February 13, 2024

Biden Is Mad at Netanyahu? Spare Me.

An infuriating, thuddingly predictable genre of article has emerged: the “Biden is really upset with Israel behind the scenes” story.

Jack Mirkinson

President Joe Biden answers questions about Israel after speaking about the special counsel’s report in the White House in Washington, D.C., on February 8, 2024.

(Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

The Washington Post published a report on Sunday with a dramatic claim: The relationship between Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu is terrible. From the Post: “President Biden and his top aides are closer to a breach with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than at any time since the Gaza War began, no longer viewing him as a productive partner who can be influenced even in private, according to several people familiar with their internal discussions. The mounting frustration with Netanyahu has prompted some of Biden’s aides to urge him to be more publicly critical of the prime minister over his country’s military operation in Gaza, according to six people familiar with the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.”

“Closer to a breach” than “at any time since the Gaza war began,” you say? “Mounting frustration,” is it? The average reader could only assume that some big shift in the American approach to Israel’s assault on Gaza is on the way.

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Well, let me amend that. The average reader who has never read a single story about Gaza before this Washington Post report could only assume that some big shift in the American approach to Israel’s assault on Gaza is on the way.

The average reader who has been following Gaza coverage for the past few months, however, would recognize what has become one of the more thuddingly predictable and infuriating genres to emerge post–October 7: the “Biden is really mad at Netanyahu behind the scenes” story. There’s a problem with these pieces: They have virtually nothing to do with how Biden has actually handled the war.

Leading outlets have been running these kinds of reports over and over again since Israel’s bombardment began.

  • On November 9, just over one month into the war, ABC News wrote that there was “growing daylight” between Biden and Netanyahu.
  • On November 15, NBC News said that “Biden administration officials are increasingly at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.”
  • On November 16, The Guardian reported that “behind the scenes the tensions are escalating.”
  • On December 14, CNN described “unprecedented tensions” over the war.
  • On December 18, The Hill wrote that the White House was “growing increasingly critical.”
  • On December 21, The Washington Post wrote that Biden and Netanyahu “disagree with growing vehemence” about postwar planning.
  • On December 31, The New York Times reported that things had “grown increasingly fraught” between the two countries.
  • On January 14, Axios reported that Biden was “becoming increasingly frustrated” with Netanyahu.
  • On January 17, NBC News referred to “the Biden administration’s growing frustrations.”
  • On January 19, NPR said that “a rift is deepening” and the AP wrote that “the leaders’ relationship has increasingly shown signs of strain.”
  • On January 24, The Hill wrote that the “relationship…is showing new signs of strain.”
  • On February 8, the Times reported that “relations between the Biden administration and Mr. Netanyahu have become increasingly fraught.”

These stories almost always hit the same beats. A varying cluster of anonymous officials (“multiple administration officials” for the January 17 NBC report, “key American and Israeli officials” for the December 31 Times report, “four U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the issue” for the January 14 Axios report, “19 senior administration officials and outside advisers” for the February 11 Post report) passes along tales of the Biden administration’s off-the-record but nevertheless constantly growing disenchantment with Netanyahu. Maybe they add some comments about Israel reducing the civilian death toll (“We are concerned that they aren’t doing everything possible to reduce civilian casualties,” an “administration official told NBC on November 15; “U.S. leaders…warn that the high levels of civilian casualties are ensuring that a radicalized population will live adjacent to Israel for decades to come,” the Post’s February 11 report claimed). Maybe they allude to a supposedly icy phone call between Netanyahu and Biden or a tense meeting between high-ranking American and Israeli officials (“In their most recent calls, Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu has grown more evident,” the AP’s January 19 piece reports).

And all of them tell us that frustration is spiking, that the fraughtness meter just went up another tick, that the strains just got even more strained, that the breach that was already breached is now extra-breached. Judging by these accounts, Biden must be reaching the outer limits as to how ticked off, out of patience, and tense a person can be without combusting. But anyone who has paid even a modest amount of attention to what is really happening can see right through this stuff. Only the press seems taken in.

In the real world, Israel’s slaughter has continued unabated. On November 9, when ABC News swore that there was “growing daylight” between Biden and Netanyahu, at least 10,812 people had been killed in Gaza. By February 8, when the Times asserted that things had become “increasingly fraught” between Biden and Netanyahu, at least 27,840 people had been killed in Gaza.

In the real world, Biden and his legislative partners have continued to arm Israel; the Democratic leadership in the Senate actually brought people in on Super Bowl Sunday to take a vote on a bill that would, along with rearming Ukraine, send Israel another $14.1 billion for what is euphemistically dubbed “security assistance.”

In the real world, Biden has blocked moves for a permanent cease-fire at the United Nations and refuses to put any public pressure on Israel to help implement one. The Times reported on Friday that in a meeting specifically designed to ease tensions between the White House and the Arab American community in Michigan, Biden aides “declined to say whether they had advised or would advise the president to call for a cease-fire, which attendees asked for.” (“You’re not going to get that answer,” one official said.)

In the real world, Biden has refused to put any conditions on military aid to Israel. Last week, Biden issued a presidential order “authorizing a swift cutoff of military aid to countries that violate international protections of civilians,” as the AP put it. Democrats raced to frame the order as historic and powerful (“This is a sea-change in terms of how you approach U.S. military aid and its impact on civilians,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said). Biden’s press secretary immediately clarified that this did not mean that aid to Israel would be suspended, that the US was “not imposing new standards for military aid,” and that Israel had assured the White House that it was committed to the protection of civilians.

Some of these “Biden is definitely truly even angrier than we already said he was the last 15 times” pieces have the decency to acknowledge this reality; Sunday’s Post piece, for instance, admits in the sixth paragraph that “For now, the White House has rejected calls to withhold military aid to Israel or impose conditions on it, saying that would only embolden Israel’s enemies.” Many don’t even do that. And they all help the White House pretend that “being mad on a phone call” or “ making a broad and vaguely critical statement at a press conference” is somehow as important as giving Israel weapons that it is openly using to massacre as many people as possible.

As I have written previously, there is no other area of life in which the person supplying weapons that he knows will be used to commit mass violence would be taken seriously if his buddies told reporters that he was privately unhappy about the whole thing. Only American foreign policy gets that kind of pass. Even Biden’s statement that he holds other countries that ship weapons responsible for the violence those weapons are used for is seemingly not enough to curb this narrative.

Now, as Netanyahu plans for what is bound to be a catastrophic ground invasion of Rafah—the area that was supposed to be the “safe zone” for civilians—Biden is once again signaling his discontent while doing nothing to stop Israel’s machinery of death from churning on. There will be many more opportunities for reporters to abandon the idea that Biden is exerting any kind of meaningful check on Israel. If they want to really hold Biden to account—rather than help the White House peddle the same hollow fantasy over and over—they should get started now.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a senior editor at The Nation and cofounder of Discourse Blog.

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