President Joe Biden took a sharper tone privately with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than he has publicly during the ongoing conflict between the Jewish state and Hamas.
Biden warned Netanyahu, whom the president has known for 40 years, that he could only ward off criticism of Israel’s Gaza airstrikes temporarily in a phone call Monday, two sources told The New York Times.
The Times said Biden’s tone during the conversation was described as significantly stronger than an official summary released by the White House, which cited Israel’s right to defend itself and did not repeat calls by many congressional Democrats for an immediate cease-fire.
Asked why Biden had not publicly called for a cease-fire, a senior administration official told the Times that doing so could be counterproductive and prolong the violence.
The latest conflict between Israel and Palestinians further complicates the friendship between the two leaders, who have known each other dating back to when Netanyahu was deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and Biden was a young senator with a passion for foreign affairs.
Although friends, the two men rarely have agreed on policies – and now the relationship is as complicated as ever.
Biden, whose longtime view is that personal relationships drive foreign policy, has repeatedly said that his sometimes frustration with Netanyahu’s right-wing policies never ruptured the men’s bond.
The president even said he once sent Netanyahu a photograph with the inscription, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”
Biden’s approach to Israel was formed not only by his relationship with Netanyahu. He often recalls a visit he paid as a 30-year-old senator in the fall of 1973 to then-Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir on the eve of the Yom Kippur War.
Biden has called that “one of the most consequential meetings I’ve ever had in my life,” and added he was shaken by the scale of the threat to Israel.
Biden publicly has backed Israel at a time when many Democrats are not. Progressives have displayed strong support for the Arabs.
Former U.S. officials and Middle East experts say Biden’s approach to Israel has more to do with domestic politics and his broader foreign policy agenda, including nuclear talks with Iran, than is does with the military situation.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is trying to retain support for his country in Washington while also fighting for his political life at home. He has failed in attempts to form a new government, and has been charged with fraud and corruption and could face a significant prison sentence.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin S. Indyk said Biden was trying to get the prime minister to agree to a cease-fire “by making clear publicly that he was in Israel’s corner, that Israel has a right to defend itself, and that he has Netanyahu’s back.”
“That was very important for the moment that has now come, in which he has to turn to Netanyahu and say, ‘Time to wrap it up,'” Indyk told the Times.
The Times said Biden hoped Netanyahu can help him avoid becoming mired in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict with dim prospects of resolution at a time when the administration has been focused on other foreign policy priorities, including climate change and restoring the Iran nuclear deal.
“I think the Biden administration was caught a bit off-guard here,” said Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “It has taken them a few days to mobilize and find their footing.”