Netanyahu defiant after Biden warning on arms supplies to Israel

By Thomson Reuters May 10, 2024 | 11:23 AM

By James Mackenzie

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s warning to Israel that he could withhold some arms supplies has shaken Israelis used to relying on their main ally at a time when the country faces widening political splits and growing isolation over the war in Gaza.

Biden threatened on Wednesday to halt supplies of bombs and artillery shells if Israeli forces go ahead with a full-scale assault on the southern Gazan city of Rafah, which is packed with Palestinians uprooted by Israel’s war on Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wartime coalition have reacted defiantly, saying Israel will press ahead with its campaign to dismantle the Palestinian militant group as Israeli tanks mass on the eastern edge of Rafah.

Opinion polls show most Israelis blame Netanyahu for the security failures when Hamas gunmen rampaged through Israeli communities around Gaza on Oct. 7 and would vote him out if there were an election, but many also say the war must continue.

“There are some things that we have to sometimes make a decision and say, even without the support of our allies or the support of other countries, it has to be done because we have to protect our citizens,” said Danny Ehrlich, an Israeli who grew up in New York and now lives near Jerusalem.

But alongside the support, pressure has been growing on Netanyahu from the considerable number of Israelis who believe he is putting his own political survival ahead of the interests of the country.

Mass street protests have become weekly events, drawing tens of thousands demanding the government do more to bring home hostages seized by Hamas in Oct. 7 and calling for Netanyahu to go.

For the moment, he has succeeded in holding together centrists such as former army generals Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. All three have been wary of alienating the United States and hardline nationalist religious parties led by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

But many Israelis feel coalition survival has been achieved at the expense of disrespecting Biden, who has supported Israel despite a growing domestic political cost before November’s presidential election in which he will face former President Donald Trump in a rerun of the 2020 election.

“Biden is a true friend of Israel. He’s given us a crazy amount of backing – and we haven’t known how to use it correctly,” columnist Itamar Eichner wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest newspaper.

“Now the administration in Washington is convinced Netanyahu has put all his cards on Trump, so he’s trying to minimize damage ahead of November elections.”


Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said support for Israel, a traditionally bi-partisan issue in American politics, now risked becoming a touchstone test of political allegiance like immigration control.

“In a presidential election year where the economy is not a major issue, where everyone is looking for issues, now they’ve got one,” he said.

The Israeli campaign in Gaza, which began after the Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas-led gunmen killed some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted more than 250, has now killed almost 35,000 Palestinians. About 2 million people also face a humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

Biden’s warning followed months of frustration for Washington, whose calls for restraint have been repeatedly rejected even as the political price it was paying for supporting Israel was growing.

The wave of pro-Palestinian protests that have hit college campuses in the U.S. appear to underline a growing disconnect between the administration and many young voters who might normally be expected to support a Democratic president.

Trump, considered by many one of Israel’s strongest supporters after he ordered the U.S. embassy to be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv when he was president, has also been critical of Netanyahu’s handling of the war.

Although many on the right believe he will allow Israel a freer hand if he wins back the presidency, others say risking the support of an avowed friend of Israel is a big gamble.

“Of course we are afraid,” said Kamar, a Tel Aviv resident who has been a regular at the anti-government protests. “What can we do? It’s not just the state. Look at all the world. Israelis are afraid to go as tourists anywhere now.”

“The chutzpah of some of the ministers to go against the most Zionist president of the United States ever is unbelievable.”

(Additional reporting by Christope Van Der Perre and Emily Rose, Editing by Timothy Heritage)