israel-hamas war

How Biden Bigfooted Bibi

The American president has captured Israeli hearts. Can he rein in the Israeli government?

This hug is more bear than it may appear. Photo: GPO/ Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images
This hug is more bear than it may appear. Photo: GPO/ Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images

On Thursday, the Israeli family of hostages held captive by Hamas told a news outlet how mistreated they felt by Benjamin Netanayhu’s government. Adi Leviathan’s sister, Judith Ra’anan, and nine other relatives had been missing since the Hamas terrorist attack two weeks ago. “No one talks to us,” he said. “We’ve not been invited to a meeting with the prime minister. It’s lucky that they have American citizenship and that they have someone to trust. Israeli families are completely lost.”

On Friday night, just 48 hours after Joe Biden’s lightning visit to Israel, Hamas released Judith and her daughter, Natalie, both American-Israeli citizens. It felt like a miracle to Israelis, who are stuck asking, where is Bibi?

The prime minister has rarely been seen in public since the start of the war on October 7, taking the better part of three days to formally address the nation. It is perhaps due in no small part to the vicious anger heaped on members of his government who have shown their faces at funerals and hospitals. Biden, in contrast, met with families directly affected by the Hamas attack, who welcomed him like a savior. Israeli highways from north to south were adorned with huge banners with the message “THANK YOU MR. PRESIDENT.” In Tel Aviv, bumper stickers reading “WE ❤️JOE,” festooned with Israeli and American flags, seemed to appear on every car out of nowhere.

Speaking to Israelis, Biden exuded care and wisdom. “Shock, pain, rage — an all-consuming rage. I understand, and many Americans understand,” he told the traumatized nation, which lost more than 1,400 citizens to Hamas’s surprise attack. “You can’t look at what has happened here to your mothers, your fathers, your grandparents, sons, daughters, children — even babies — and not scream out for justice. Justice must be done. But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.”

It is not only Biden’s empathy that has endeared him to the public, but also the feeling that, finally, there is a grown-up in charge. The U.S. quickly dispatched two aircraft-carrier groups to the region after Biden offered a one-word warning to any country or group looking to exploit Israel’s vulnerability: “Don’t.” The Israeli government has appeared to mostly dither over the same period, most recently about the expected ground invasion of Gaza. They are also accused of failing to address the needs of the families of some 200 hostages, let alone over 300,000 Israelis displaced from the country’s war-ravaged south.

Biden’s visit included a significant material component. Like Secretary of State Antony Blinken days before, the president participated in a lengthy, intense meeting of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, which ended in a scenario unthinkable mere days ago: humanitarian aid poised to enter Gaza before Israeli troops do.

“Of course Biden doesn’t trust Netanyahu,” said Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York. “Trust in Netanyahu is actually zero. He deeply mistrusts Netanyahu.” Pinkas, who has advised several Israeli prime ministers, said while Biden genuinely loves Israel, “he is also aware that reckless decisions could adversely affect American interests, which is why Biden and Blinken came to try to prevent the spread of the conflict.”

Biden is doing so by wrapping Netanyahu in a “bear hug,” the catchphrase most commonly heard on airwaves over the past week describing the American president’s embrace. It is also an expression of nervousness about who, really, is running things in Israel. On Thursday night, Michal Rabinovich, the usually laconic host of Channel 11’s nightly news show, asked culture minister Miki Zohar, “Is Biden the man really in charge?”

Zohar, one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers, replied, “You should ask the prime minister’s spokesman that question.” After the tense exchange, the usually cool, detached Rabinovich said, “You’re just as a fig leaf.”

A poll published Friday — which is the first major survey of Israelis since the conflict began — showed that 80 percent of Israelis believe the prime minister should accept responsibility for the calamity that has befallen the country, including 69 percent of Israelis who voted for Netanyahu’s party, Likud.

Tom Nides, who served as the Biden administration’s ambassador to Israel until July, said the president’s embrace had three aims. “To show that we have Israel’s back. To send a very strong message to Hezbollah and Iran: Don’t screw with us. And, more complicated, to show empathy for the innocent Palestinians who are going to get killed and have been killed — that is why he pushed today for opening the humanitarian corridors.”

Biden is trying to send a message beyond Israel “that superpowers don’t bluff,” Nides said, pointing to the request that Congress authorize billions in emergency assistance for both Israel and Ukraine. “When he told Putin not to go into Ukraine, he organized NATO for the first time in a long time to collectively send a message to Russia. If I’m sitting in Iran now,” Nides said, “and wondering if this is a game, I’d realize he means it. Be careful with Joe Biden.”

Netanyahu has long frustrated American presidents. In 1996, after meeting Israel’s brash new prime minister, an enraged President Bill Clinton asked his advisers: “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” In the months before the war, Biden was busy defending Israeli democracy from a different threat: Netanyahu himself. The prime minister’s yearlong push for a sweeping “judicial reform” would have done away with judicial review and secured almost unfettered power for the longtime Israeli premier, who is on trial for corruption.

The White House has no illusions about Netanyahu’s “political standing, political limitations, and his personal limitations in responding to an event like this,” a Washington official familiar with the bilateral relationship told me. In happier times, the two leaders enjoy mentioning that they have known each other for 40 years, the official noted. “So of course, there’s a lot of awareness, but to some extent, it doesn’t matter. We’re working as partners.”

It’s just that Biden is the senior partner.

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How Biden Bigfooted Bibi