10 min read

Biden, Bibi, and the day after

Joe Biden is pushing for a “moonshot.” Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t interested.
Biden, Bibi, and the day after
President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel shortly after October 7th. (Photo by the White House)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, January 23, 2023. Election Day is 287 days away. The New Hampshire primary is today. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

In the early days of the Israel-Hamas war, Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu were almost always on the phone together.

The U.S. president and Israeli prime minister spoke no less than five times during the first seven days of the war. Throughout the months of October and November, as a temporary ceasefire came and went, they continued to talk frequently. Then, their phone line went conspicuously silent. In the four weeks between December 23 and January 19, they didn’t speak at all.

It was the latest twist in a relationship that has run hot and cold for decades, dating back to when they first met in the 1980s — with Biden a young senator and Netanyahu a junior diplomat — and continuing as they rose through the ranks in Jerusalem and Washington.

Their blackout in communications ended Friday, with a phone call that lasted 40 minutes. But it did little to heal the latest divide between the two leaders, a fundamental split not so much over the war itself — but over what should come after it.

Plotting Gaza’s future

Biden has been urging Netanyahu to begin planning for a post-war Gaza almost since the war began. “We must keep pursuing a path so that Israel and the Palestinian people can both live safely, in security, in dignity, and in peace,” the president said in Tel Aviv on October 18. “For me, that means a two-state solution.”

U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized that message in trips to Israel, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has said that Israel will only achieve “genuine security” if the war is followed by a Palestinian state uniting the West Bank (currently led by the Palestinian Authority) with Gaza (currently led by Hamas).

Last week, Netanyahu offered his most public snub to Biden yet when he appeared to rule out such proposals.

“In any future arrangement...Israel needs security control of all territory west of the Jordan River,” Netanyahu said Thursday, referring to land that would include both the West Bank and Gaza. “This collides with the idea of [Palestinian] sovereignty. What can you do?”

Then, in their Friday call, Netanyahu reportedly told Biden that he was still open to some form of Palestinian statehood. After hanging up, Biden — ever the optimist — insisted that a two-state solution could still be achieved. Asked by a reporter if one was impossible while Netanyahu remains in office, the president replied, “No, it’s not.”

“There are a number of types of two-state solutions,” Biden noted, expressing a belief that Netanyahu would sign on “given the right one.” (Per CNN, Biden’s preferred idea is for a demilitarized Palestinian state, in which Palestinians would have sovereignty while also guaranteeing Israeli security.)

By Sunday, though, the prime minister was once again ruling out any form of a statehood. “My insistence is what has prevented — over the years — the establishment of a Palestinian state that would have constituted an existential danger to Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “As long as I am prime minister, I will continue to strongly insist on this.”

Survival at all costs

The tensions with Biden come at a time when Netanyahu is facing pressure from all sides.

Inside Israeli society, divisions have begun to emerge over which of Israel’s dual wartime objectives to focus on: eradicating Hamas or freeing the 100+ Israeli hostages still being held in Gaza. Right-wing members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition are calling for the war to intensify, while family members of the hostages — who interrupted a parliamentary meeting on Monday — are urging a temporary truce to secure their relatives’ release.

According to the New York Times, senior military leaders now view the two objectives as “mutually incompatible”; one member of the war cabinet, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, has publicly said that only a diplomatic ceasefire will free the hostages. Meanwhile, decimating Hamas has proved more difficult than Israel expected. More than 25,000 Palestinians (including both civilians and militants) have been killed during the war, according to the Hamas-led Gaza Health Ministry, but U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that Israel has killed only 20% to 30% of Hamas’ fighters, per the Wall Street Journal.

Internationally, Netanyahu is battling genocide allegations from South Africa and declining support from European leaders. Finally, he is running out of allies here in Washington — with not just Biden losing his patience, but pro-Israel members of Congress losing theirs as well.

Netanyahu’s answer to these pressures has largely been to stay the course — and to delay making any definitive decisions about post-war Gaza. Late last month, he canceled a war cabinet meeting that was set to discuss “the day after”; at a Monday summit with European diplomats, instead of articulating a plan for Gazan governance, Israel’s foreign minister reportedly focused his presentation on an obscure proposal involving the creation of an an artificial island in the region.

Of course, from a purely political standpoint, Netanyahu’s obfuscation is understandable: discussing post-war scenarios may well be synonymous with discussing post-Netanyahu Israel.

A recent poll found that only 15% of Israelis want Netanyahu to continue as prime minister after the war; members of his Likud Party are already eying potential successors, according to the Jerusalem Post. In order to maintain power, Netanyahu must retain the support of his right-wing coalition members, who oppose a ceasefire and are even more steadfastly against a two-state solution than he is. (“I do deny a Palestinian state,” national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir posted on Twitter this weekend. “Always!”)

With Netanyahu’s political survival in doubt after the war, U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have speculated that the prime minister is purposefully prolonging the conflict. “Any type of ceasefire or peace agreement, rebuilding effort or off-ramp is detrimental for him politically, and I think that factors in on what he’s doing,” a Republican member of Congress told NBC News anonymously. (His desire to remain in power also may not be merely political. Having been indicted on corruption charges, Netanyahu could face heightened legal jeopardy once out of office.)

A unnamed Democratic lawmaker, who identified as a “strong friend” of Israel, leveled a similar allegation: “A lot of us fear that Netanyahu could potentially be stringing this out, because he knows that the moment that the conflict ends he’s out of a job. And so it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that for a craven politician like that, the current situation is just fine.”

“But for everyone else, it’s horrible.”

Bibi- and Biden-ology

Neither of those members of Congress attached their names to that critique, nor is it one President Biden has made publicly.

While Netanyahu is not bashful about describing disagreement with the U.S. — “The prime minister needs to be capable of saying ‘no’ to our friends,” he said Thursday; he also once addressed a joint session of Congress specifically to blast then-President Obama’s Iran deal — Biden generally keeps their disputes under the vest.

Although some progressives have called for him to be louder in criticizing Israel, Biden is often tepid with his use of the bully pulpit. Viewing geopolitics through the lens of a longtime senator, he prefers to deal with world leaders much like he does with Congress: operating beneath the surface and staying quiet during negotiations.

Throughout the war, Biden — an avowed Zionist, who frequently cites his conversations with Golda Meir and family trips to Dachau to explain his support for Israel — has stood by Netanyahu while trying to pressure him from behind the scenes. That strategy has succeeded at times, in securing humanitarian aid for Gaza and, most recently, in persuading Israel to shift to a more targeted military operation. But it now faces its most difficult test as Biden pushes Netanyahu to consider post-war planning.

According to Axios, Biden is now eyeing a “grand bargain” for the region that would include Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel in exchange for Israel accepting a process towards a Palestinian state. A similar idea was described recently in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and in Tom Friedman’s influential New York Times column, which Biden is known to read.

According to the Journal, the U.S., Egypt, and Qatar have joined forces behind a new proposal that would call for a temporary truce in exchange for the release of hostages, and eventually lead to a permanent ceasefire that would include talks negotiations over Saudi Arabia normalization and a path to Palestinian statehood. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said last week that the kingdom would “certainly” be open to recognizing Israel as part of a regional peace agreement.

The ceasefire talks — which had previously been dormant for weeks — are ongoing, with Israel and Hamas once again swapping proposals.

But Netanyahu, a shrewd political survivor, can be an obstinate negotiator. In talks with the U.S., a Biden official recently groused to the Times of Israel, he will often make small concessions in order to drag out conversations on the bigger picture. “There’s definitely a feeling that Bibi gives us an inch in order to block us from going a mile,” the official said.

His unique blend of political and personal considerations notwithstanding, Netanyahu is far from the only obstacle to Biden’s “moonshot” plan, as Axios described it. The broader conflict seems to be widening, not contracting — with Iranian proxies like Hezbollah and the Houthis growing more confrontational, impeding regional peace.

In addition, the very idea of a two-state solution is now significantly more popular in the U.S. and Europe than in either of the jurisdictions it applies to. In 2012, according to Gallup, 61% of Israelis and 59% of Palestinians supported a two-state solution. Today, that stance is held by just 25% of Israelis and 24% of Palestinians.

New Hampshire preview: Haley’s last stand.

Nikki Haley and Chris Sununu campaigning in New Hampshire. (Photo by the Haley campaign)

If there is any state where Donald Trump should be vulnerable in the 2024 Republican primaries, it would be New Hampshire.

Unlike the evangelical conservatives who dominate the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire’s GOP electorate is much more moderate and less religious — some of the last vestiges of the once-powerful New England Republicans, now a dying breed.

In 2016, according to exit polls, only 25% of New Hampshire GOP primary voters were evangelicals, compared to 64% in Iowa; only 26% described themselves as “very conservative,” compared to 40% in Iowa. Voters not affiliated with a party can vote in either primary in New Hampshire, and often do in large numbers: in 2016, nearly half of the GOP vote was cast by independents.

By all rights, this should be Nikki Haley country. But after his blowout Iowa win this month — and the departures of candidates like Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy — Trump’s once-fragile lead in New Hampshire has expanded. Recent polls from the Washington Post and the Boston Globe have shown Trump above 50% in the state, with Haley nearly 20 points behind.

Haley will need to perform much better than that in order to credibly continue her presidential campaign. If she can’t compete in Iowa, where she landed in third, and she can’t compete in New Hampshire, where she has the endorsement of Gov. Chris Sununu and other top politicos, how can she win the Republican nomination?

And if Trump becomes the first non-incumbent Republican in history to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, how can he lose?

Haley insists that she will march on no matter tonight’s results: “I’m in this for the long haul,” she said yesterday. She has fundraisers and ad buys scheduled. But the outlook after New Hampshire isn’t pretty: she’s down 30 points in the next contest, in her own home state of South Carolina. If she has any hope of turning things around, she needs to do well tonight.

What else you should watch: It’s also (kind of) the first contest of the fight for the Democratic nomination. No Democratic delegates will be awarded due to today’s primary — Democrats aren’t formally recognizing the vote, which is being held despite the national party trying to dislodge New Hampshire from its first-in-the-nation status — but it will serve as a symbolic indicator of Joe Biden’s support nonetheless.

In deference to the official primary calendar, which elevates South Carolina to the starting spot, Biden won’t appear on the New Hampshire ballot, but his allies are encouraging Democrats to write him in. Biden’s challengers, Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson, are hoping his support will be low enough that observers start tuning into the so-far-sleepy race to unseat him as the Democratic pick. Most polls show Biden with a sizable lead, even though he won’t be named on the ballot.

More news to know.

Nikki Haley swept the vote in Dixville Notch, the tiny New Hampshire hamlet that traditionally casts its ballots before the rest of the state. Haley was backed by all six voters in the town. (CBS)

The U.S. and British militaries carried out another round of air and missile strike against Houthi targets across Yemen. (ABC)

The Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration in an emergency ruling, allowing U.S. Border Patrol agents to remove razor wire set up by Texas to prevent migrant crossings along the border with Mexico. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three liberals in the decision. (CNN)

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), the lead Democrat negotiating the bipartisan Ukraine/Israel/border security package, said that the talks are “largely done.” (Politico)

The age of AI in politics is here. New Hampshire officials are investigating a robocall impersonating President Biden’s voice to tell voters in the state not to vote in today’s primary. (NBC)

After an Ohio resignation narrowed control of the lower chamber to 219-213, House Republicans now boast the smallest House GOP majority since the 1950s. (Bloomberg)

Complying with a federal court ruling, Louisiana’s Republican governor signed a bill approving new congressional district lines that will create a second majority-Black district in the state. Rep. Garrett Graves (R-LA) is expected to lose his seat as a result. (The Hill)

The day ahead.

White House: President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, First Lady Jill Biden, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will headline a campaign rally in Manassas, Virginia.

Congress: The Senate will vote to confirm three members of the Amtrak Board of Directors. The House is out for the week.

Supreme Court: The Supreme Court has no oral arguments this week.

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