They hold out hope Israel could eventually come around to accepting a Palestinian state that comes with strong security guarantees for Israel.
“I don’t think Biden has any illusions about Netanyahu,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the Bill Clinton administration and to Israel under George W. Bush. “But I don’t think he’s ready to slam the door on him. And that’s because he gets the intersection between the policy and the politics.”
AP writers Julia Frankel in Jerusalem and Ellen Knickmeyer, Seung Min Kim, and Colleen Long in Washington contributed reporting.