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Biden “running out” of patience with Bibi as Gaza war hits 100 days

President Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: Miriam Alster/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden and other senior U.S. officials are becoming increasingly frustrated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rejection of most of the administration’s recent requests related to the war in Gaza, four U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the issue told Axios.

Why it matters: Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack 100 days ago, Biden has given Israel his full backing, with unprecedented military and diplomatic support, even while taking a political hit from part of his base in an election year. That support has largely continued publicly, but behind the scenes, there are growing signs that Biden is losing his patience, the U.S. officials said.

  • “The situation sucks and we are stuck. The president’s patience is running out,” one U.S. official told Axios.
  • “At every juncture, Netanyahu has given Biden the finger,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has been in close contact with U.S. officials about the war, told Axios. “They are pleading with the Netanyahu coalition, but getting slapped in the face over and over again.”

Behind the scenes: Biden hasn’t spoken to Netanyahu in the 20 days since a tense Dec. 23 call, which a frustrated Biden ended with the words: “This conversation is over.” They had spoken almost every other day in the first two months of the war.

  • Before Biden hung up, Netanyahu had rejected his request that Israel release the Palestinian tax revenues it’s withholding.
  • National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby tried to downplay the decrease in communication, telling reporters on Wednesday that “it doesn’t say anything” about the state of the relationship.
  • But more and more signs of irritation are emerging. “There is immense frustration,” a U.S. official said.

State of play: The main driver of Biden’s frustration is Netanyahu’s resistance to moving on requests that are U.S. priorities.

  • In addition to the tax revenue issue, Biden and his advisers believe Israel isn’t doing enough to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.
  • They’re also frustrated by Netanyahu’s unwillingness to seriously discuss plans for the day after the war and his rejection of the U.S. plan for a reformed Palestinian Authority to have a role in post-Hamas Gaza.
  • U.S. officials are now growing increasingly concerned that Israel won’t meet its timetable to transition to low-intensity operations in Gaza by the end of January, based on where things stand in Gaza, particularly in the southern city of Khan Younis.
  • If Israel doesn’t significantly scale down its operations in Gaza — which U.S. officials have been pressing for in hopes of reducing Palestinian casualties — it will likely become increasingly difficult for Biden to maintain the same level of support for Israel’s military campaign.

What they’re saying: Asked about the frustrations, an NSC spokesperson told Axios the administration is “focused on making sure Israel can defend itself from Hamas,” seeking to increase aid to Gaza “to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians” and working with Israel “to secure the release of all the hostages.”

The big picture: Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s visit to Israel last week only exacerbated the frustrations within the White House and the State Department, the U.S. officials who spoke to Axios said.

  • Netanyahu did agree to allow a UN mission to enter northern Gaza to assess the needs for the future return of Palestinian civilians to the area, but that was about all he was willing to give Blinken.
  • Blinken was very blunt with Netanyahu and his War Cabinet, stressing that the Israeli government’s plan for the day after the war is “pie in the sky,” a U.S. official said.
  • Blinken, who pointedly visited Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar before heading to Israel, also told Israeli leaders that “no Arab country is going to bail them out” on the rebuilding and governance of Gaza if Israel doesn’t allow the PA to have a role and doesn’t allow for a political horizon for the Palestinians, the official said.

It became clear to Blinken and his team during their trip that Netanyahu’s refusal to release the Palestinian tax revenues is hampering U.S. efforts to push for reforms in the Palestinian Authority, according to two sources familiar with the secretary of state’s meetings.

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Blinken in Ramallah he was ready to form a new government — at the administration’s request — but stressed it wouldn’t be able to function without money, and the tax revenues are a big part of the budget, the sources said.

What to watch: The Biden administration is trying to change Netanyahu’s calculus by reviving efforts to reach a mega-deal with Saudi Arabia that would include a historic peace deal with Israel.

  • Blinken told Netanyahu that Saudi Arabia still wants normalization after the war ends, but only if Israel commits to the principle of a two-state solution, U.S. and Israeli officials previously told Axios.
  • While admitting it’s “far-fetched” to think Netanyahu could agree to a deal that sets a path towards a Palestinian state, U.S. officials say they want to present an alternative vision to what many fear will be an endless war in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is also thinking long term and keeping the channels open with other political players in Israel.

  • During last week’s visit, Blinken held a separate meeting with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, who domestic polls show would likely handily win an Israeli election if it were held today.
  • Blinken also met with opposition leader Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Netanyahu’s key rival inside the prime minister’s Likud party.

For now, Netanyahu appears “more willing to listen” to the ultranationalist ministers in his government — namely Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich — than to “what the president of the United States says,” Sen. Van Hollen told Axios.

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