5 min read

Was this Biden’s “come to Jesus” moment?

After weeks of expressing frustration, President Biden took his most dramatic step towards threatening support for Israel.
Was this Biden’s “come to Jesus” moment?
President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2016. (State Department)

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Last month, as President Biden left the House chamber after his State of the Union address, he was caught on a hot mic discussing Israel policy with a Democratic lawmaker.

When Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) urged Biden to press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on humanitarian concerns in Gaza, the president responded: “I told him, Bibi, and don’t repeat this, but you and I are going to have a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting.”

In the weeks that followed, however, evidence of a “come to Jesus” moment were slim. Leaks continued to dribble out of the White House that Biden was growing annoyed with Netanyahu, who he has known and negotiated with for 40 years, but there was no indication that the president was prepared to channel his frustrations into modifying his steadfast support for Israel.

A turning point appears to have come Monday, when an Israeli airstrike killed seven aid workers — including a dual U.S. citizen — who had been delivering food to Gaza under the auspices of World Central Kitchen (WCK), the organization founded by celebrity chef José Andrés.

Biden responded Tuesday with one of his most pointed statements of the war, declaring that he was “outraged and heartbroken” by the attack and that Israel has “not done enough to protect civilians.” He also called on Israel to conduct a “thorough investigation” into the airstrike, which Andrés has alleged was targeted. (Netanyahu has said the strike was unintentional.)

Meanwhile, other leaders of the Beltway establishment — rallying around Andrés, one of their own — began to go even further, calling for shifts in policy, not just rhetoric.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Biden’s close ally and “shadow secretary of state,” said on CNN that the U.S. should condition aid to Israel if Netanyahu moves forward with an invasion of Rafah, the heavily populated Gazan city. Richard Haas, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of both Bush administrations, went on “Morning Joe to say that the U.S. should impose sanctions on Israel. Even First Lady Jill Biden, the president’s most trusted confidant, was reportedly urging her husband to “stop” the war.

Cracks were beginning to appear in Washington’s decades-long wall of support for Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East. “I’ve never said that before, I’ve never been here before,” Coons said of his call for conditioning aid. “I’m sorry it’s come to this,” Haas added.

Then, on Thursday, Biden and Bibi seem to have had their “come to Jesus” phone call. In a 30-minute conversation that was “tense and challenging,” Biden threatened for the first time since the war began that he would condition U.S. policy based on Israeli actions. Here’s an excerpt from the White House readout (bolding mine):

President Biden emphasized that the strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are unacceptable. He made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers. He made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.

For now, the move was still just a rhetorical escalation — albeit a significant one — but, unlike previous Biden statements, it was quickly followed by Netanyahu bowing to some of the president’s demands. After a White House aide said that Biden was expecting changes to be implemented within “hours and days,” Netanyahu announced later Thursday that Israel would be opening three new humanitarian aid corridors into Gaza.

Early this morning, the Israeli military announced that it had dismissed two officers and reprimanded three others for their roles in the strike that killed the WCK workers.

The coming days will be a critical period in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, as the world watches to see whether Netanyahu takes further steps to comply with Biden’s ultimatum — and, if he doesn’t, whether Biden will accompany his words with actions.

Both leaders are caught between competing domestic audiences who will be paying close attention. Ahead of the November election, Biden must juggle the support of Jewish voters, a longtime Democratic constituency, with growing frustrations from Muslims and Arab-Americans, many of whom have backed “uncommitted” campaigns against him in Democratic primaries. Earlier this week, he was faced with their anger firsthand, after several Muslim leaders declined his invitation for an event marking Ramadan; the scaled-down dinner then became even smaller when a Palestinian-American doctor walked out halfway through.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, faces the potential collapse of his governing coalition. From the right, Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir reproached Netanyahu this morning for opening the aid corridors without a cabinet vote. From the center, opposition leader Benny Gantz called this week for snap parliamentary elections to be held in September.

Gantz, who joined Netanyahu’s unity government shortly after the October 7th attacks, is the first member of the Israeli war cabinet to call for new elections. Polls show that Gantz’s National Unity party would be heavily favored to win such elections; he was already received somewhat like a prime minister when he visited Washington last month.

As Biden and Netanyahu continue circling each other, negotiations between Israel and Hamas for a ceasefire and hostage release continue to drag on. Weeks ago, Biden expressed hope that a deal would be struck by the beginning of Ramadan on March 10; now the Muslim holy month is almost over, and little progress appears to have been made.

According to the New York Times, major sticking points include whether Israeli troops would fully withdraw from Gaza, how long a ceasefire would last, and how displaced Palestinians would be able to return to northern Gaza. Per Axios, Biden has again dispatched CIA Director Bill Burns to travel to Cairo this weekend for talks with his Israeli counterpart and Qatari and Egyptian mediators.

In the U.S. readout of yesterday’s Biden-Netanyahu called, the White House said that the president “urged the prime minister to empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home.”

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The day ahead.

* President Biden will travel to Baltimore, where he will receive an aerial tour of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge, participate in a briefing on recovery efforts with first responders, meet with relatives of the six people who died during the bridge collapse, and deliver remarks pledging federal support for the rebuilding.

* Vice President has nothing on her public schedule.

* The House and Senate are out until next week.

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