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The Biden Administration and Israel

by Mitchell Bard
(2021 - 2024)

Joe Biden previewed his Middle East policy throughout the 2020 campaign. He promised to reverse many of the policies adopted by his predecessor, and, in his first 100 days as president, Biden began to make good on many of his pledges, so there were no major surprises. Some advocates for Israel were leery of Biden’s commitment to Israel and worried he would revert to policies they found objectionable by President Obama. Erstwhile allies like Peter Beinart had the opposite concern, calling Biden’s record on Israel “alarming” and worrying he would restore the pre-Obama pro-Israel Democratic consensus on Israel.

Appointments
Iran
Foreign Aid and Strategic Cooperation
Peace Process
The Abraham Accords
The UN
International Criminal Court
Regional Policy
Fighting Anti-Semitism
Gaza Violence
Reaffirming Democratic Support For Israel
Meeting Bennett
A Visit and a Provocation
Biden In Israel
Shireen Abu Akleh Killing
The “Biden Doctrine”
Biden and Bibi
Biden Gets More Involved In Israel’s Internal Affairs
Long Awaited Biden-Netanyahu Meeting
The Gaza War
Escalating Tensions
Betrayal?

Appointments

Not surprisingly, Biden hired many former officials from the Obama administration and other experienced foreign policy hands. Despite his pledge of bipartisanship, he appointed no Republicans to senior positions. Abe Silberstein noted that “Biden filled key foreign policy roles with people critical of both Israeli policy and certain American foreign policy principles that favor Israel” who are “all highly qualified to serve in their roles,” but many “are not particularly known for their background on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and “not expected to change the general policy direction of the administration, which is moderate and generally attentive to Israel’s concerns.” On the other hand, some of the appointments, he said, “sent an important signal to younger and more progressive generations of Democratic policy aides and advisors: Don’t be afraid that good faith advocacy for justice and human rights will be seen as a professional liability down the line.”

Biden has appointed several Jews, including at least two children of Holocaust survivors, to the cabinet and senior positions. Those likely to have input on Middle East policy include Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellin, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and CIA Deputy Director David Cohen. He appointed Jews as ambassadors of Argentina, Japan, Singapore, Belgium, the EU, Canada, and India. Most importantly, he chose a pro-Israel Jew, Thomas Nides, as ambassador to Israel.

One indication of the administration’s efforts to mend fences with Arabs and Muslims in the United States and abroad was to declare April “Arab American Heritage Month.” More significant has been his appointment of Arabs, Muslims, and supporters of the Palestinians. He also chose individuals involved in negotiating and supporting the Iran nuclear deal. Several of his picks attracted criticism from the pro-Israel community, primarily from people and organizations to the right of the mainstream. The controversial choices include:

  • Reema Dodin as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. She will be the most senior Palestinian-American woman ever serving in the executive branch. Her past involvement as a Palestinian student activist alarmed some Israel supporters.
  • Hady Amr as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He served as a Fellow at the Brookings’ Doha Center for Qatar.
  • Robert Malley as U.S. Special Envoy on Iran. He has been a frequent critic of Israel and a vocal supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. In 2023, he was suspended and investigated for misuse of classified documents.
  • Colin Kahl was appointed Undersecretary of Defense. He is another supporter of the Iran deal.
  • Samantha Power as head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Power was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the UN and a harsh critic of Israel.
  • Wendy Sherman as Deputy Secretary of State. Sherman negotiated and continues to support the Iran deal.
  • Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser. Sullivan was involved in initiating secret talks with the Iranians.
  • Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence. She signed a letter urging the Democratic Party to change its platform to include language opposing settlement expansion and occupation and supporting Palestinian rights.
  • Maher Bitar as senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council. Bitar, a Palestinian American, was on the board of the anti-Zionist group Students for Justice for Palestine.
  • Former Secretary of State John Kerry as White House special envoy on climate. Though not directly involved in Israel-related issues, he was a vitriolic critic of Israel and negotiator of the Iran deal in the Obama administration.
  • In May 2022, Karine Jean-Pierre was appointed as press secretary. She raised concerns because of her 2019 call for Democratic Party presidential candidates to boycott the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

In his book, Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future, Franklin Foer wrote that “Biden came from a different generation than his foreign policy team....He grew up in a world where most Americans, especially liberals, regarded Israel as both a historical miracle and a sympathetic underdog.”

Iran

For Israel, the number one, two, and three most important issues are the threats from Iran. Biden was unequivocal throughout his campaign that he intended to return to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), which was signed while he was vice president and which he has vigorously defended. He said, for example:

  • “I have no illusions about the challenges the regime in Iran poses to America’s security interests, to our friends and partners, and to its own people. But there is a smart way to be tough on Iran.”
  • “I will make an unshakeable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
  • “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
  • “We will continue to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region…. America will also work closely with Israel to ensure it can defend itself against Iran and its proxies. We will continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran’s human rights abuses, its support for terrorism, and ballistic missile program.”
  • “If Iran chooses confrontation, I am prepared to defend our vital interests and our troops. But, I am ready to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran takes steps to show it is ready too.”

Supporters of the deal, especially progressive Democrats, urged him to quickly ease sanctions on Iran and rejoin the JCPOA. Critics, including the Israeli government, cautioned against concessions to Iran. Instead of returning to what they consider a loophole-filled agreement Iran never complied with, they insisted Biden retain sanctions until Iran agrees to a tougher deal that would include restrictions on Iran’s sponsorship of terror, ballistic missile development, and malign regional activities.

As a first step, the P5+1, the United StatesGermanyFrance, the United KingdomChina, and Russia agreed to convene a meeting in Vienna on April 6, 2021, to discuss how to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance.

During the Vienna talks, the United States and Iran agreed through intermediaries to establish a working group to discuss the lifting of sanctions imposed by President Trump. A second working group will focus on how to get Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the news by noting that “history has taught us that agreements like this with extremist regimes are worth as much as garlic peel.” He also warned the negotiators that Israel would not be bound by “an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction.”

He added, “Today we have a state, we have the power to defend ourselves, and we have the natural and full right as the sovereign state of the Jewish people to protect ourselves from our enemies.”

Early reports suggested that Robert Malley, who is leading the negotiations, is prepared to offer what Michael Hirsh called “a Goldilocks-style deal: just enough sanctions relief so Iran will return to the pact but not so much that it would leave Biden vulnerable to attacks from hard-liners at home, including those in his own party who oppose any concessions at all to Iran.”

The administration has discussed removing sanctions that went beyond those originally associated with the JCPOA, which, Hirsh says, Trump added as “poison pills” to prevent Biden from returning to the agreement.

Hirsh noted that the sanctions Trump imposed on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Co., and the National Iranian Tanker Co. “would invalidate the deal’s effects because these companies would be banned from international commerce” and deny the Iranians the revenues they need. Moreover, he said, removing sanctions on the central bank would be politically risky because it supplies funds to Hezbollah and Hamas. Nevertheless, reports indicated the administration was considering lifting sanctions on all three and those on steel, aluminum, textiles, autos, shipping, and insurance.

David Pollock of the Washington Institute observed that the good news is that “unlike the Obama administration that most of them were previously part of,” Biden’s team “seems focused almost as much on Iran’s non-nuclear activities as on its nuclear ones.” He said the bad news is that “their actual policy toward those non-nuclear challenges are mostly carrots with few sticks. “The result, no doubt unwittingly, is that the U.S. is emboldening and empowering Iran on the Mideast regional level, rather than containing it.”

On April 9, 2021, the intelligence community published its Annual Threat Assessment. It concluded that Iran “is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.” It also said:

Iran will present a continuing threat to U.S. and allied interests in the region as it tries to erode U.S. influence and support Shia populations abroad, entrench its influence and project power in neighboring states, deflect international pressure, and minimize threats to regime stability. Although Iran’s deteriorating economy and poor regional reputation present obstacles to its goals, Tehran will try a range of tools—diplomacy, expanding its nuclear program, military sales, and acquisitions, and proxy and partner attacks—to advance its goals. We expect that Iran will take risks that could escalate tensions and threaten U.S. and allied interests in the coming year.

Meanwhile, hostilities were escalating between Israel and Iran as they attacked each other’s ships, and an explosion, widely blamed on Israel, occurred at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility. Afterward, Shane Harris noted, “in a sign of how rapidly intelligence may be overtaken by events, hours before the report’s public release, a senior Iranian official announced a significant jump in the country’s enrichment of uranium [from 20 percent] to 60 percent purity.

The disclosure of Israel’s attacks on Iranian ships was apparently the result of a leak from the administration. “In doing this,” Professor Eytan Gilboa argued, “Biden signaled that even if negotiations fail, he will not countenance an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and opposes an Israeli military strike. As it did in 2015, the U.S. administration is tacitly reassuring Iran that it need have no fear of a military attack. Because it has received this reassurance, Tehran will feel free to take tougher positions in the negotiations.”

To counter concerns the administration is contemplating easing sanctions before Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East, told Jewish American leaders on April 23, 2021, “Until we get somewhere and until we have a firm commitment, and it’s very clear that Iran’s nuclear program is going to be capped, the problematic aspects reversed and back in a box, we are not going to take any of the pressure off.” He said the administration is “not going to pay anything upfront just to get a process going. We have to see from the Iranians a fundamental commitment and agreement to put their nuclear program back in a box that we can fully inspect and observe.”

McGurk added: “We have worked with the Israelis every day in the security realm, in terms of their freedom of action - protecting themselves - as something fundamental to us...There is no disagreement on where we want to go - Iran can never get a nuclear weapon, period. There’s some disagreement about the kind of tactics you might use to get there. But we agree on a lot more than we disagree.”

While negotiations continued, Iran upped the ante by enriching uranium to 63% purity.

After meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021, Blinken said, “We’ll continue to strengthen all aspects of our longstanding partnership. And that includes consulting closely with Israel, as we did today, on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna around a potential return to the Iran nuclear agreement, at the same time as we continue to work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.”

In his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Biden said the U.S. would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and that if diplomacy failed, he was “ready to turn to other options.”

Not long after, Blinken said time was running out for Iran to return to the nuclear accord. “I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved.”

Meanwhile, the IAEA said Iran still was not cooperating with the agency. It would not explain uranium traces found at undeclared sites or provide access to monitoring equipment. “Without such monitoring and so-called continuity of knowledge,” Reuters noted, “Iran could produce and hide unknown quantities of this equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons or reactor fuel.”

In his September 2021 speech to the UN, Biden reiterated, “The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.” He added, “We are working with the P5+1 to engage Iran diplomatically and seek a return to the JCPOA. We’re prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same.”

Negotiations for the U.S. to return to the nuclear deal continued into February 2022 without any indication Iran was prepared to comply with the terms of the agreement. Nevertheless, on February 4, the Biden administration agreed to restore waivers that will exempt Chinese, Russian, and European companies that work on civilian projects at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, its Arak heavy water plant, and the Tehran Research Reactor from American penalties. The Trump administration originally approved the waivers but rescinded them in May 2020.

State Department spokesman Ned Price claimed this was not “sanctions relief.” He tweeted the U.S. will not provide relief “until/unless Tehran returns to its commitments under the JCPOA.” He added, “We did precisely what the last administration did: permit our international partners to address growing nuclear nonproliferation and safety risks in Iran.”

In a phone call two days later, Biden sought to reassure Prime Minister Bennett that he was committed to Israel’s security and recognized the regional threat posed by Iran and its proxies. While Bennett thanked the president for his support, he later told the Israeli cabinet the agreement being negotiated in Vienna “will damage the ability to deal with the nuclear program. Whoever thinks that an agreement will increase stability – is mistaken. It will temporarily delay enrichment, but all of us in the region will pay a heavy, disproportionate price for it.”

By early 2023, the Biden administration indicated a deal with Iran was off the table. At the same time, the United States was holding joint military exercises with Israel to send a message to Iran about the capabilities of the two countries together and individually. 

The urgency of preparing for a potential military operation was highlighted by the revelation in February 2023 that Iran had uranium enriched to 84%, just below the 90% needed for a weapon. Iran now has sufficient uranium to fuel multiple bombs and could produce enough fissile material for a bomb in about 12 days. Even more alarming, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on March 23, 2023, “From the time of an Iranian decision…Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, and would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.” This estimate for the time to build a weapon was alarming, as others have consistently said it could take a year or more. 

In testimony before Congress in March 2023, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen acknowledged that “the toughest possible sanctions on Iran” had not changed its behavior. “Sometimes a regime is so committed to a program, that even when the population of that country is suffering immensely because of sanctions we’ve imposed, they continue to prioritize activities that are the ones we’re trying to stop,” she explained.

Meanwhile, tensions escalated when an Iranian suicide drone hit a coalition base in northeast Syria on March 23, 2023, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding five U.S. service members and one U.S. contractor. The U.S. responded with airstrikes in eastern Syria against facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)

In August 2023, the United States and Iran reached an agreement to exchange the freedom of five Iranian-American dual citizens held hostage by the regime for several jailed Iranians and eventual access to about $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue. According to the New York Times, the money will be drawn from assets frozen in South Korea and placed into an account in Qatar’s central bank. The account will be controlled by the government of Qatar, which is supposed to ensure it is used only for humanitarian purchases such as medicine and food. Critics pointed out that since money is fungible, the windfall frees money from the Iranian budget that can be used for more nefarious purposes.

After another series of drone and rocket attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq, airstrikes were carried out against Iranian targets in those countries. On October 27, 2023, the U.S. Air Force struck targets in eastern Syria. That was followed by an additional 22 attacks targeting U.S. bases, prompting another USAF strike on a weapons warehouse used by the IRGC on November 9.

See also Biden Contemplates New Iran DealIran Continues to Advance Nuclear Program and Military Options Against Iran.

Foreign Aid and Strategic Cooperation

Fulfilling a campaign promise to restore aid to the Palestinians cut off by President Trump, President Biden announced plans to provide the Palestinians with $290 million in assistance.

At the end of March 2021, the administration announced it was providing $15 million in coronavirus assistance and another $75 million in aid for infrastructure, health, and civil society groups. At the beginning of April, the administration informed lawmakers that it would give the Palestinians $40 million for law enforcement and security and another $10 million for peacebuilding programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Some members of Congress said providing aid violated the Taylor Force Act, which prohibits U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it ends its pay-to-slay policy of providing stipends to terrorists in Israeli jails and the families of suicide bombers. Secretary of State Tony Blinken denied this, “President Biden was actually in Israel about a mile and a half from Taylor Force when he was murdered,” Blinken said, “and he spoke out about that immediately and has been a forceful advocate for doing justice by Taylor Force and making sure that we are making good on the obligations that we have under the Taylor Force Act.”

Testifying before Congress on May 31, 2023. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said, “We are working to bring pay-to-slay to an end. Period.” She added, “We abhor prisoner payments, and we have raised these concerns repeatedly to the Palestinian leadership.”

When asked if the administration had succeeded, Leaf replied, “not yet.” In response to a question about whether U.S. aid violated the Taylor Force Act, Leaf insisted, “We are fully compliant with the Taylor Force Act. No money goes to the Palestinian authority.”

The State Department also announced the resumption of support for UNRWA. The department said the contribution of $150 million to the agency was needed for UNRWA services. It also justified the policy reversal by stating, “the United States needs to be at the table to ensure that the reforms advance efficiencies and are in accord with our interests and values.”

Contradicting the State Department’s claim that the aid aligns with the interests of our allies, Israel’s foreign ministry said of the aid to UNRWA, “Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution.” Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, was more explicit: “I have expressed my disappointment and objection to the decision to renew UNRWA’s funding without first ensuring that certain reforms, including stopping the incitement and removing anti-Semitic content from its educational curriculum, are carried out.”

An administration official subsequently said: “UNWRA has made clear their rock-solid commitments to the United States on the issues of transparency, accountability, and neutrality in all its operations... And what neutrality means in the context of the United Nations is zero tolerance for racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.”

UNRWA has made and failed to deliver on similar promises in the past. As a result, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in April 2021 condemning the organization for teaching hate and violence in PA schools. UNRWA ignored similar resolutions adopted the year before, and Norway became the first EU nation that voted to cut financial assistance to the agency because of the anti-Semitic and violent content of its educational materials. 

In July 2021, UNRWA signed an agreement agreeing to American terms, and the administration transferred $135 million to the agency.

The resumption of aid also came despite a Government Accountability Office report that found the U.S. government had not adequately vetted all of its Palestinian funding recipients for U.S. anti-terrorism criteria as required by law.

Following Operation Guardian of the Wall, Blinken announced $38 million in additional aid to the Palestinians, including $5.5 million in emergency assistance for Gaza and another $35 million for UNRWA. That brought total U.S. assistance to the Palestinians under the Biden administration to more than $360 million.

The Biden administration remained committed to providing aid to Israel as agreed to in the 10-year $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the United States and Israel in 2016. In May 2021, the administration agreed to a weapons transfer worth $735 million consisting mainly of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMS, kits that transform “dumb” bombs into precision-guided missiles. Boeing will provide the weapons.

In November 2021, the Department of Defense established the U.S.-Israel Operations Technology Working Group (OTWG) to strengthen defense, science, and tech cooperation between the department and Israel’s Ministry of Defense to address mission challenges.

A month later, the U.S. and Israel signed a $2 billion deal to purchase 12 Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky helicopters to replace the Yasur helicopters currently in operation. Under a second agreement worth $1 billion, Israel will acquire two Boeing KC-46 refueling aircraft.

In addition to military hardware, the United States has been expanding joint military exercises with Israel.

In August 2022, the Department of the Treasury and the Israeli Ministry of Finance of the State of Israel announced the finalization of a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding on Cybersecurity  Cooperation to deepen cooperation on cybersecurity to protect the integrity of the international financial system.

Peace Process

If the Palestinians and peace process advocates hoped the resumption of aid was an indication of interest in quickly jumping into a new push for a two-state solution, they were disappointed. “Aside from taking a few small steps to reorient the U.S. position away from the heavily pro-Israel tilt it took under Trump — including restoring some modest aid to the Palestinians — Biden and his team are signaling the conflict is simply not a priority,” Nahal Toosi observed in Politico.

Biden did not speak to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even though he had spoken to Netanyahu, until he began behind-the-scenes negotiations to bring about an end to fighting in May 2021. According to media reports, Abbas rejected an earlier offer of a call from Blinken, saying he wanted to hear from the U.S. president directly.

It was no surprise since he also had telegraphed his position during the campaign that Biden did not reverse Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. When he restored the aid programs, the Palestinians and their supporters were upset that he did not reopen the consulate in Jerusalem that had served essentially as the U.S. embassy to the Palestinian Authorityconsulate in Jerusalem that had served essentially as the U.S. embassy to the Palestinian Authority when he restored the aid programs.

In May 2021, Blinken said the consulate would reopen despite the objection of Israel, which opposed reopening it within sovereign Israel. Following a meeting with Abbas, he declared, “The aspirations of the Palestinian people are like those of people everywhere.” The United States is committed, he said, “to working with the Palestinian people to realize these aspirations.”

Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, have introduced legislation to prevent the move. By November 2021, the Senate bill had 38 cosponsors, and more than 100 had signed onto a similar House bill. Earlier, all but five House Republicans signed a letter to the president opposing the consulate’s reopening.

He also did not meet their expectation that he would reopen the PLO office in Washington, a move facing legal obstacles because of congressional legislation exposing Palestinian officials to U.S. anti-terror lawsuits. The law makes the Palestinians liable for $655.5 million in financial penalties against them in U.S. courts if they open an office in the United States.

The administration upset Israelis and Palestinians with changes to the State Department’s annual human rights reports. Toosi noted, “Under Trump, that report’s references to the occupation were cut; Biden aides brought back the reference, but primarily in what were historical statements or statements attributable to entities other than the United States. The Biden administration also did not revert to the pre-Trump title of the Israeli-Palestinian section: “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” Instead, it stuck with “Israel, West Bank and Gaza.”

When asked about the language in the report, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “It is a historical fact that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war.”

This position is seen as problematic by Israel and its supporters because the more accurate description is that the West Bank and Gaza are disputed areas.

Another shift toward the Obama approach that Israel and its advocates feared is the renewed expressions of evenhandedness that equate the actions of a democratic state, Israel, with a non-state run by an authoritarian regime (there was an election, but PA President Abbas is now in the 16th year of his four-year term). This was typified by several statements urging Israelis and Palestinians to avoid actions that threaten the possibility of a two-state solution. This was a thinly veiled warning to Israel regarding settlements. Biden made no secret during his campaign that opposed any expansion of settlements or annexation of territory.

The first confrontation over settlements occurred in October 2021 after Israel invited bids to construct 1,355 housing units in the West Bank. “We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government’s plan to advance thousands of settlement units, many of them deep in the West Bank,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution…. We also view plans for the retroactive legalization of illegal outposts as unacceptable.”

Reporters at State Department briefings have tried to coax the spokesperson to indicate whether Biden supports policies implemented by President Trump. For example, a reporter asked if the administration regards Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, whether Americans born in Jerusalem can list Israel as their country of birth, whether a two-state solution would result in Palestinians having a capital in East Jerusalem, and whether the U.S. recognized the Golan Heights. Spokesperson Ned Price’s answer to all the questions was, “There’s been no change in our position.”

In another briefing, Price was asked if the administration believes settlement activity hurts prospects for a two-state solution. “We believe when it comes to settlement activity that Israel should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. That includes the annexation of territory. That includes settlement activity.” Then, to reflect the new evenhandedness, he added, “We’ve been equally clear when it comes to the potential actions of the Palestinians, whether that is incitement to violence, providing compensation for individuals in prison for acts of terrorism. That, too, moves us further away from a two-state solution.”

While Price was justified in saying the pursuit of a two-state solution is consistent with the interests of the United States, he went further and claimed it was also “consistent with the values and the interests of Israelis and also Palestinians.” This echoes the Arabist view that the United States, not the citizens of Israel, knows what’s best for Israel.

In a speech before the UN in September 2021, Biden said:

The commitment of the United States to Israel’s security is without question. And a support — our support for an independent, Jewish state is unequivocal. But I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel — Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign, and democratic Palestinian state. We’re a long way from that goal at this moment, but we must never allow ourselves to give up on the possibility of progress.

Notably, however, Biden refused to meet with Abbas when he was at the UN. The administration was angered several weeks later when Abbas met with Vladimir Putin and told the Russian president the Palestinians do not trust America and that the U.S. can’t mediate on its own between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. His comment came a week after Hussein al-Sheikh was hosted at the White House by national security adviser Jake Sullivan. According to Barak Ravid, “It was the first official visit by a Palestinian official to Washington since December 2017 when the Palestinian president decided to boycott the White House after Trump announced he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

The Abraham Accords

One concern of Biden’s critics was that he was not enthusiastic about building on the Abraham Accords negotiated by his predecessor. The biggest “prize” would be establishing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, Biden’s decision to recalibrate U.S. ties with the kingdom complicated the issue. The U.S. posture toward Saudi Arabia and Iran is also driving the Saudis and Israelis closer together, though not to the point of formal diplomatic relations.

In October 2021, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly discussed the possibility of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis said several steps would have to be taken first, including improving U.S.-Saudi bilateral relations. Previously, the Saudis had said progress would have first to be made toward creating a Palestinian state. 

Biden’s decision to reconsider the sale of F-15s to the UAE also raised alarms, and there was some concern a refusal to go through with the transfer might undermine the accords. In April 2021, the administration decided to go ahead with the sale, but some members of Congress still hoped to block it.

The president was also pressured to reverse Trump’s recognition of the Moroccan government’s claim to the Western Sahara, which was part of the negotiations that encouraged Morocco to restore ties with Israel. Critics like R. Joseph Huddleston, Harshana Ghoorhoo, and Daniela A. Maquera Sardon say Trump’s action was contrary to U.S. and international policy toward the longstanding conflict in the area and “demonstrates that U.S. foreign-policy now favors power over law and unilateral action over cooperation” and would allow other occupiers to expand their territories in contravention of international law.

According to Nicolas Niarchos, “Morocco has reportedly held off on implementing the deal with Israel and is waiting to see whether the new Administration adheres to the Trump-era plan to open an American consulate in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla, viewing it as a bellwether of U.S. intentions.”

Blinken has tried to reassure Israel and its supporters of the administration’s commitment to building on the Abraham Accords, saying in April 2021, “The United States welcomes and supports the recent normalization agreements,” adding, “We will continue to urge more countries to normalize relations with Israel – and will look for other opportunities to expand cooperation among countries in the region. As a result, I expect Israel’s group of friends to grow even wider in the year ahead.”

To further reinforce the administration’s commitment to the agreement, a ceremony was held on September 17, 2021, to mark the first anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Israeli foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash, and Bahraini Ambassador Rashid bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa. A few weeks later, Blinken, Lapid, and new UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met and agreed to create trilateral working groups on religious coexistence and water and energy.

Meanwhile, the administration has reportedly been in touch with other countries regarding the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel.

In November 2021, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry reportedly worked with the UAE to facilitate an agreement between Jordan, Israel, and the UAE to construct a solar power plant in Jordan by a UAE company. Israel agreed to purchase electricity from the plant for a new Israeli desalination plant that will send water to Jordan.

In June 2023, Blinken announced the State Department was creating a new position to “further our diplomacy and engagement with governments, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, all working toward a more peaceful and a more connected region in order to achieve significant historic progress to deepen and broaden the Abraham Accords, building on the work of the Trump administration.”

In response to news reports regarding the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Blinken said that the U.S. has “a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” He added, “We have no illusions that this can be done quickly or easily. But we remain committed to working toward that outcome, including on the trip that I’m about to take this week to Jeddah and Riyadh for engagements with our Saudi and Gulf counterparts.”

In July 2023, however, Biden threw cold water on the idea that progress was being made. “Quite frankly, I don’t think they have much of a problem with Israel,” Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “And whether or not we would provide a means by which they could have civilian nuclear power and/or be a guarantor of their security, that’s – I think that’s a little way off.”

Biden appointed former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro to serve as the administration’s point person on the Abraham Accords and deepen Israel’s integration into the Middle East. The position at the State Department was created following a resolution to do so that received overwhelming support in the House of Representatives.

A day earlier, Blinken said in reference to tensions with the Palestinians, “We told our friends and allies in Israel that if there’s a fire burning in their backyard, it’s going to be a lot tougher, if not impossible, to actually both deepen the existing agreements, as well as to expand them, to include potentially Saudi Arabia.”

The UN

The United States fiercely defended Israel throughout Trump’s term and did not allow anti-Israel measures to be adopted in the Security Council. Critics worried that Biden might revert to Obama’s position, which culminated in a controversial abstention on Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements.

Biden’s Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the Security Council in March 2021 that the Biden administration would stand by Israel, especially if it was singled out, and said the Security Council should discuss threats to international peace and security. She reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution and, returning to a pre-Trump policy of evenhandedness, declared that both sides should take concrete steps toward the two-state formula and avoid unilateral actions, including settlement construction, demolition, violence, and incitement. Thomas-Greenfield also announced the administration’s intent to reopen diplomatic channels with the Palestinians.

In another reversal of Trump policies, the administration initially announced its intent to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council as an observer. The Trump team considered the HRC a “cesspool of political bias” where Israel is regularly condemned by council members who are among the worst human rights abusers and whose own actions, along with those of other serial human rights violators, are ignored. Mark Cassayre, Biden’s representative in Geneva, explained the justification for the policy change: “We know that this body has the potential to be an important forum for those fighting tyranny and injustice around the world. By being present at the table, we seek to ensure it can live up to that potential.”

In a first test of whether the U.S. would have any influence on the Council following Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Wall in Gaza, the HRC voted on May 27, 2021, 24 to 9, with 14 abstentions, to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate possible war crimes and other abuses committed in Israel and the disputed territories. No mention was made of Hamas, which precipitated the fighting, or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was also responsible for indiscriminately firing more than 4,000 rockets into Israel.

The U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva said: “The United States deeply regrets today’s decision by the Human Rights Council to establish an open-ended Commission of Inquiry into the recent violence between Israel and the Palestinians...We all should be working to find real solutions to help the Palestinian people and ensuring that terrorist organizations, including Hamas, do not exploit the situation on the ground, including by indiscriminate firing of rockets, to further their own destructive aims. The actions of the Human Rights Council today do not contribute to peace…. We will continue to advocate for Israel to be treated fairly in the Human Rights Council.”

In November 2021, the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee passed draft resolutions adopted annually to condemn Israel. U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills said: “We are disappointed that Member States continue to disproportionally single out Israel. For this reason, the United States strongly opposes the annual submission of a package of resolutions biased against Israel…. One-sided resolutions like those introduced here today only distract from the real efforts to achieve peace. This effort will only be strengthened when the bias of the United Nations against Israel ends.”

In a reversal of the previous administration’s position, the United States abstained on a resolution regarding assistance to Palestinian refugees that affirms the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel. This had been Obama’s position as well. Mills explained that the United States believes UNRWA provides “a vital lifeline to millions of Palestinians across the region” and had already provided more than $318 million to the agency. He said, “We were pleased to see language included in several of the resolutions that reflect our priorities in line with strengthening UNRWA. This language puts a stronger onus on the Agency and on UN leadership to demonstrate a renewed commitment to the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality, as well as provides a basis for strengthened agency oversight.”

In 2023, the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People commemorated the anniversary of the Nakba for the first time. Israeli officials tried to discourage delegates from participating, and the U.S. and several Western European nations skipped the event or sent low-level representatives. The spokesman for the U.S. mission to the UN, Nate Evans, said, “We do not support events organized by bodies designed to perpetuate anti-Israel bias.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the event and took the opportunity to compare Israeli rhetoric to Nazi propaganda, demand Israel be suspended from the UN if it does not grant Palestinians a state and a “right of return” for refugees, and deny Jewish ties to the Temple Mount.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called the remarks a “gross affront to Holocaust victims and survivors” and said his rhetoric was“totally without basis and it is deeply offensive to the American people.”

International Criminal Court

The Trump administration imposed economic sanctions against International Criminal Court (ICC) officials “directly engaged in investigating U.S. personnel or allied personnel against their state’s consent, and against others who materially support such officials’ activities.” Though the Biden administration opposed the ICC decision to open an investigation of Israel, it also revoked the sanctions.

Meanwhile, the administration has been quietly pressuring the Palestinians to cease their effort to have Israel tried for war crimes at the ICC, which Israel views as one more example of their disinterest in peace.

Regional Policy

Biden announced plans to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. More relevant to Israel, however, is his decision to remove some military capabilities and forces from the Gulf region as part of a shift in emphasis from the Middle East to other theaters, particularly Asia. The Pentagon has removed at least three Patriot antimissile batteries from the area meant to protect U.S. forces, including one from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. An aircraft carrier and surveillance systems are also being moved.

As part of the reassessment of ties with Saudi Arabia, the United States halted aid to support its war in Yemen and considered other moves to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for his role in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

After pledging to make bin Salman a pariah, he recognized that he needed the Prince’s help to increase oil supplies when the U.S. economy appeared headed for a recession. He angered many of his progressive supporters when he went hat in hand to Saudi Arabia to ask for help. MBS rebuffed him. It was much later, after it became clear Biden could not sustain the position of punishing Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, that the president began to more actively court MBS and to begin negotiations to normalize relations with Israel. The change of heart earned Biden a reward, the Saudi’s $37 billion purchase of Boeing aircraft, which gave the White House to boast of the creation of 140,000 jobs. He hoped the boost to the economy, and grateful workers, would help his reelection campaign.

It is unclear whether Biden will also reduce or remove American forces from Syria and Iraq. Any change in U.S. deployment in those countries could impact Israel’s security by emboldening Iran and providing Tehran with an opportunity to fill the vacuum and accomplish its goal of creating a land bridge across Syria and Iraq to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, which would facilitate its ability to transfer weapons and forces to southern Lebanon and the Golan front in Syria.

A Foundation for the Defense of Democracies report noted, “The U.S. and its local partners currently hold blocking positions that have closed two of the three potential land bridge routes across the Middle East. The U.S. garrison at al-Tanf in eastern Syria sits astride the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus, obstructing one route. In addition, U.S. forces and their local partners in northern Syria block the northernmost route.” The report emphasized the importance of disrupting this land bridge because “Tehran’s goal is to subvert the regional order, export its revolution, and displace the U.S. as the leading power in the region.”

Fighting Anti-Semitism

Secretary Blinken restated the U.S. commitment to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Anti-Semitism (IHRA), sending a message the administration will take the danger of anti-Semitism seriously and recognize certain criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.

During the campaign, Biden also expressed opposition to boycotts directed at Israel. “I’ve been clear: the calls here in the United States to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel are wrong. Period. The BDS movement singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — in a way that is inconsistent with the treatment of other nations, and it too often veers into anti-Semitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices.”

Unlike Trump, who took two years to appoint a Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism, Biden nominated Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt for the position in July 2021.

Anti-Semitic attacks on Jews increased during Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Wall. After five major Jewish organizations sent a letter asking the president to “use your bully pulpit to call out anti-Semitism,” Biden responded on May 24, 2021. “The recent attacks on the Jewish community are despicable, and they must stop,” Biden tweeted. “I condemn this hateful behavior at home and abroad — it’s up to all of us to give hate no safe harbor.”

Later that day, representatives of all five organizations – the Jewish Federations of North AmericaOrthodox Union, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, and Hadassah – were invited to a video conference call with top staffers at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to discuss their concerns. According to the JTA, these included nominating an anti-Semitism monitor at the State Department, naming a Jewish liaison in the White House, convening a summit on anti-Semitism, adding funds to secure nonprofits, and keeping in place an executive order by President Donald Trump that combats anti-Semitism on campuses.

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at an ADL conference in November 2021. She said, “I want to be very clear about this: When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred: that is anti-Semitism, and that is unacceptable.”

Her comments came after she had generated controversy several weeks earlier when she failed to challenge a student who accused Israel of “ethnic genocide.” She responded to the student by saying, “Your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth should not be suppressed.” After the comment touched off a firestorm, her office said Harris “strongly disagrees with the student’s characterization of Israel.”

She told the ADL audience, “President Joe Biden and I are fully committed to fighting anti-Semitism. We know a harm against one of us is a harm against all.”

In December 2022, the administration announced a new interagency group charged with developing a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism. The decision came at a time of increasing physical and verbal attacks on Jews. The White House said the group will be led by Domestic Policy Council staff and National Security Council staff to increase and better coordinate U.S. Government efforts to counter anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination within the United States. The first priority will be to develop a national strategy to counter anti-Semitism....raise understanding about anti-Semitism and the threat it poses to the Jewish community and all Americans, address anti-Semitic harassment and abuse both online and offline, seek to prevent anti-Semitic attacks and incidents and encourage whole-of-society efforts to counter anti-Semitism and build a more inclusive nation.

A few days later, the president spoke at a White House Chanukah reception and referenced the rise in anti-Semitism at home and abroad. “I recognize your fear, your hurt, your worry that this vile and venom is becoming too normal,” he said. “As your President, I want to make this clear – as my dad would say, and many of you have said: Silence is complicity. We must not remain silent.  And I made no bones about it from the very beginning: I will not be silent. America will not be silent….Today, we must all say clearly and forcefully: Anti-Semitism and all forms of hate and violence in this country can have no safe harbor in America.”

On May 25, 2023, the administration released its much anticipated National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. In the weeks leading up to its release, a debate raged over whether it would include the IHRA Working Definition, with most Jewish organizations arguing it was essential and more left-wing groups and non-Jewish progressives fighting for its exclusion because of their opposition to its examples of anti-Semitism related to the demonization of Israel. The final document tried to mollify both sides by saying: 

There are several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of antisemitism. The most prominent is the non-legally binding “working definition” of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts. 

This allowed both sides to claim victory. Establishment groups said it confirmed the IHRA is the most valuable tool for determining anti-Semitism, while critics insisted the strategy did not codify any specific standard. There was also some dissension over the fact that the strategy did not address the anti-Semitic BDS movement and included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization that routinely defends anti-Semites and whose director made anti-Semitic remarks, among the organizations the administration says committed to countering anti-Semitism.

The White House disavowed the group and removed reference to it on its website after Nihad Awad, the national executive director of CAIR, said in a speech after the October 7, 2023, Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians, “Yes, I was happy to see people breaking the siege and throwing down the shackles of their own land and walk free into their land that they were not allowed to walk in.” He added, “Yes, the people of Gaza have the right to self-defense, had the right to defend themselves,” and that “Israel as an occupying power does not have that right to self-defense.”

“We condemn these shocking, antisemitic statements in the strongest terms,” Andrew Bates, the White House deputy press secretary, told Jewish Insider. “Every leader has a responsibility to call out antisemitism wherever it rears its ugly head.”

Overall, the decision to make fighting anti-Semitism a government priority was applauded even though the administration committed no funds for implementation.

After more than a year with no clarification, the White House confirmed in July 2023 that it was continuing to use a 2019 executive order issued by President Trump that called for departments enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including the Department of Education (DoE), to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

“Antisemitism has risen to record levels,” Biden said in a call with U.S. rabbis to commemorate the Jewish High Holidays. “In the past several years, it has been given too much oxygen.” Taking a swipe at his predecessor, Biden said after hearing Trump’s reaction to the 2017 “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, he decided to run for president. “That is when I decided I had to stay engaged instead of walking away,” Biden said. “Silence is complicity.”

In September 2023, the administration claimed to take a “landmark step to counter anti-Semitism” when it released a fact sheet saying that “eight federal agencies clarified—for the first time in writing—that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits certain forms of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and related forms of discrimination in federally funded programs and activities.” Though the title of the fact sheet was “Biden-?Harris Administration Takes Landmark Step to Counter Antisemitism,” it repeatedly conflated anti-Semitism with Islamophobia.

As anti-Semitism intensified on college campuses in the wake of the Gaza War, the administration announced that the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are partnering with campus law enforcement to track hate-related rhetoric online and provide federal resources to schools. DoE conducted site visits to schools, and other administration officials were scheduled to hold a roundtable with Jewish students. Referring to campus protests praising Hamas and calling for the destruction of Israel, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said, “These grotesque sentiments and actions shock the conscience and turn the stomach.”

“We must, without equivocation, denounce anti-Semitism. We must also without equivocation denounce Islamophobia. And to all of you hurting, I want you to know that I see you. You belong. And I want to say this to you you’re all America. You’re all America,” Biden declared in a national address after the October 7, 2023, Hamas massacre of Israelis.

The administration continued to focus on the problem of anti-Semitism on campuses. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona asked Congress for more funding “so that we can make sure we’re expediting investigations against anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.” He told CNN, “I would want to provide support for these universities, provide guidance. And if there are egregious acts, I want to make sure that we’re investigating. Ultimately, if we have to withhold dollars from a campus refusing to comply, we would.” He added that anti-Semitism “has no place on our college campuses or in our schools.”

Cardona told the JTA that he found the idea that anti-Semitism is normalized “repulsive.” He said, “I think we’re at a point now where we have to be very direct, that students should not have to hide their identity or be ashamed of who they are or hide who they are on our college campuses. And it’s the responsibility of college presidents to act very clearly and unambiguously that student safety is their priority and that they’re going to listen and make sure that students feel that it’s taken seriously.”

In three months, the department opened 45 investigations into Title VI violations. “We are committed to ensuring, through our enforcement arm, that we are sending the message and investigating, thoroughly, issues that lead to student safety concerns on campus,” Cardona said. “We need to be very clear with college presidents that it’s our expectation that when students are feeling unsafe, they are responding to students right away. And that they’re taking it very seriously.”

Gaza Violence

Tensions in Israel flared in early May as Palestinians rioted on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, and other protests turned violent in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem over a decision to evict Palestinians illegally living on Jewish land. The violence escalated dramatically beginning May 10, 2021, when Hamas started to launch hundreds of missiles from Gaza into Israel, hitting not only areas near the border but reaching Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. On May 12, Biden spoke to Netanyahu, condemned the rocket attacks, and conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people while protecting civilians. The secretaries of state and defense made similar remarks in conversations with their counterparts.

In his book, Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future, Franklin Foer said that Biden’s strategy for ending the fighting was to “Smother Netanyahu with love.”

Still, the president questioned the objectives of the war and held a long conversation with Netanyahu after Israel bombed a building that housed journalists from the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. Netanyahu admitted in his memoir, Bibi: My Story, that Biden had told him in one conversation, “Bibi, I gotta tell you, I’m coming under a lot of pressure back here,” referring to Democrats who were unhappy with Israel and Biden. 

The United States blocked proposals for a UN Security Council joint statement on the violence three times because it would be “unhelpful” in de-escalating the situation. The statements focused on criticizing Israeli actions and failed to condemn the rioting by Palestinians or missile barrages by Hamas.

Critics of the Iran deal pointed to the Iranian role in the violence. A Palestinian Islamic Jihad official, Ramez Al-Halabi, admitted Iran’s role in supporting the violence:

The mujahideen in Gaza and in Lebanon use Iranian weapons to strike the Zionists. We buy our weapons with Iranian money. An important part of our activity is under the supervision of Iranian experts. The contours of the victories in Palestine as of late were outlined with the blood of Qasem Soleimani, Iranian blood. Today, the patronage of the axis of resistance has begun to prevail in the region, thanks to Allah and to the blood of the martyrs, and it has begun to make an impact, and what an impact!

Biden resisted pressure from some congressional Democrats to criticize Israel and demand a ceasefire. Publicly, the president reiterated U.S. support for Israel and its right to self-defense. In a call with Netanyahu on May 17, 2021, he said he supported a ceasefire, but fighting continued without further comment from the White House. 

The administration preferred to use quiet diplomacy with Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and others to push for an end to the fighting. In a series of additional phone calls with Netanyahu, the president became increasingly concerned with the civilian toll and, after giving Israel 10 days to degrade the threat from Hamas, told the prime minister on May 19, “Hey, man, we are out of runway here....it’s over.” He was even blunter the following day in his sixth call, telling Netanyahu he expected an imminent ceasefire. He also warned the prime minister that Israel was losing support and would face increasing international pressure if the operation continued. That night, Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire.

“In my conversation with President [Prime Minister] Netanyahu,” Biden said on May 20, 2021, “I commended him for the decision to bring the current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days. I also emphasized what I have said throughout this conflict: The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups that have taken the lives of innocent civilians in Israel.”

Biden said the U.S. would replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system “to ensure its defenses and security in the future.” He also said the U.S. would provide aid to rebuild Gaza “in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority — not Hamas, the Authority — in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal.”

“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy,” Biden said. “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that end.”

In the wake of the violence, critics of Israel in the Democratic Party introduced legislation to stop the $735 million arms sale to Israel. Blinken, however, reaffirmed the administration’s position: “We’re committed to giving Israel the means to defend itself, especially when it comes to these indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians.” Bernie Sanders, who planned to force a Senate vote on the sale, withdrew his objection after learning it had already been finalized.

Reaffirming Democratic Support For Israel

Following the ceasefire ending Operation Guardian of the Wall, and in light of the criticism of Israel and media reports of a change in U.S. attitudes toward Israel, Biden was asked at a press conference, “What is your message to Democrats who want you to be more confrontational with Israel, and — and, specifically, to those that are saying that there should be an end to arms sales? I mean, do you recognize that there’s been a shift, an evolution in your party, Mr. President, in the last 20 years on this issue?”

Biden replied, “There is no shift in my commitment and the commitment to the security of Israel, period. No shift. Not at all.”

Biden reiterated his support for a two-state solution and “renewed the security commitment as well as economic commitment to the people on the West Bank.”

Referring to the dispute over Sheikh Jarrah and violent clashes on the Temple Mount, the president said he told the Israelis the “inner-communal fighting that has extremes on both sides” had to stop. He also said that Netanyahu had promised him that there would be a ceasefire, and he kept his word. “He’s never broken his word to me,” Biden said.

Biden met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on June 28, 2021. According to the White House, “President Biden conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and his commitment to deepening the cooperation between the two countries across all fields...The President emphasized that under his administration, Iran will never get a nuclear weapon. He also assured President Rivlin that the United States remains determined to counter Iran’s malign activity and support for terrorist proxies, which have destabilizing consequences for the region.”

Meeting Bennett

On August 27, 2021, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met President Biden for the first time in Washington. During his visit, he met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Bennett had four goals: creating a direct, personal connection with Biden, sharing his strategy on Iran, making progress on visa waivers for Israelis seeking to enter the U.S., and replenishing Iron Dome missile defense stocks.

The first was easily accomplished. “There was a feeling that we’ve known each other for a long time. I found a leader who loves Israel, knows exactly what he wants, and is attentive to our needs,” Bennett said.

President Biden declared, “We’ve become close friends,” reiterating America’s “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security.

Bennett’s second goal was more complicated. Bennett emphasized Israel’s concern about Iran, and the president assured the prime minister the U.S. would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and said that if diplomacy failed, he was “ready to turn to other options” (Iran then accused Biden of making illegal threats). Still, Biden left no doubt that he prefers to negotiate a return to the JCPOA even as his advisers have grown increasingly pessimistic because of Iran’s intransigent positions.

“I was happy to hear your clear words that Iran will never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon and that you emphasized that you’ll try the diplomatic route but that there [are] other options if that doesn’t work out,” Bennett said.

Bennett also reportedly suggested a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts,” which would involve conducting a variety of small operations against Iran that would obviate the need for a large-scale military attack and ensure that Iran would require no less than a year to acquire nuclear breakout capability.

“The immediate follow-up was to form a joint team based on the joint objectives of rolling Iran back into their box and preventing Iran from ever being able to break out a nuclear weapon,” Bennett said later in a call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We set up a joint team with our national security advisor and America’s, and we’re working very hard, and the cooperation is great.”

Resolving the visa issue has been a longstanding desire of the Israelis. The United States has been unwilling to provide visa waivers to Israelis primarily because of Israel’s history of refusing entry on occasion to Americans, usually Palestinians, who are denied entry on security grounds. No progress was reported on the issue after the meeting.

Biden was more forthcoming about supporting the replenishment of Iron Dome missiles and is likely to support legislation to provide Israel with $1 billion for that purpose.

The president also had several items on his agenda. One was reconstruction in Gaza. The U.S. has made this a priority, but Bennett said he would agree on three conditions: no more rockets fired from Gaza at Israel, ending the smuggling of missiles into Gaza, and ending the crisis of the Israeli civilians and bodies of soldiers held captive by Hamas in Gaza.

A second issue was Biden’s desire to reopen the American consulate in Jerusalem as a gesture to the Palestinians. It was shut down in 2019 by President Trump, and the responsibilities were given to a Palestinian Affairs Unit within the U.S. Embassy. However, much of the staff continued to operate out of the mission on Agron Street. Bennett expressed Israel’s opposition to reopening the consulate because it undermines Jerusalem’s sovereignty. It is unclear if Bennett suggested it during the meeting, but Israelis have argued it makes more sense for the consulate to be in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority’s administration is headquartered.

Biden also expressed concern about the planned eviction of Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarrah.

A less controversial topic was COVID-19 booster shots. Israel had already begun vaccinating its citizens, and Bennett suggested the president begin the program sooner than the planned September rollout.

After the meeting, Bennett said, “I want to thank you for your warm words now and in our private meeting, which attest to your support of the state of Israel, but that’s not new. It’s been decades and you’ve always stood up for us, especially during tough times,” he said. “We trust in your support, Mr. President.”

As is often the case with Israeli prime ministers, Bennett also couldn’t resist giving the president a mini-lecture: “We cannot lose sight for even one moment that we’re in the toughest neighborhood in the world. We’ve got ISIS on our southern border. Hezbollah on our northern border, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Iranian militias that surround us. All of them want to kill us, kill Israelis. They all want to annihilate the Jewish state. And that’s why Israel always has to be overwhelmingly stronger than any of our enemies, and indeed, of all our enemies combined.”

He then thanked the president for “helping yet again to fortify Israel’s strategic advantage.”

For his part, Biden said he and Bennett “have become close friends” and that the U.S.-Israel relationship is “as strong as can be.” He further praised Bennett for bringing together “the most diverse government in Israeli history.”

In the readout of the meeting later, the White House reported, “The President conveyed his ironclad support for Israel’s security and right to self-defense. As part of this extraordinary bilateral defense and security cooperation, the President underscored his administration’s full support for replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome system.”

In addition, “The President expressed his full support for strong and expanding relations among Israel, its Arab neighbors, and Muslim states globally. The two leaders noted that Israel’s historic partnerships with Egypt and Jordan remain crucial to regional stability. They discussed ways to deepen further Israel’s relationships with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates, and their goal of identifying new opportunities to expand such partnerships.”

On peace, “The President underscored the importance of steps to improve the lives of Palestinians and support greater economic opportunities for them. He also noted the importance of refraining from actions that could exacerbate tensions, contribute to a sense of unfairness, and undermine efforts to build trust. President Biden reaffirmed his view that a negotiated two-state solution is the only viable path to achieving a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Biden acknowledged that Bennett held more conservative views on the Middle East but was aware of the precarious nature of Bennett’s coalition, which he preferred to see survive. As a vehement critic of Benjamin Netanyahu, the president did not want to do anything that might allow him to return to power. This is why, for example, he was unlikely to push the issue of the Jerusalem consulate because of the fear Netanyahu would exploit it to claim Bennett had reopened the possibility of dividing the city.

The president reiterated his support for Israel in a Rosh Hashanah message a few days later. “We never waver in our support for the State of Israel.”

The warm feelings between the administration and Israel dissipated somewhat during October and November 2021 over Biden’s insistence on reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem over Israeli objections, the Israeli announcement of plans to build additional housing in the settlements, and Israel’s designation of six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations because of their relationship to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist organization.

“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important for responsible and responsive governance,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said about the NGO issue. He added that the US will “be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations.”

Biden spoke to Bennett again on February 6, 2022, following disclosing that he had eased sanctions on Iran. The president sought to reassure the prime minister that he understood the threat posed by Iran and its proxies to the region. Biden also expressed support for the Abraham Accords and the “U.S. commitment to protect the American people and support the defense of its partners across the Middle East.” Furthermore, he “conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and freedom of action, emphasizing his administration’s full support for replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome system.” Bennett invited Biden to visit Israel, and the president said he would do so later in the year. 

Bennett thanked Biden “for his steadfast support of Israel as well as the support of his entire administration, especially with regards to American assistance towards the Iron Dome.”

A Visit and a Provocation

During a May phone call with Bennett, Biden agreed to visit Israel later in the year. Shortly thereafter, Israel planned to approve almost 4,000 new homes in the disputed territories. In what had become a standard response to most questions about Israel and the Palestinians, a State Department spokesperson said, “The Biden administration has been clear from the outset: We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which exacerbates tensions and undermines trust between the parties. Israel’s program of expanding settlements deeply damages the prospect for the two-state solution.” She added, “We have been clear about the need to avoid unilateral steps that would exacerbate tensions and make it more difficult to preserve the viability of a two-state solution.”

What may be more significant is that Biden has adopted President Clinton’s approach to Israel (so far) of not criticizing the government publicly. Obama would have condemned Israel for the settlement announcement, violence in Jerusalem, and the death of a Palestinian-American journalist who may have been accidentally killed by an Israeli soldier (or Palestinian terrorists) during an army raid in Jenin. Blinken reflects the president’s views, but there is a big difference in the impact on Israel and U.S. public opinion when the words come directly from the president.

In May 2020, a group of Republican lawmakers called on Biden to cancel a program that offers nearly $1 million in grants to NGOs to strengthen accountability and human rights in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza and to collect, archive, and maintain human rights documentation to support justice and accountability and civil society-led advocacy efforts, which may include documentation of legal or security sector violations and housing, land, and property rights. The America First Legal Foundation (AFLF), a watchdog group investigating government malfeasance, filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the State Department to disclose who approved the grant and the names of any groups applying for it.

Even as plans were made for Biden to visit Israel, tensions rose over several issues. While the president was upset by the announcement of new settlements, Israel was angered by a U.S. leak saying that Israel assassinated an Iranian officer from the Republican Guards. Biden was also reportedly planning to meet during his visit with Palestinian officials and, in advance of that, seemed to circumvent Israel’s objection to reopening the Jerusalem consulate in the short run by appointing Hady Amr as a special envoy to the Palestinians who would report directly to the State Department, as was the case when the consulate was open, rather than to the ambassador to Israel as the Trump administration had insisted.

Another split occurred over a proposal by the administration for a summit between Israel, the PA, the U.S., Egypt. and Jordan. According to Barak Ravid, Israel’s national security adviser Eyal Hulata rejected the idea because conditions weren’t ripe. Israel wasn’t interested in an event that Hulata said would be nothing more than a photo-op that created an “expectation crisis.”

President Biden scheduled a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah from July 13-15. Barbara Leaf, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, and her deputy for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, visited both to prepare for the meetings. Leaf reportedly asked Israel to avoid measures such as home demolitions, evictions of Palestinians, and settlement announcements that could exacerbate relations with the Palestinians before the president’s arrival. Israeli officials understood but could not commit to specifics given the domestic political situation in which the government was teetering on the brink of collapse and Israel’s security requirements.

Biden also planned to reverse Trump’s decision to run Palestinian affairs through the U.S. embassy. Stymied by Israeli opposition to his desire to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem, the administration said it would change the name of the Palestinian Affairs Unit to the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs and reinstate the policy of having the head of the office report directly to the State Department rather than to the ambassador. Israel reportedly had no objection to the change. As of June 2022, however, no changes had been made. According to the State Department, the Palestinian unit continues to be led by George Noll, and it “operates administratively under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem,” and its “personnel remain under the authority and security responsibility of the Ambassador as Chief of Mission in Jerusalem.” The spokesperson added, “The new OPA reporting structure is designed to strengthen our diplomatic and public diplomacy engagement…. The United States maintains our recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and will keep our embassy to Israel in Jerusalem.”

Biden in Israel

Israeli politics intervened before the president left Washington as Bennett’s coalition government collapsed and new elections were called for November. Yair Lapid became acting prime minister and Biden’s principal interlocutor.

Biden received a warm welcome when Air Force One touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport on July 13, 2022. It was his first trip as president but his 10th visit. 

In addition to Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Biden met with opposition leader Netanyahu, with whom he’s had a sometimes testy 30-year relationship. He also spent time with President Isaac Herzog, who awarded Biden with the Presidential Medal of Honor in recognition of his friendship with Israel and contributions to the U.S.-Israel relationship, as well as his fight against anti-Israel hatred and anti-Semitism.

 

From the moment he arrived, he repeatedly reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel. After stepping off the plane, Biden said, “Every chance to return to this great country, where the ancient roots of the Jewish people date back to biblical times, is a blessing. Because the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep. It’s bone deep.”

Israel and the United States continued to disagree on Iran, with Biden stressing diplomacy and a return to the JCPOA and Lapid declaring, “Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force.” Biden reiterated his previous commitment to block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but did tell an Israeli interviewer he would authorize the use of force “as a last resort.”

The broader agreement was reflected in the Jerusalem Document, which reiterates the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, the maintenance of its qualitative military edge, and its right to defend itself by itself. It mentions the U.S. position on a two-state solution and the shared commitment to initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve Palestinians’ quality of life. The countries agreed to “deepen the ties between Israel and all of its regional partners” and “to expand the circle of peace to include ever more Arab and Muslim States.” Biden also committed to fighting anti-Semitism, the boycott, and the delegitimization of Israel.

“I know that there’s a view that’s held by part of the public that says: The United States is always going to be there; the friendship is real,” Idan Roll, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, said. “But to have that ratified by a president, a Democratic president who has come to Israel with so much dedication, is very big news.”

Biden and Lapid also launched what the White House described as a “new Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology, tasked with establishing a U.S.-Israel technological partnership on critical and emerging technologies and solutions to global challenges: pandemic preparedness, climate change, implementation of artificial intelligence, and trusted technology ecosystems.” 

In a TV interview, Biden said he rejected the view of “a few” Democrats who compare Israel to the racist South African regime. “I think they’re wrong. I think they’re making a mistake,” Biden said. “Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally. Israel is a friend.”

The president was given a demonstration of the Iron Dome and Iron Beam missile defense systems. “These technologies and advances are critical,” Biden said. “Every rocket that is intercepted is a potential life, maybe more, that is saved.”

Biden also participated in the first leaders’ summit among Israel, India, the United States, and the UAE held virtually from Jerusalem. This I2U2 group agreed to deepen the economic ties between the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific to create new partnerships to tackle global challenges like food insecurity and clean energy technology.

Biden gave what had become his boilerplate comment calling for a “lasting negotiated peace between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people” based on a two-state solution. Israel “must remain an independent, democratic Jewish state,” Biden remarked. “The best way to achieve that remains a two-state solution.”

“Mr. President, you will meet with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Iraq,” Lapid told Biden. “I would like you to pass them all a message from us: Our hand is outstretched for peace.” He added, “We are ready to share our technology and experience, ready for our people to meet and learn about one another, ready for our scientists to collaborate and our businesses to cooperate.”

Biden also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He gave lip service to the two-state solution as expected but acknowledged that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations.” Biden also did not deliver on any of Abbas’s requests – no reopening of the Jerusalem consulate, no reopening of the PLO mission in Washington, and no removal of the PLO from the U.S. terrorist list.

While Abbas offered no concessions, Israel agreed to several, including increasing the efficiency and accessibility to the Allenby Bridge for the benefit of Palestinians and agreeing to consider steps to allow the PA a presence at the bridge while maintaining Israel’s security considerations. Israel also agreed to convene the Joint Economic Committee with the Palestinians to discuss issues such as wastewater and clean energy. Israel will also increase the permits for Gazans to work and do business in Israel. In addition, Israel agreed to approve the registration of 5,500 previously unregistered Palestinians on the Palestinian Population Register.

Biden did announce the U.S. would provide an additional $200 million to the UNRWA and an additional $100 million in support of healthcare services for Palestinians throughout the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. The United States will also provide vulnerable Palestinians with $15 million in further humanitarian assistance. 

On July 15, Biden flew from Israel to Saudi Arabia, the first direct flight between the two countries. Before the trip, the Saudis agreed to open their airspace to Israeli aircraft in what was viewed as a small step toward normalizing relations. In exchange, Israel agreed to allow Saudi Arabia to take control of two islands in the Red Sea. The developments raised hopes the president might convince the Saudis to make additional gestures, if not join the Abraham Accords.

Less than three weeks later, Israel launched Operation Breaking Dawn to kill the commanders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. President Biden reiterated his support “for Israel’s security is long-standing and unwavering—including its right to defend itself against attacks.” He said, “The United States is proud of our support for Israel’s Iron-Dome, which intercepted hundreds of rockets and saved countless lives” and commended “Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his government’s steady leadership throughout the crisis.”

Shireen Abu Akleh Killing

On May 11, 2022, Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera, was killed. Her death occurred during an Israeli operation against Palestinian terrorists in Jenin following a spate of attacks that resulted in the death of 11 people. On July 4, the State Department released a statement: “After an extremely detailed forensic analysis, independent, third-party examiners, as part of a process overseen by the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC), could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh....the USSC concluded that gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh.  The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional.”

The results of an IDF investigation subsequently concluded that it was “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire which hit and killed Ms. Abu Akleh.” The report acknowledged that “there is a high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen during an exchange of fire.” No criminal charges were pursued because the review found “no suspicion that a bullet was fired deliberately at anyone identified as a civilian and in particular at anyone identified as a journalist.”

The journalist’s family and a number of Democrats in Congress were dissatisfied with the conclusions and demanded the United States launch an independent investigation. In November, the FBI opened an investigation, which Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz called “a grave mistake.” The decision is likely to create tensions between the administration and the newly elected Israeli government, which does not plan to cooperate.

The “Biden Doctrine”

White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk laid out the elements of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy during a speech on February 14, 2023. It is based on five principles:

  • Partnerships - Supporting and strengthening relations with countries that “subscribe to the rules-based international order.”
  • Deterrence - Preventing interference in the “freedom of navigation through the Middle East waterways.”
  • Diplomacy - Working to deter threats to regional stability, reduce tensions, and end conflicts through diplomacy.
  • Integration - Building political, economic, and security connections between U.S. partners.
  • Values - Promoting “human rights and the values enshrined in the UN Charter.”

Biden and Bibi

The Israeli election that returned Netanyahu to power was a disappointment for the Biden administration. Though he has a decades-long relationship with the prime minister, Biden was alarmed by the composition of the government, particularly its inclusion of far-right politicians Bezalel Smotrich as Minister of Finance and  Itamar Ben-Gvir as Minister for National Security. While the administration worked with other members of the government normally, those two were effectively persona non grata despite their positions. 

Biden, meanwhile, upset Netanyahu by weighing in on the controversial issue of judicial reform, which brought tens of thousands of Israelis into the streets to protest what many saw as an assault on their democracy. In the vein of the old Arabist “America has to save Israel from itself” philosophy, Biden cast himself as standing up for Israeli democracy.

“I’m very concerned, and I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road.” Biden added, “Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen.”

Blinken reinforced the administration’s message, saying earlier, “One thing that we know from our own experience as democracies is that when you’re looking to make big changes — major reforms — in your laws, your institutions, consensus is maybe the most important thing.”

Responding to the criticism, Netanyahu stated, “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

From Netanyahu’s perspective, judicial reforms were being pursued democratically. The officials elected by the majority of the Israeli population were proposing legislation they believed was consistent with the mandate they received from their constituents. A majority vote in the Knesset must approve any reform. It cannot be done by fiat.

Israelis also saw a double standard in the silence of the administration toward the undemocratic behavior of the president of France. Just as tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in opposition to the government’s position on judicial reform, even larger numbers of French citizens were protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s unilateral decision to raise the retirement age. The State Department did not call on Macron to compromise with the protesters or question French democracy. Instead of pausing to consider the change in the pension system and agreeing to negotiate like Netanyahu, Macron simply imposed his will through an executive order.

In a sign of his disapproval, Biden pointedly refused to invite Netanyahu to the White House, an unprecedented snub of a new Israeli leader.

Even after pausing the consideration of the reforms and entering negotiations with the opposition, the administration continued to make a point of suggesting the Israeli government was threatening democracy. At an Israel Independence Day celebration in Washington, Vice President Harris provoked more criticism when she said: “America will continue to stand for the values that have been the bedrock of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which includes continuing to strengthen our democracies, which, as the ambassador has said, are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances, and, I’ll add, an independent judiciary.”

Besides weighing in on the side of the critics in the contentious issue of reforming the judiciary, the administration also expressed dissatisfaction with the Knesset’s adoption of a law that reversed the prohibition on Jews residing in the area where four settlements were evacuated as part of the disengagement. Netanyahu released a statement saying the legislation “brings an end to a discriminatory and humiliating law that barred Jews from living in areas in northern Samaria, part of our historic homeland. It is no coincidence that senior figures in the opposition have supported this law over the years.” He added, “The government has no intention of establishing new communities in these areas.”

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel claimed the repeal was inconsistent with commitments that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made to President George W. Bush and urged Israel to refrain from allowing settlers to return to the area. In addition, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog was summoned for a tongue-lashing from Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

Israelis were angered because the outrage was coming from former Obama officials who pointedly rejected the contents of the exchange between Bush and Sharon because they did not like its recognition of the “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers” and its conclusion that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Some of the same people behind the reversal of U.S. policy under Obama blamed Israel for not meeting its obligations after they scuttled the understandings.

After Netanyahu agreed to delay a vote on the judicial reforms in response to internal opposition, his government managed to aggravate relations with the administration further. First, a proposal was floated to limit foreign funding to NGOs operating in Israel, which provoked anger in Europe as well as the United States. The legislation was intended to reduce foreign interference in Israeli affairs but was seen as primarily aimed at human rights organizations and other liberal groups. Reportedly, Biden agreed to a long-delayed invitation to the White House in exchange for shelving the proposal. The administration was also said to be willing to do more to encourage Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, though efforts in that direction predated the NGO bill.

Tensions also flared after the Israeli government allowed settlers to establish a Yeshiva on government land near the illegal outpost of Homesh, which was built on Palestinian-owned land. Just a few days earlier, Israel had assured the administration it would not turn Homesh into a new settlement. Nevertheless, Jews were allowed to return because of the law rescinding the prohibition on Jews residing in the area evacuated during the disengagement. 

“We are deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s recent order that allows its citizens to establish a permanent presence in the Homesh outpost in the northern West Bank,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Biden Gets More Involved In Israel’s Internal Affairs

The administration spoke out again on July 11, 2023, after police arrested protestors opposed to the proposed judicial reforms. “We urge authorities to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly,” a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said.

Israeli President Issac Herzog was invited to the White House and to speak to a joint session of Congress in July 2023. When asked about inviting Netanyahu, Biden curtly said before Herzog arrived, “The Israeli president is going to be coming, and we have other contacts,” making the snub of the prime minister all the more evident.

To perhaps soften the blow, the two leaders spoke on the phone before Herzog met with the president. This was the first conversation between the two since March. Biden urged Netanyahu to uphold the democratic values that are the “cornerstone” of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Netanyahu said he planned to try to reach a compromise on the judicial reform plan. They also discussed Iran, and Biden expressed the usual boilerplate views on maintaining the viability of a two-state solution.  Biden “welcomed Israel’s willingness to consider new steps to support Palestinian livelihoods, and recognized promising steps by the Palestinian Authority to reassert security control in Jenin and other areas of the West Bank,” according to National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.

The two agreed to meet in the fall, but Biden did not explicitly invite Netanyahu to come to the White House. A week earlier, Biden had told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that he had not invited Netanyahu because the prime minister had “problems in terms of his coalition” and that it is “one of the most extremist members of cabinets that I’ve seen.” Without naming anyone, he referred to those in the cabinet who say, “We could settle anywhere we want.” Biden also said the administration was “trying to tamp down what is going on and hopefully, Bibi will continue to move toward moderation and change.”

When Herzog arrived at the White House, Biden said,  “It’s 75 years, hard to believe. This is a friendship which I believe is simply unbreakable, and together we are working to bring more integration and stability in the Middle East. There’s a lot of hard work, we’ve got a lot more to do, but there is progress. Last year we convened the largest gathering of Arabs and Israelis in a decade, and we resolved the maritime boundary dispute between Israel and Lebanon – which people thought could never happen. We opened up airspace for Israel over Saudi Arabia and Oman after our visit there, and we brought Israelis and Palestinians together on a political level at Sharm el-Sheikh.”

He also said he told Netanyahu during their phone call, “America’s commitment to Israel is firm and it is ironclad. And we are committed as well to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.”

Biden also decided to deliver a message via New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, telling him in an interview about his concerns related to Israel’s proposed judicial reforms. “This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship,” Biden told Friedman. “Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need. For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”

On the eve of a vote to prohibit the Supreme Court from striking down executive branch decisions because they are “unreasonable,” Biden again weighed in: “Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus.” He added, “It looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less.”

After the government passed the law, the White House issued a statement:

As a lifelong friend of Israel, President Biden has publicly and privately expressed his views that major changes in a democracy to be enduring must have as broad a consensus as possible.  It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority.  We understand talks are ongoing and likely to continue over the coming weeks and months to forge a broader compromise even with the Knesset in recess. The United States will continue to support the efforts of President Herzog and other Israeli leaders as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialogue. 

Even with all the tension between the two governments, Israelis view the United States more favorably than citizens of every country (out of 23 surveyed) except Poland. As of June 2023, Pew found that 87% of Israelis have a positive opinion of the United States, the highest figure since 2003. In addition, 68% said they have confidence in Biden to do the right thing in world affairs, up 8 points from 2022.

Long Awaited Biden-Netanyahu Meeting

After shunning and humiliating Netanyahu, Biden finally agreed to meet alone with the prime minister for 15 minutes on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly meeting. “Even when we have our differences, my commitment to Israel is ironclad,” Biden said. The White House later said Netanyahu was finally being invited to see Biden in Washington.

Biden didn’t hide their disagreements in a press briefing before the meeting. “Today we’re going to discuss some of the hard issues: upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including checks and balances in our systems, and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution,” he said.

The White House said Biden had called on Netanyahu to “take immediate measures to improve the security and economic situation, maintain the viability of a two-state solution, and promote a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” The president also repeated the frequent refrain that Netanyahu should avoid taking “unilateral measures” and “reiterated his concern about any fundamental changes to Israel’s democratic system, absent the broadest possible consensus.”

“One thing is certain and will never change, and that is Israel’s commitment to democracy,” Netanyahu told Biden. “We will continue to hold the values that our two proud democracies hold dear.”

The two also referenced ongoing talks with the Saudis. “I think that under your leadership as president, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said. “I think such a peace would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state, and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Biden told Netanyahu, “If you and I, 10 years ago, were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we’d look at each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking what?’”

The meeting reportedly focused on Iran, with the president repeating his pledge to ensure “that Iran never, never secures a nuclear weapon.”

During his speech to the UN, Biden talked about the trade corridor to “spur opportunities and investment across two continents.” He said, “This is part of our effort to build a more sustainable, integrated Middle East. It demonstrates how Israel’s greater normalization and economic connection with its neighbors is delivering positive and practical impacts even as we continue to work tirelessly to support a just and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians — two states for two peoples.”

Unrelated to the meeting, Alejandro Mayorkas, the U.S. homeland security secretary, announced on September 27, 2023, that Israel had successfully passed a three-month test of its commitment to treat Palestinian-Americans equally and would be admitted to the  Visa Waiver Program starting at the end of November. Israelis will have to check with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ensure they meet the eligibility requirement to travel visa-free. If approved, they may travel to the United States for up to 90 days at a time over two years.

“Today’s announcement by the U.S. government marks a significant milestone in the relationship between Israel and the United States. Our people-to-people ties, which are the backbone of our special relationship, will only grow stronger,” said Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog. “Israelis and Americans will be able to more freely travel between our two countries, interacting and connecting on a personal and professional level.”

The Gaza War

The initial reaction of the international community outside the Middle East was almost universally supportive of Israel. The leaders of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America released the following joint statement expressing “steadfast and united support to the State of Israel” and “unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and its appalling acts of terrorism.”

In what many were describing as the strongest statement ever made by President Biden and the angriest most had seen him, the president called the Hamas assault “an act of pure, unadulterated evil.” Repeating a theme of the Israelis, he said, “The brutality of Hamas — this bloodthirstiness — brings to mind the worst — the worst rampages of ISIS.”

“We stand with Israel.  And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack,” Biden added. “Like every nation in the world, Israel has the right to respond — indeed has a duty to respond — to these vicious attacks.”

Even with Congress in disarray following the Republican decision to replace the Speaker of the House, Biden said, “We’re surging additional military assistance, including ammunition and interceptors to replenish Iron Dome.”

The president also announced that the U.S. was moving a carrier strike group and other military assets to the region and issued a warning: “Let me say again — to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t. Don’t.”

He reiterated that the “atrocities have been sickening” and that the U.S. would “make sure the Jewish and democratic State of Israel can defend itself today, tomorrow, as we always have.”

When he arrived in Israel on October 12, Secretary of State Blinken said, “You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself, but as long as America exists, you will never, ever have to.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken went to Israel to meet with government officials and also met some Americans and Israelis with family members who had been taken hostage.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on October 13 along with a planeload of supplies. Two days earlier, the first shipment of armaments arrived. The U.S. promised to deliver ammunition and interceptors for Iron Dome, and Boeing reportedly was accelerating the delivery of 1,000 smart bombs. Austin said additional security assistance to Israel will “flow at the speed of war.”

Austin condemned the “bloodthirsty, fanatical and hateful” attacks by Hamas terrorists. “The world has just witnessed a great evil: the deadliest attack on civilians in the history of the state of Israel and the bloodiest day in Jewish history since the end of the Holocaust, he said after meeting with Defense Minister Gallant. “So, make no mistake: The United States will make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself,” he added.

The United States had already repositioned the USS Gerald R. Ford Strike Group closer to Israel and sent additional fighter aircraft to the region. “For any country, for any group or anyone thinking about trying to take advantage of this atrocity to try to widen the conflict or to spill more blood, we have just one word: Don’t,” Austin said.

As tensions along Israel’s northern border intensified, and Iran threatened to intervene if Israel went ahead with a ground attack on Gaza, Biden ordered a second aircraft carrier task force into the Eastern Mediterranean. Austin reiterated that the intention was “to deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts toward widening this war following Hamas’s attack on Israel.” A rapid-response force of 2,000 Marines was also deployed to the region.

As the world anticipated a ground operation, Biden made clear he thought it would be “a big mistake” for Israel to preoccupy Gaza.

The administration was also becoming increasingly concerned with the safety of civilians in Gaza. The president appointed a former State Department official, David Satterfield, as a special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues tasked with facilitating aid to “the most vulnerable people” and promoting the safety of civilians.

Former State Department official David Makovsky said the president did five things to impress Israelis:

  • He “struck a clear and decisive moral stance” and “expressed genuine, palpable horror at the brutal Hamas terror attack and massacres in southern Israel.”
  • “Israelis could see Biden’s empathy on full display at a time of national trauma.”
  • “The promise of genuine U.S. wartime military assistance was the most vivid reminder that Israel is not alone in its moment of peril.”
  • “Israelis believe Biden’s declarations of fealty to Israel could be politically costly for him, and yet he persists.”
  • “Israelis see that Biden understands the DNA of Zionism. During his visit in July 2022, he arrived in Israel and declared one doesn’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist.”

Another indication of the close cooperation of the allies during the fighting in Gaza occurred on October 16, when Blinken took part in a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet as it laid out plans for prosecuting the war against Hamas. According to BICOM, this is the first time a senior U.S. official has joined these consultations since Henry Kissinger attended Golda Meir’s security cabinet during the 1973 War.

President Biden traveled to Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, the first time a president visited Israel during wartime.  “For the people of Israel, there is only one thing better than having a true friend like you with Israel, and that is standing in Israel as the first U.S. sitting president to visit Israel in a time of war, it is deeply moving and speaks to the depth of support for Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Biden reaffirmed his support for Israel, saying, “I don’t believe you have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist.” He also repeated previous warnings that none of its enemies should try to exploit the situation. Biden also announced he would ask Congress for “an unprecedented support package for Israel’s defense” and “keep Iron Dome fully supplied.” He later submitted a request for $14.3 billion:

  • $10.6 billion for assistance through the Defense Department, including air and missile defense support, industrial base investments, and replenishment of U.S. stocks being drawn down to support Israel.
  • $3.7 billion for the State Department to strengthen Israel’s military and enhance U.S. Embassy security.

Biden also asked Israel “to agree to the delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.” He made clear that aid would have to go to civilians and not to Hamas. This was after UNRWA had reported that Hamas had stolen fuel and medical supplies (the tweet was subsequently deleted). The president said the U.S. would provide $100 million in humanitarian aid.

Biden had initially planned to meet with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, but they all canceled following the bombing of a Gaza hospital that resulted in many civilian casualties. Israel was initially blamed, but as the president explains, the hospital was hit by an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza, which Israel identified as Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Just before departing Israel, Biden met with families of hostages and missing persons. He stayed long after his aides tried to hustle him to the airport. Each group member was given a minute to speak to the president. “Biden came to Israel to give us both diplomatic and military backing. But in this meeting, the feeling was that he came to give us something more, no less important: a hug,” Amir Tibon related. “He shared with us the challenge of not giving in to despair or turning sadness into anger. There were moments when he wiped a tear from his eye.” Tibon is a journalist and a resident of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which was attacked on October 7.

The same day, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting. “The United States is disappointed this resolution made no mention of Israel’s right of self-defense,” said U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “Like every nation in the world, Israel has the inherent right of self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 of the UN Charter.”

On October 26, a U.S. resolution condemning Hamas and calling for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting was vetoed by China and Russia.

The resolution also did not mention Hamas, saying only that the council “firmly condemns all violence and hostilities against civilians and all acts of terrorism.”

The next day, the General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution calling for an “immediate, durable, and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities.” Israel and the United States voted against the resolution.

Still, as the civilian death toll climbed, administration officials repeatedly told the media that it was telling Israel to adhere to the laws of war and do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.

A brief kerfuffle erupted when Ben-Gvir’s social media posts showed him handing out rifles to civilians in Bnei Brak and Elad during a political event. The administration told Israel that it would not supply the country with arms if they were used to arm civilians and distributed at political events. Israel subsequently agreed that the weapons would be distributed only by the Israel Police or the IDF.

In the first crack in Biden’s unequivocal support for Israel’s operations, he called for a “pause” in fighting to allow more time to get “prisoners” out. It was unclear precisely what the president meant. One official said he was referring to his request that Netanyahu temporarily suspend the assault to allow the two American hostages Hamas released to exit Gaza. Another official had said the previous week that the White House wanted a pause to let more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

As the Hamas-derived number of civilian casualties reached 10,000, Blinken, CIA director Bill Burns, and the president repeatedly called on Netanyahu to pause its assault to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and were reportedly becoming increasingly frustrated by Netanyahu’s refusal to do so. The prime minister said there would be no pause unless all the hostages were released. He suggested Israel would be willing to offer “tactical little pauses, an hour here, an hour there...to enable goods, humanitarian goods to come in, or our hostages, individual hostages to leave.”

Meanwhile, Ron Dermer, the former ambassador to the U.S. and current Strategic Affairs Minister, who has taken an active role in most of the talks with American officials, is said to have cautioned government officials that failing to respond to the pressure could result in a high political cost for Israel.

The administration became increasingly critical of Israel’s tactics and their impact on civilians. In particular, officials believed Israel was using bombs that were more powerful than needed for the operations and were causing too much collateral damage. This undoubtedly played a role in Biden agreeing to a $320 million sale of precision-guided weapon systems to Israel that could reduce civilian casualties. This sale was already in the works before Biden had submitted his proposal for emergency aid, which had not yet been approved.

Biden continued to press Israel to pause fighting to allow for the release of hostages. One American was released before Israel agreed to a temporary ceasefire, and two others were among the women and children who were returned to Israel during the five days of exchanges of hostages for Palestinian prisoners. After Hamas broke the truce on December 1, the exchanges stopped, and fighting resumed.

The day before, Blinken had arrived in Israel and repeated previous admonitions to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank and hold settler extremists accountable for anti-Palestinian violence. He also continued to emphasize the administration’s concern with what would happen to Gaza after the war, reiterating U.S. opposition to renewed occupation and settlement in Gaza.

Netanyahu said, “I told him we have sworn, and I have sworn, to eradicate Hamas. Nothing will stop us.”

Following the House censure of Rep. Rashida Tlaib in November, the White House also condemned her for appearing at rallies against Israel using the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free,” which is a call for the destruction of Israel.

Administration officials, including the president, repeatedly complained about settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. In December 2023, the administration imposed visa bans on settlers involved in these attacks. The policy was likely to have limited impact as many settlers are U.S. citizens who don’t need visas, and others would not likely try to enter the United States. The following day, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signed an order to detain without trial for four months any Israeli settler suspected of attacking Palestinians.

Following revelations about the sexual abuse suffered by Israelis murdered and captured by Hamas, Biden said, “Reports of women raped — repeatedly raped — and their bodies being mutilated while still alive — of women corpses being desecrated, Hamas terrorists inflicting as much pain and suffering on women and girls as possible and then murdering them, It is appalling.” He added, “The world can’t just look away at what’s going on. It’s on all of us — government, international organizations, civil society and businesses — to forcefully condemn the sexual violence of Hamas terrorists without equivocation. Without equivocation, without exception.”

The UAE introduced a resolution on December 8 describing the humanitarian situation in Gaza as “catastrophic” and demanding “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.” This followed the decision by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to activate Article 99 of the UN Charter for the first time since 1989. According to the article, “the Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The United States has opposed the resolution but is using the threat of allowing it to pass without using its veto as a lever to pressure Israel to increase humanitarian aid, including fuel. Ultimately, the U.S. vetoed the resolution.

Biden appeared to be attempting to micromanage the war. Every day, articles appeared in the press about how the administration was pressuring Israel on how and where to fight and for how long. Blinken tried to tamp down suggestions the U.S. wanted Israel to finish its campaign by the end of the year. “These are decisions for Israel to make,” he said after admitting the discussions were held on how Israel was “prosecuting this campaign against Hamas” and the duration.

During a celebration of Chanukah at the White House, Biden said, “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist” and added, “Were there no Israel, there would not be a Jew in the world who is safe.” 

Regarding the war in Gaza, the president said, “We continue to provide military assistance until they get rid of Hamas but we have to be careful....The whole world, public opinion can shift overnight. We can’t let that happen.” 

At a fundraising event, Biden said, “There’s no question about the need to take on Hamas. There’s no question about that. None. Zero. They have every right.” He criticized Ben-Gvir for opposing a two-state solution and said Netanyahu needs to strengthen the PA. “You cannot say there’s no Palestinian state at all in the future.” That said, he added, “But in the meantime, we’re not going to do a damn thing other than protect Israel in the process. Not a single thing.”

Biden said Netanyahu (he calls him by his nickname Bibi) understands that “Israel’s security can rest on the United States, but right now it has more than the United States. It has the European Union, it has Europe, it has most of the world supporting it. But they’re starting to lose that support of the indiscriminate bombing that takes place.” He said when Netanyahu pointed out that a lot of civilians died when the United States bombed Germany and Japan in World War II, that was why institutions were set up later to be sure it didn't happen again. He told Netanyahu, “Don’t make the same mistakes we made at 9/11.”

The president also said, “I believe without Israel as a freestanding state, not a Jew in the world is safe.”

Escalating Tensions

Biden and Netanyahu continued to butt heads over a variety of issues in regular calls. In late December 2023, Biden reportedly had a “frustrating” conversation over tax revenues Israel was withholding from the PA. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich suspended payments after the Hamas attack on October 7, 2073. Netanyahu agreed to transfer funds after deducting those for Gaza; however, Abbas refused to accept a partial payment. Fearing the economic collapse of the PA, Biden pressured Netanyahu to agree to a formula the prime minister had proposed for using Norway as a conduit to ensure no funds went to Hamas. Netanyahu said he didn’t trust the Norwegians. Biden said the U.S. does, and that should be a sufficient guarantee and hung up the phone after telling Netanyahu to solve the problem.

An official told Axios, “The feeling was that the president is going out on a limb for Bibi every day and when Bibi needs to give something back and take some political risk he is unwilling to do it.”

The Biden administration was angered by comments by ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir calling for Gazans to be encouraged to immigrate to other countries. “If in Gaza there will be 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs and not 2 million, the entire conversation on ‘the day after’ will look different,” Smotrich said. Ben-Gvir also suggested that Jews return to settle in Gaza.

The State Department spokesman responded, “This rhetoric is inflammatory and irresponsible. We have been told repeatedly and consistently by the Government of Israel, including by the Prime Minister, that such statements do not reflect the policy of the Israeli government. They should stop immediately.”

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s positions are at the root of several disputes between the two countries, but Netanyahu fears he will lose power if he crosses him. Smotrich has repeatedly said he would leave the coalition, and Netanyahu has refused to test him, even though Smotrich would likely be relegated once again to the political wilderness if he carried out his threat.

Despite ongoing disagreements with Netanyahu over war and postwar strategy, and the political standoff in Congress over the $14.3 billion aid package, the administration continued to provide weapons to resupply the IDF. For the second time since the beginning of the war, the president bypassed Congress to approve a weapons package for Israel in late December 2023, this time consisting of $147.5 million of artillery munitions and other equipment. 

After several weeks of not speaking, Biden called Netanyahu on January 19, 2024, to try to convince him to agree to create a path for the establishment of a Palestinian state after the war. Blinken had earlier come back from Saudi Arabia insisting that this was the only way the kingdom would agree to normalize relations with Israel. Netanyahu publicly rebuffed both. “My insistence is what has prevented — over the years — the establishment of a Palestinian state that would have constituted an existential danger to Israel,” he said two days later. “As long as I am prime minister, I will continue to strongly insist on this.” The day before he had said he would insist on “full Israeli security control of the entire area west of the Jordan River — and that is irreconcilable with a Palestinian state.”

Biden tried to minimize the disagreement by saying, “There are a number of types of two-state solutions....There’s a number of countries that are members of the UN that are still — don’t have their own militaries. Number of states that have limitations.” He added, “And so I think there’s ways in which this could work.”

After Israel revealed that at least a dozen employees of UNRWA had participated in the 10/7 massacre, the United States, along with several other countries, announced it was suspending contributions to the agency. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the administration needs to see “fundamental changes” before it resumes funding.

The president’s aid package for Israel remained bogged down by Republican opposition to the portion of the bill related to U.S. border security. Biden insisted that Congress pass the entire package that included aid to Ukraine and Taiwan. He threatened to veto a standalone bill for Israel aid introduced by House Republicans who wanted to force Democrats to choose between loyalty to the president and their pro-Israel constituents. The president pressured Democrats to oppose the bill. Though 46 supported it, the bill failed.

Administration officials had been pressuring Israel for months to take action against extremist Jewish settlers attacking Palestinians in the West Bank and finally became fed up with the lack of response. On February 1, 2024, Biden issued an executive order allowing the U.S. to impose new sanctions on Israelis, primarily settlers, involved in violent attacks against Palestinians. Initially, only four Israelis were sanctioned, and it did not appear many others would be affected. Israeli officials were upset by the new policy and argued the administration had greatly exaggerated the problem and ignored the far more prevalent issue of Palestinian attacks on Jews.

England, Canada, and France subsequently adopted similar bans.

Facing increasing pressure from Democrats from the left, concerns about losing Arab and Muslim votes in the critical swing state of Michigan, feeling unhappy with Netanyahu’s responses to his concerns, and angry over the number of civilian casualties in Gaza, Biden lashed out during a press conference on February 8, 2023. The event was called primarily so Biden could respond to a critical Department of Justice report about his handling of classified information, which questioned his mental acuity. Angry about that, he expressed frustration with what he referred to as Israel’s “over the top” military operation. “There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s gotta stop,” Biden said. He also said he was pushing for a ceasefire and a deal for the release of hostages held by Hamas as well as a deal whereby Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel, but that hit a roadblock when Netanyahu rejected the Saudi demand that Israel create a path for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In addition, though it did not specifically mention Israel, Biden issued a national security memorandum that restricts the use of U.S. weapons by allies. This appeared to be a response to pressure from some Congressional Democrats to condition aid to Israel and his anger over the growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza. The memo states the standards countries that receive U.S. weapons must adhere to, calls for the State Department to obtain written assurances from countries receiving U.S. arms that they are abiding by international law and facilitating the transport of U.S. humanitarian assistance, and requires the administration to submit an annual report to Congress about whether countries are meeting the requirements.

President Biden continually tried to micromanage the war and instruct Israel how it should be conducted, with an emphasis on protecting civilians. He told Netanyahu, for example, that he should not mount any operation in Rafah, Hamas’s last stronghold, without a plan to protect the civilians.

Israel said it would move the refugees before entering with ground forces after Biden made scathing remarks criticizing Israel’s assault in Gaza as “over the top.” Reports were also leaked suggesting the administration was considering delaying or slowing weapons sales to Israel if it did not comply with his requests. Israel was also alarmed by reports that the State Department was drafting options for recognizing an independent Palestinian state. The president was also said to be increasingly frustrated and angry with Netanyahu because of his response to proposals to free the hostages and agree to a Palestinian state as part of a deal for diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.

The Senate finally passed an aid package in mid-February after stripping out the controversial funds for U.S. border security. The legislation included $14.1 billion for Israel and funds for Ukraine, humanitarian assistance for Palestinians and Indo-Pacific partners. A bipartisan majority of 70 senators voted for the package; however, because of the removal of the border security funds, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson declared the bill dead on arrival in the House, leaving aid to Israel in continued limbo.

Betrayal?

Israel and its supporters were initially pleased that Biden signaled his intention to veto a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire; however, some began to accuse him of betrayal when they saw the text of the alternative the administration offered. On February 19, the United States proposed “a temporary ceasefire as soon as practicable, based on the formula of all hostages being released, and calls for lifting all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance at scale.” It further “determines that under current circumstances a major ground offensive into Rafah would result in further harm to civilians and their further displacement including potentially into neighboring countries.” An Israeli ground operation it said “would have serious implications for regional peace and security, and therefore underscores that such a major ground offensive should not proceed under current circumstances.”

The draft also signals opposition to Israeli statements and plans by rejecting the idea of reestablishing Israeli settlements in Gaza or “reducing the  territory of Gaza, on a temporary or permanent basis, including through the establishment officially or unofficially of so-called buffer zones, as well as the widespread, systematic demolition of civilian infrastructure.”

The objection to a buffer zone is a serious rebuke of Israel’s insistence that such an area is a requirement to ensure the safety of civilians living near the border of Gaza.

International Crisis Group U.N. Director Richard Gowan called the draft a “warning shot for Netanyahu,” signaling that “Israel cannot rely on American diplomatic protection indefinitely.”

The Algerians went ahead and forced a vote on their draft, and the U.S. vetoed it. The only other country that did not support the resolution was the UK which abstained. A few days earlier, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. believes the best way to stop the fighting is to reach a deal for the release of the hostages that a temporary ceasefire would accompany.

The administration also had yet another peeve with Israel over the delivery of flour to Gaza. Netanyahu had agreed on January 19, 2024, to transfer a shipment of flour from the U.S. meant to feed 1.5 million Gazans for five months. It was held up for a month, however, because Smotrich objected to its being delivered by UNRWA. On February 23, Israel agreed to release the flour for distribution by the World Food Program.

Another issue involved the Hamas-run police force in Gaza that was supposedly protecting the trucks delivering aid. Because of their membership in Hamas, Israel did not treat them as civilians. The administration nevertheless asked Israel to stop targeting them.

In response to a deadly terror attack near Ma’ale Adumim in which one person was killed and ten wounded, Israel announced on February 23, 2024, the intention to build some 3,000 new settlements. No construction would begin for months, if not longer; nevertheless, the Biden administration was “disappointed,” and the State Department announced the reversal of the Trump administration’s position with Blinken declaring that Israel’s plan was “inconsistent with international law.” The administration ingenuously described the decision as a return to the policy of Republican and Democratic presidents. 

Furthermore, in most conceptions of the two-state solution championed by the administration, the three sites slated for new construction – Ma’ale Adumim, Keidar, and Efrat would be part of Israel – are within the “consensus blocs” expected to be annexed to Israel.

The Blinken announcement was indicative of the see-sawing of the administration’s policy from positive steps, such as transferring weapons to Israel for its war and vetoing UN resolutions, to the slaps, like sanctioning settlers and criticizing Israel’s conduct of the war.

Yet another step backward came from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who sent a letter to Netanyahu with a list of demands for Israel to support the Palestinian economy in the West Bank. She called for Israel to reinstate work permits for Palestinians, reduce barriers to commerce within the West Bank, and release taxes collected on behalf of the PA (an agreement had already been reached). Yellin, like other officials in the administration, felt the need to tell Netanyahu what’s good for Israel, saying the government’s actions were “seriously impairing the West Bank economy, reducing income, and also at the same time having an adverse impact on Israel.”


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Barak Ravid, “FBI opens investigation into killing of Palestinian American Shireen Abu Akleh,” Axios, (November 14, 2022).
“Statement from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Inter-Agency Group to Counter Antisemitism,” The White House, (December 12, 2022).
“Remarks By President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden at a Hanukkah Holiday Reception,” The White House, (December 19, 2022).
Laurence Norman, “U.N. Inspectors Detect Near-Weapons-Grade Enriched Uranium in Iran,” Wall Street Journal, (February 19, 2023).
“Iran can make fissile material for a bomb ‘in about 12 days’ - U.S. official,” Reuters, (February 28, 2023).
Brett McGurk, “Brett McGurk sets out the ‘Biden doctrine’ for the Middle East,” Atlantic  Council, (February 15, 2023).
Jennifer Jacobs and Siddharth Vikram Philip, “Boeing Wins $37 Billion Saudi Arabia Deal for New Airline,” Bloomberg, (March 14, 2023).
“U.S. Conducts Airstrikes in Syria in Response to Deadly UAV Attack,” U.S. Department of Defense, (March 23, 2023).
Laurence Norman and Michael R. Gordon, “Iran Could Produce Nuclear Weapon in Several Months if It Decides to Do So, Mark Milley Says,” Wall Street Journal, (March 23, 2023).
Marc Rod, “Yellen: Iran sanctions have been ‘much less’ successful ‘than we would ideally like,” Jewish Insider, (March 27, 2023).
Ben Samuels, “Departing U.S. Ambassador to Israel Reflects Biden’s Balancing Act on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Haaretz, (May 9, 2023).
Daniel Estrin and Asma Khalid, “Biden expresses concern for Israel judicial overhaul plan,” NPR, (April 2, 2023).
Jacob Magid, “Blinken urges consensus on Israeli judicial overhaul: ‘The best way forward,’” Times of Israel, (March 17, 2023).
Laura Kelly, “U.S. ‘extremely troubled’ by Israeli plans to reestablish West Bank settlements,” The Hill, (March 21, 2023).
“Deputy Secretary Sherman’s Meeting with Israeli Ambassador to the United States Herzog,” U.S. Department of State, (March 21, 2023).
Brett Samuels, “Biden on Israel’s proposed judicial reforms: ‘They cannot continue down this road,’” The Hill, (March 28, 2023).
“Daily Kickoff,” Israel Insider, (March 23, 2023).
Barak Ravid, “Israel tells U.S. it won’t turn Homesh outpost into new settlement,” Axios, (May 23, 2023).
Ben Samuels, “Opposing U.S. Jewish Orgs Claim Victory on Definition Inside Biden’s Landmark Antisemitism Strategy,” Haaretz, (May 25, 2023).
Adina Katz, “Biden demands Israel drop NGO bill in exchange for White House invite, Saudi peace deal,” World Israel News, (May 28, 2023).
Lahav Harkov, “US ‘deeply troubled’ by Homesh yeshiva reopening,” Jerusalem Post, (May 29, 2023).
Andrew Bernard, “‘They Are Paying for Terrorists to Murder’: State Department Confirms Palestinians Continue ‘Pay-to-Slay’ Terrorist Payments,” Algemeiner, (May 31, 2023).
Celine Alkhaldi, Jennifer Hansler, and Jonny Hallam, “US skips UN Nakba event marking dispossession of Palestinians after Israeli campaign,” CNN, (May 16, 2023).
Luke Tress, “Abbas calls on UN to oust Israel at world body’s first ‘Nakba Day’ commemoration,” Times of Israel, (May 15, 2023).
“US, Israeli ambassadors slam Abbas, while Jerusalem worries about potential UN blacklist,” JNS, (May 24, 2023).
“Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the 2023 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Summit,” U.S. Embassy in Israel, (June 5, 2023).
Marc Rod, “Blinken: Saudi-Israeli normalization is ‘a real national security interest’ for the U.S.,” Israel Insider, (June 5, 2023).
“Remarks by Vice President Harris at Israel’s Independence Day Reception,” The White House, (June 7, 2023).
Richard Wike, Janell Fetterolf, Moira Fagan, Sarah Austin and Jordan Lippert, “International Views of Biden and U.S. Largely Positive,” Pew Research Center, (June 27, 2023).
Jennifer Hansler, “Blinken says US told Israel that violence with Palestinians could jeopardize possible normalization with Saudi Arabia,” CNN, (June 28, 2023).
Ben Samuels, “Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro Set to Become First Abraham Accords Envoy,” Haaretz, (June 29, 2023).
“Biden rebukes ‘most extreme’ Netanyahu government; says Israeli-Saudi peace long way off,” Israel Hayom, (July 9, 2023).
“Fareed Zakaria GPS,” CNN, (July 9, 2023).
“US urges Israel to respect freedom of assembly amid protests,” , (July 11, 2023).
Gabby Deutch and Melissa Weiss, “Biden admin implementing Trump-era executive order on antisemitism,” Israel Insider, (July 13, 2023).
Barak Ravid, “Biden urges Bibi to uphold democratic values as judicial overhaul moves forward,” Axios, (July 17, 2023).
Thomas L. Friedman, “Biden to Netanyahu: Please Stop Trying to Rush Through Your Judicial Overhaul. Build a Consensus First,” New York Times, (July 18, 2023).
“President Herzog welcomed to the White House,” BICOM, (July 19, 2023).
Ben Samuels, “Biden Warns: ‘Doesn’t Make Sense’ for Israeli Leaders to Rush Judicial Overhaul,” Haaretz, (July 24, 2023).
“Statement from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Israel Judicial Reform,” The White House, (July 24, 2023).
Farnaz Fassihi and Michael D. Shear, “U.S. Reaches Deal With Iran to Free Americans for Jailed Iranians and Funds,” New York Times, (August 10, 2023).
“A $6 Billion Hostage Deal With Iran?” Wall Street Journal, (August 14, 2023).
Jacob Kornbluh, “Biden Decided to ‘Smother Netanyahu With Love’ During 2021 Gaza Conflict, New Book Claims,” Haaretz, (August 31, 2023).
“In Rosh Hashanah Call With U.S. Rabbis, Biden Decries ‘Record Levels’ of Antisemitism, Takes Dig at Trump,” Reuters, (September 15, 2023).
“Remarks by President Biden Before the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly,” The White House, (September 19, 2023).
Patrick Kingsley and Michael D. Shear, “Biden and Netanyahu Meet to Try to Soothe Tensions, With Some Success,” New York Times, (September 20, 2023).
“Remarks by President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel Before Bilateral Meeting” The White House, (September 20, 2023).
@AmbHerzog, (September 27, 2023).
Ron Kampeas, “US lets Israel into Visa Waiver Program, easing travel for Israeli citizens,” JTA, (September 27, 2023).
@SecBlinken, (October 12, 2023).
David Makovsky, “The Trust Biden Built with Israelis Doesn’t Come with a Blank Check,” Washington Institute, (October 13, 2023).
Oren Liebermann, Natasha Bertrand and Brad Lendon, “US sending second carrier strike group, fighter jets to region as Israel prepares to expand Gaza operations,” CNN, (October 15, 2023).
“Hamas airs hostage video as rockets continue to strike Israel,” BICOM, (October 17, 2023).
Jacob Magid, “US vetoes Gaza war UN resolution that doesn’t stress Israeli right to self-defense,” Times of Israel, (October 18, 2023).
Kathryn Watson, “In Israel, Biden says it appears “the other team” is to blame for Gaza hospital explosion,” CBS News, (October 18, 2023).
“British PM Sunak in Israel for wartime visit,” JNS, (October 19, 2023).
Amir Tibon, “I Met the Most Important Zionist Leader in the World: President Biden,” Haaretz, (October 19, 2023).
Jarrett Rensha, “Biden asks Americans to be ‘a beacon to the world,’” Reuters, (October 19, 2023).
Tami Luhby, “US aid to Israel and Ukraine: Here’s what’s in the $105 billion national security package Biden requested,” CNN, (October 20, 2023).
Matt Spetalnick, Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, and Patricia Zengerle, “‘I am a Zionist’: How Joe Biden’s lifelong bond with Israel shapes war policy,” Reuters, (October 21, 2023).
Joshua Teitelbaum, “US-Saudi relations in crisis: History’s lessons,” Jerusalem Report, (October 23, 2023).
Andrew Lapin, “White House decries ‘grotesque’ antisemitic campus activities in support of Hamas attacks,” JTA, (October 26, 2023).
Ryan King, “Nikki Haley rips Biden over antisemitism on college campuses — and vows to fix it,” New York Post, (October 25, 2023).
“Russia, China veto UNSC resolution condemning Hamas,” JNS, (October 26, 2023).
“UN General Assembly adopts Gaza resolution calling for immediate and sustained ‘humanitarian truce,’” United Nations, (October 26, 2023).
Avi Bar-Eli, “U.S. Threatens to Stop Supplying Guns After Ben-Gvir Gives Them Out at Political Events,” Haaretz, (October 28, 2023).
Monica Alba and Peter Alexander, “Biden administration unveils new actions to combat antisemitism on college campuses,” NBC News, (October 30, 2023).
Zoë Richards, “Biden calls for a ‘pause’ in Israel-Hamas war to ‘get the prisoners out,’” NBC News, (November 1, 2023).
Vivian Salama and Stephen Kalin, “U.S. Diplomats Press Israel to Pause Gaza Assault,” Wall Street Journal, (November 6, 2023).
Alexandra Hutzler, “Netanyahu to ABC’s Muir: ‘No cease-fire’ without release of hostages,” ABC News, (November 6, 2023).
Jared Malsin, “U.S. Plans $320 Million Weapons Transfer to Israel as Gaza Toll Mounts,” Wall Street Journal, (November 6, 2023).
Emanuel Fabian, “Ground forces push further into Gaza City, ‘deepening pressure’ on Hamas, IDF says,” Times of Israel, (November 7, 2023).
Rene Marsh and Katie Lobosco, “Exclusive: Education secretary says federal funds are at stake if schools fail to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia,” CNN, (November 7, 2023).
Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper, “U.S. Strikes Iran-Linked Facility in Syria in Round of Retaliation,” New York Times, (November 8, 2023).
Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller, “The US tells Israel any ground campaign in southern Gaza must limit further civilian displacement,” AP, (November 28, 2023).
“Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability,” U.S. Department of State, (November 30, 2023).
“Netanyahu ends meeting with Blinken, says Israel has ‘sworn to destroy Hamas,’” Times of Israel, (November 30, 2023).
Barak Ravid, “U.S. imposes visa ban on Israeli settlers who attacked Palestinians,” Axios, (December 5, 2023).
Darlene Superville, “Biden calls reports of Hamas raping Israeli hostages ‘appalling,’ says world can’t look away,” AP, (December 5, 2023)
“Israel at War,” Haaretz, (December 6, 2023).
Gabby Deutch, “CAIR executive director ‘happy to see’ Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack,” Jewish Insider, (December 7, 2023).
Gabby Deutch, “White House distances itself from CAIR, condemns director’s ‘antisemitic statements,’” Jewish Insider, (December 7, 2023).
Shirit Avitan Cohen, “Sources: US said it might not exercise UN veto unless Israel increases Gaza aid, fuel,” Israel Hayom, (December 8, 2023)
“Israel, not US, will decide when to end war against Hamas, Blinken says,” Times of Israel, (December 10, 2023).
Will Weissert, “Biden to host Hanukkah ceremony at the White House amid fears about antisemitism,” AP, (December 11, 2023).
@jacobkornbluh, (December 12, 2023).
Barak Ravid, “Scoop: Biden in "frustrating" call told Bibi to solve Palestinian tax revenue issue,” Axios, (December 28, 2023).
Matt Surman and Edward Wong, “Biden Administration Again Bypasses Congress for Weapons Sale to Israel,” New York Times,  (December 30, 2023).
Ron Kampeas, “Biden administration, Reform Jewish leader slam Smotrich and Ben Gvir for calling for Palestinians’ removal from Gaza,” JTA, (January 2, 2024).
Andrew Lapin, “Education Secretary Miguel Cardona finds campus antisemitism ‘repulsive.’ He told us what he’s doing about it,” JTA, (January 10, 2024).
“Netanyahu restates his opposition to a two-state solution despite pressure from Biden,” New York Times, (January 21, 2024).
Matt Berg, “Biden’s UN ambassador: US wants ‘fundamental changes’ to UN agency in Gaza,” Politico, (January 30, 2024).
Barak Ravid, “Biden issues executive order targeting Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians,” Axios, (February 1, 2024).
Andrew Solender, “Inside the ‘very tough’ vote for House Democrats on Israel aid,” Axios, (February 7, 2024).
Yasmeen Abutaleb and Liz Goodwin, “Biden says countries receiving U.S. weapons must adhere to international law,” Washington Post, (February 8, 2024).
Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt, “Biden says Gaza fighting ‘over the top,’ pushing for a pause,” Reuters, (February 9, 2024).
Carol E. Lee, Jonathan Allen, Peter Nicholas, and Courtney Kube, “Biden disparages Netanyahu in private but hasn’t significantly changed U.S. policy toward Israel and Gaza,” NBC News, (February 12, 2024).
Lazar Berman, “Israel plans to move Rafah civilians to 15 tent cities along the coast – report,” Times of Israel(February 13, 2024).
Mike Lillis And Mychael, “Schnell Speaker Johnson rebuffs Senate Ukraine package,” The Hill, (February 13, 2024).
Michelle Nichols, “US pushes for UN to support temporary Gaza ceasefire, oppose Rafah assault,” Reuters, (February 19, 2024).
Barak Ravid, “U.S. vetoes UN resolution demanding immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza,” Axios, (February 2, 2024).
Hagar Shezaf and Ben Samuels, “Israel Planning 3,000 New Settlement Homes in Response to Fatal Terror Attack,” Haaretz, (February 23, 2024).
Jacob Magid, “Israel agrees to finally release American flour shipment for Gaza, says US official,” Times of Israel, (February 23, 2024).
Laura Kelly, “US reverses Trump-era policy on Israeli settlement expansion,” The Hill, (February 23, 2024).
Matthew Lee, “Biden Administration Restores Trump-Rescinded Policy On Illegitimacy Of Israeli Settlements,” AP, (February 23, 2024).
Barak Ravid and Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath, “U.S. officials warn: Gaza ‘is turning into Mogadishu,’” Axios, (February 24, 2024).
Alan Rappeport, “Yellen Urges Israel to Restore Economic Ties to West Bank,” New York Times, (February 27, 2024).

Photos: Portrait Public Domain.
Biden-Bennett - Sarahbeth Maney / Pool via CNP.
Biden-Netanyahu - Avi Ohayon/ Israel Government Press Office.