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President Biden: Continue Backing Israel, Ignore Netanyahu

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Shai Feldman

It is difficult to see how Netanyahu can survive the approaching day of reckoning for his policies and his career.

Editor’s Note: The following article is an open letter addressed to President Joe Biden.

Dear President Joe Biden,

It is difficult to find the words to describe the extent to which Israelis of all streams are grateful to you. On October 7, 2023, and in the days that followed, the greatest calamity experienced by the Jewish people since the Holocaust, you found the ways and the means to express your empathy and support. In visiting Israel and in the political risks you took in meeting with Israel’s War Cabinet, you confirmed what you said: “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” It was also easy to see how emotionally shaken you were by the horrors and butchery perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 in the communities located close to the Gaza border

Many Israelis also appreciated how, throughout the year that preceded that horrific Saturday, you proved to be even more loyal to the principles and the ethos that brought my parents and grandparents to establish the Jewish and democratic state of Israel than some members and officials of its current government. Thankfully, you reminded us that notwithstanding important strategic and other considerations, at the heart of U.S. support of Israel are the common values that our two nations share. I will be forever grateful for your emphasis on how any measures that may diminish our commitment to justice, the rule of law, and the principles of democratic government threaten our two countries’ “special relations.”

Finally, Mr. President, we are immensely thankful for your insistence that to preserve Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state, ultimately, a Palestinian state would need to be established in the framework of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reminding us of this “inconvenient truth” while also fearlessly battling the most significant rise of anti-Semitism since the end of World War II, you’ve already secured your place in the annals of Jewish history as one of the most consequential supporters of the Jewish people.

Mr. President, I fully understand your frustration with the individuals leading our country at this moment of greatest need. Many of us share your disappointment at their failure to articulate the political objectives that our military response to the October 7 horrors is meant to achieve. I also share your confusion as a result of the often contradictory statements made by our leaders as to what kind of Gaza they expect to emerge in the coming months and years and what role they expect Israel to play in these alternative futures. Equally, we are at least as disappointed as you are by our leaders’ failure to accept even a reformed, revised, improved, and refurbished Palestinian Authority as a legitimate player in Gaza after the desired Hamas defeat.

Notwithstanding our deepest gratitude, I have one very important request: namely, that you keep distinguishing between my fellow Israelis who suffered directly or indirectly from Hamas’ horrific acts on October 7 and our disappointing leaders. I fully understand why you would take exception to objectionable statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—after all, he is Israel’s democratically elected leader. This, however, will not remain so for long. After every significant setback in our country’s history, we thoroughly investigated them and took those responsible to task. After the October 1973 strategic surprise, after the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, and after the failures of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, serious investigations were conducted, and our top military and many among our political leaders at the time were sent home. Yet these failures pale in comparison to the mistakes that made the horrific catastrophe experienced on October 7 possible.

For this reason, Mr. President, I ask that while continuing to support Israel, you ignore what you hear from our prime minister—we’ve already begun to do so. The day of reckoning will come soon, measured in months, not years. Based on the past experiences mentioned, the chance that Netanyahu will survive such a political reckoning is very low. For this reason, his current rejection of Palestinian statehood, his opposition to any role for a reformed and reinvented Palestinian Authority in governing Gaza in the future, and his insistence on indefinite Israeli security control of Gaza will all prove to have very limited shelf-life.

How can we be confident that this reckoning will come soon and that Netanyahu will not escape such reckoning? First, because under his watch, on October 7, Israel suffered the most horrific attack and the greatest and most consequential strategic surprise ever. Second, as the leader of all Israeli coalition governments since 2009, Netanyahu was the architect of a disastrous Israeli strategy that comprised three pillars: (a) A determination that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not a significant factor in Israel’s threat environment and that by contrast, Iran’s growing regional reach and its efforts to develop a nuclear capability comprised a far more critical dimension of this environment; (b) that Israel should bypass the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli conflict and instead focus on resolving the state-to-state, regional dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict through initiatives such as the Abraham Accords; and (c) that Israel should implement a deliberate multi-level effort to undermine any possible emergence of an independent Palestinian state within a two-state solution to the conflict.

An essential pillar of this strategy was the weakening of the Palestinian Authority (PA) by: (a) frequent incursions by Israel’s security forces into areas that came under partial or full control of the PA under the Oslo Accords, thus diminishing the PA’s legitimacy; (b) undermining pragmatic PA officials who led its institution-building and state-building projects, notably Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; and (c) allowing Israeli extremists greater freedom to provoke violence in the West Bank and to violate the status-quo in East Jerusalem, thus exposing the PA’s incapacity to serve as a guardian of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim interests in Jerusalem’s hypersensitive Holy Basin.

At the same time, the same Netanyahu-led Israeli governments strengthened Hamas by (a) supplying Hamas-governed Gaza with all its basic needs, such as fuel, food, water, electricity, and cement; (b) actively lobbying the leaders of Qatar to provide Hamas directly and indirectly with billions of financial support; and (c) agreeing to release over a thousand Palestinian prisoners—including Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind of the October 7 massacre—in the framework of the 2011 Gilead Shalit prisoner exchange deal, thus allowing Hamas to argue persuasively that it can deliver what the PA could not.

These deficiencies of Netanyahu’s long rule were exacerbated when he formed his most recent government some fourteen months ago. By including extremist right-wing elements like the Jewish Power Party, headed by Itamar Ben Gvir, that until then were considered so “beyond the pale” that they were excluded even from previous right-wing governments, Netanyahu took another giant step toward the tearing of Israel’s social fabric. Not surprisingly, these extremist elements now felt that they obtained a “green light” to increase the Jewish presence in the Holy Basin and to harass Palestinian farmers and villagers in the West Bank, at one point launching a pogrom in the West Bank town of Hawara, in response to the murder of two Israelis there.

The resulting deterioration of security in the West Bank has forced Israel’s defense community to divert greater and greater resources to preventing anarchy and chaos there, leaving Israel’s Gaza border area in the southwest increasingly exposed. The deterioration also contributed to the further worsening of Israel’s relations with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, whose 1994 peace treaty with Israel acknowledges its special status in Jerusalem’s Holy Basin. Any escalation in the West Bank immediately elicits Jordanian fear that Palestinians will migrate to the East Bank, thus threatening the kingdom’s “demographic security.”

Another pillar of the reckoning that Netanyahu will face is his responsibility for tearing the Israeli society apart through the so-called “governing reform” that his recent coalition launched in January 2023: attempting to change the distribution of power between Israel’s three branches of government, at the judiciary’s expense. Fearing that the proposed change would jeopardize their country’s democracy, a quarter of a million Israelis (the equivalent of 8.4 million Americans) took to the streets to protest, Saturday after Saturday, for over forty weeks. Spearheading these protests were Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reservists who now became objects of a vicious campaign launched by Netanyahu’s supporters to defame and delegitimize them. When the leaders of Israel’s defense and intelligence communities warned Netanyahu in March 2023 that the reservists’ threat to stop volunteering to serve would seriously damage the IDF’s readiness, their warnings were quickly dismissed by Netanyahu’s associates as “politically motivated.” It would hardly be surprising if Hamas assessed this situation as comprising a “window of opportunity” that must be exploited before it closes.

A final dimension of the reckoning that Netanyahu will face would be his colossal failure to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. For decades, Netanyahu depicted the possibility that Iran would obtain nuclear weapons as an existential threat. He waged a relentless campaign against President Barack Obama’s efforts to delay Iran’s nuclear efforts by negotiating the imperfect Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and he pressed President Donald Trump to abandon the JCPOA without a compelling Plan B to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. Consequently, by mid-2023, U.S. and Israeli senior officials declared that Iran had become a nuclear threshold state.