By Michael D. Shear
President Joe Biden warned Israel’s leaders on Tuesday that they were losing international support for their war in the Gaza Strip, exposing a widening rift with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejected out of hand the American vision for a postwar resolution to the Palestinian conflict.
Biden delivered the blunt assessment of America’s closest ally in the Middle East during a fundraiser in Washington, where he described Netanyahu as the leader of “the most conservative government in Israel’s history” that “doesn’t want a two-state solution” to the country’s long-running dispute with Palestinians.
“I think he has to change, and with this government, this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move,” Biden said.
The president’s remarks came hours after Netanyahu pledged to defy weeks of American pressure to put the Palestinian Authority in charge of Gaza once the fighting ends. Netanyahu ruled out any role there for the group, which now governs Palestinian society in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“There is disagreement about ‘the day after Hamas,’” Netanyahu said in a video statement posted on social media. He said he hoped the two governments could reach an agreement about what happens after the war ends, but he vowed not to allow threats to Israel’s population to continue.
“After the great sacrifice of our civilians and our soldiers, I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism, support terrorism and finance terrorism,” Netanyahu said. “Gaza will be neither Hamastan nor Fatahstan.”
Fatah is the political faction, a rival to Hamas, that controls the Palestinian Authority, which was ousted from Gaza in 2007 but still administers parts of the West Bank.
Until Tuesday, the United States had largely backed Israel both in action and in rhetoric — supporting the assault on Gaza, fending off calls for a cease-fire at the United Nations and authorizing the sale of thousands of tank shells to the Israelis.
Netanyahu appeared to note the American support in his address.
“I greatly appreciate the American support for destroying Hamas and returning our hostages,” Netanyahu said. “Following an intensive dialogue with President Biden and his team, we received full backing for the ground incursion and blocking the international pressure to stop the war.”
Biden’s remarks were his most critical to date of Netanyahu’s handling of the war, which continues to claim the lives of thousands of civilians in Gaza. The two men had declared unshakable unity during Biden’s visit to Israel days after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Oct. 7 and slaughtered 1,200 people.
Nearly two months of aerial bombardment by Israel and a continuing ground war have leveled much of Gaza City in the northern part of the tiny enclave, which is home to nearly 2 million Palestinians. More than 15,000 people, including several thousand children, have been killed in Gaza during the fighting, according to the territory’s health authorities. The United Nations says that more than 85% of the population has been displaced, with some aid organizations reporting rampant disease and widespread hunger.
Netanyahu says his government is determined to destroy Hamas’ capability to threaten Israel’s population, and has repeatedly issued warnings to Palestinians to move south. Some locations in the south of Gaza have also been bombed, drawing criticism from humanitarian organizations.
Top aides to Biden have said the president believes that his full-throated support of Israel has given him more leverage to press Netanyahu for restraint as Israel conducts its ground war in Gaza. He has repeatedly described his decadeslong history with Israel; Monday evening, he declared at a White House Hanukkah reception: “I am a Zionist.”
Biden’s public message has evolved since the Oct. 7 attacks. He publicly urged Israel to do more to protect civilians in Gaza in its war against Hamas, and White House officials have said he has been blunt with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials during private conversations.
But Biden has largely left it to other American officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, to call out Israel for its actions on the battlefield. And his comments on Tuesday were the president’s first direct acknowledgment of the condemnation by world leaders and humanitarian organizations of Israel’s wartime behavior.
“They’re starting to lose that support,” Biden said. Using the prime minister’s nickname, Biden said that “Bibi’s got a tough decision to make.”
The rising tension between the two men underscored the sensitive moment for the two allies as Biden seeks to persuade lawmakers in Washington to support more than $15 billion in additional aid for Israel’s military campaign. That funding is currently caught up in a political dispute with Republicans over assistance for Ukraine and immigration policy changes at the U.S. border.