Joe Biden is getting frustrated with Israel.
That is what unnamed sources have been telling media outlets in the United States, as the president faces widespread condemnation over his support for Israel’s war in Gaza.
But as Israel presses on with its military campaign, Biden is nearing “a breach” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, The Washington Post said on Sunday. And he has increasingly voiced anger towards the far-right Israeli leader, even calling him an a**hole on a few recent occasions, NBC News reported on Monday morning.
Yet, despite Biden’s supposed frustrations, analysts say the US president’s comments behind closed doors mean little if he remains unwilling to exert pressure on Israel to end its deadly military offensive in Gaza.
“For anyone with even a shred of conscience, Israel’s war should elicit frustration and anger. But in Biden’s case, it has not yet forced him to issue an absolutely necessary call for a ceasefire that can spare Palestinian lives,” said Imad Harb, the director of research and analysis at the Arab Cente Washington DC.
“Unfortunately, and despite the fact that the United States has many tools of pressure that it can use to change Israel’s policies and behavior, it is Israel that is in the driver’s seat,” he told Al Jazeera in an email.
Deadly Israeli attacks on Rafah
The reports about Biden’s growing frustrations with Netanyahu come as the United Nations and human rights groups have raised alarm over an expected Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza.
Israel bombarded the densely populated city in the early hours of Monday, killing at least 67 Palestinians, including children.
Previously designated as a “safe zone” by Israel, Rafah is now home to more than 1.4 million people, many of whom are internally displaced from other parts of Gaza and have been sleeping in tents.
The strikes — which Israel said were carried out as part of an operation to free two Israeli captives — came less than 24 hours after Biden spoke with Netanyahu about the planned Rafah offensive.
The Israeli military operation should not proceed without “a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there”, Biden told the Israeli leader, according to a White House readout of Sunday’s talks.
#Gaza Rafah is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Families have been displaced many times.
There is panic & desperation as 1.4 million people try to survive, try to get food & water – at the same time fearing for their lives due to continued military operation. pic.twitter.com/BjXeEiAjLz
— UNRWA (@UNRWA) February 12, 2024
Tariq Kenney-Shawa, a US policy fellow at Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, said Biden’s call with Netanyahu “was a green light” for the deadly overnight bombings.
“Biden’s harsh words for Netanyahu, if he even really said them, are nothing more than words. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is policy, and Biden’s policy has been unconditional support of Israel every step of the way,” Kenney-Shawa told Al Jazeera.
Iman Abid-Thompson, the director of advocacy and organising at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said Biden and his administration have been “cowardly” because they have voiced most of their criticisms behind the scenes.
Those criticisms, she said, “should be said at the forefront. They should be said out loud. They should be understood by the public and seen in formal statements.”
Abid-Thompson told Al Jazeera that Israel has been emboldened by the lack of pressure from the US, which provides the Israeli government with at least $3.8bn in military aid annually. She dismissed the idea that the US may be unable to rein in Israel’s military campaign.
“I think this idea of ‘What can we do?’ is just an absolute joke,” she said. “There is a lot to say about the lack of responsibility that the United States has taken in what has been happening to Palestinians, specifically by the Israeli government.”
Referring to Israel’s military campaign, she added: “We know that it’s only been upheld and it’s been strengthened because of the funding that the United States has provided unconditionally to Israel.”
Ways to exert pressure
Asked on Monday whether the Biden administration would consider cutting aid to Israel if it presses ahead with its plans in Rafah, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington “has pursued the policy that we think gives us the maximum ability to be successful in influencing how Israel conducts its military campaign”.
Miller told reporters that, “in many cases”, the administration has been unhappy with the results. But Washington has not assessed whether cutting aid “would be more impactful than the steps that we have already taken”, he said.
“I think that sometimes people pretend that the United States of America has a magic wand that it can wave to make any situation in the world roll out in exactly the way that we would want it to, and that is never the case,” Miller also said during the news conference.
“We use the tools that are available to try to influence policy.”
At a subsequent press conference, White House spokesman John Kirby echoed Miller’s stance. When asked if Biden had ever threatened to strip US military aid ahead of the anticipated Rafah offensive, he responded with a general statement of support for Israel.
“We’re going to continue to support Israel,” Kirby said. “They have a right to defend themselves against Hamas and we’re going to continue to make sure they have the tools and the capabilities to do that.”
But experts say the US could exert pressure on Israel by simply following its own laws. This includes applying the so-called Leahy Law, which prohibits the US government from providing military aid to foreign countries committing human rights abuses.
“Biden’s reported frustration is meaningless unless he ties it to concrete, tangible pressure on Netanyahu and the Israeli government as a whole,” said Kenney-Shawa. But, he added, Washington has instead “taken every step to minimise the cost of Israel’s assault”.
‘Moment of truth’
Since the Gaza war began, the Biden administration has approved weapons transfers to Israel despite concerns about alleged war crimes and the risk of genocide unfolding in the Palestinian territory.
It also has backed legislation that would provide more than $14bn in additional US security assistance to the country, refused to call for a long-term Gaza ceasefire and blocked attempts at the UN to end the war.
Raed Jarrar, the advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now, a think tank in Washington, DC, said the administration “has failed miserably in managing the relationship” with Netanyahu.
But Washington can “redeem itself”, Jarrar told Al Jazeera, if it takes decisive action to prevent what he described as “the next chapter of genocide” in Gaza: the expected Israeli military offensive in Rafah.
“This week will actually be the moment of truth. What are they going to do when Netanyahu does not listen to them and goes ahead with the attack on Rafah? What are they going to do?” he asked.
“Are they going to continue the same failed policy, or are they going to switch to the only option that they should have considered all along, which is not aligning themselves with a genocidal maniac?”