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Biden and Netanyahu call comes amid extreme mutual tensions and political pressure

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — President Joe Biden’s scheduled call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday will not simply test the leaders’ increasingly sour relationship.

It will also highlight a glaring contradiction in US policy toward the war in Gaza, a conflict that potentially poses an existential threat to both of their political careers.

While Biden is expressing growing frustration about the Israeli leader’s conduct of the military onslaught and its impact on civilians – including the killing of seven aid workers in Gaza this week – the fundamentals of staunch US support for Israel are not shifting. And at the same time as the White House is demanding changes to Israeli procedures to shield civilians, warning a planned assault on Rafah could cause a humanitarian disaster, the administration’s military support remains firm: CNN reported on Thursday that the US recently authorized the transfer of more than 2,000 additional bombs to Israel (the transaction was approved before the deadly strike that killed the aid workers), and sources said this week that the US is moving toward approving a sale of F-15 warplanes to Israel worth $18 billion.

The Biden-Netanyahu call — which was scheduled after the killing of the aid workers, a source familiar told CNN’s MJ Lee — will also come amid renewed fears in Washington that Israel’s actions could spark the regional conflagration that Biden has been desperate to avoid. A strike on senior Iranian officers in Syria on Monday, which the US attributes to Israel, has drawn vows of retaliation, which could again put US troops in the region at risk.

The conversation will also take place with both leaders under enormous domestic pressure and amid signs their political priorities are irreconcilable. Biden badly needs the war to end to ease anger among progressives that is threatening his weakened political coalition ahead of November’s election. But Netanyahu may need to prolong it to stave off elections many US leaders believe he would lose. It’s not impossible that the crisis could end up driving both of them out of office.

A tense backdrop to a vital call

Biden conducts tough-talking phone calls with world leaders as a matter of course – he spoke to President Xi Jinping, who heads America’s new superpower rival China, on Tuesday, for instance. But Thursday’s chat with Netanyahu has the feel of a critical moment for both the Middle East and Biden’s own presidency.

The backdrop to the call is US fury over the killings of seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen in an Israeli strike in Gaza. The tragedy prompted Biden to say he was “outraged” and, in unusually blunt language, he accused Israel of doing too little to protect civilians and aid workers in the devastated enclave.

Yet at the same time, and despite rising domestic and international pressure for Biden to do more to constrain Israel, the White House is insisting there has been no change in its policy of supporting its ally in its response to Hamas terror attacks.

“No country should have to live next door to a threat that is truly genocidal as Hamas has been,” White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby said Wednesday. “So, while we make no bones about the fact that we have certain issues about some of the way things are being done, we also make no bones about the fact that Israel is going to continue to have American support for the fight that they’re in to eliminate the threat from Hamas.”

Kirby’s comment suggests the president’s toughened rhetoric will not come with measures designed to change Israel’s approach.

But US policy is looking increasingly ineffective and at odds with itself.

There is no evidence that months of signals of increasing frustration with Netanyahu and calls for Israel to do more to protect civilians are having any impact. The US strategy, meanwhile, of pushing for a new temporary ceasefire and release of Israeli hostages by Hamas has produced few concrete results. And the killings of the aid workers threatens to halt a vital lifeline needed to mitigate famine in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

The disconnect in US policy was encapsulated by José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday. “It’s very complicated to understand. … America is going to be sending its Navy and its military to do humanitarian work, but at the same time weapons provided by America … are killing civilians,” he said.

Biden’s dicey position

Events of recent weeks suggest that either Biden lacks leverage over Netanyahu or that he is unwilling to use it.

The Hamas terror attacks on Israel in October that killed 1,200 people and triggered the war were heinous and made many Jews feel that Israel’s existence was threatened. But Israel’s critics now ask whether the ferocity of the response against an organization that uses civilians as human shields is justified after the killing of more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Some Democrats have called on the president to impose limits on how US-made weapons are used by the Israel Defense Forces. But Biden, the staunchest supporter of the Jewish state of any recent US president, has declined to do so. But Netanyahu’s unwillingness to listen to Biden and his recent steps to forge closer ties with Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to cast doubt on the president’s authority as the senior partner in one of America’s closest alliances.

For Israel, US support is now more crucial than ever. The deaths of the aid workers, some of whom were citizens of Britain, Australia and Canada, has further estranged Israel from often friendly nations. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told Netanyahu, for instance, the situation in Gaza was “increasingly intolerable.” Israel’s growing isolation may explain swift statements from Netanyahu and other top officials admitting that the attack on the aid workers was a mistake. This was a departure from the way Israel has handled the deaths of many Palestinian civilians.

In the US, Biden is paying a steep political price for his forbearance of Netanyahu. In Wisconsin Tuesday, nearly 48,000 voters in the Democratic presidential primary registered a protest vote against his handling of the war, following a similar show of dissent in the Michigan primary. Biden only beat ex-President Donald Trump by about 20,000 votes in Wisconsin in 2020, and the state could decide who wins in November.

White House efforts to ease the president’s political exposure are backfiring. On Tuesday, Dr. Thaer Ahmad, a Palestinian American physician who intends to return to Gaza to treat war victims, walked out of a meeting with the president. Another physician, Dr. Nahreen Ahmed, who was also in the listening session at the White House, said Biden dismissed concerns that his political standing could be hurt by the war, including among Black voters. And she said that he also initially focused on Hamas terror attacks. “He kind of went back to that and said, ‘You know, I hear what everybody’s saying, but like, think about the young people that were killed on October 7.’ And it kind of dismissed the over 30,000 people dead in Palestine,” she said.

The White House said that Biden “made clear that he mourns the loss of every innocent life in this conflict.”

Netanyahu’s coalition moves closer to the brink

Biden is not alone in his political peril. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition is teetering. On Wednesday, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s rival and fellow war cabinet member, called for new elections in September. This followed the biggest demonstrations against the Israeli leader since the start of the war. Protests are being fueled by relatives of more than 100 Israelis held hostage or unaccounted for in Gaza who accuse him of doing too little to return them. Netanyahu also faces a controversy about exemptions to military service for attendees at Orthodox religious schools, which threatens to splinter his coalition.

Before the deaths of the aid workers, the Biden administration was facing yet another crisis, following an attack in Damascus that Iran says killed two senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders. Biden has worked frantically since October to stop the war from widening. The effort has only been partially successful – as seen with US strikes in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in response to attacks by Iranian-backed militia groups on US forces and international shipping. And the attack on what Iran says was a diplomatic consulate in Damascus – technically Iranian soil – threatened to further inflame the Middle East tinderbox.

Seeking to contain the consequences, the United States directly communicated to Iran that it was not involved and had no advance knowledge of the strike against the IRGC – an organization that has supported a vast network of proxy forces throughout the Middle East, including Hamas, that threaten Israel.

So far, long-held fears that tensions could boil over between Israel and Iran have not been realized. And lower-level clashes between the IDF and Iranian proxies like Lebanon-based Hezbollah have stayed below a threshold that would trigger more worrying hostilities that could draw the US further into the war.

The risk now, however, is that Iran would feel compelled to respond more robustly because of the visibility and symbolism of the Damascus attack. In that sense, Israel appears to be directly testing Iran’s own red lines.

The strike on Damascus also heaped more domestic political pressure on Biden from inside the Democratic Party. “The American people do not want a war with Iran. We do not want Israel to escalate a war with Lebanon. We do not want them to go into Rafah and kill civilians,” Rep. Ro Khanna told CNN on Monday. “This could be a regional war, and I’ll tell you one thing … Republicans, Democrats, independents, no one wants America entangled in another war in the Middle East,” the California Democrat said.

There is concern in Washington that Iran could respond by using its proxy groups against Americans. After three US personnel were killed and dozens more injured in an attack on US outpost in Jordan in January, the administration hit back with a series of attacks against Iranian affiliates in Iraq and Syria.

But some US observers believe Iran’s options are limited.

“A trap has been set in some ways,” said Mark Esper, who served as Trump’s secretary of defense. “If they were to act directly and explicitly against US or Israel targets, then they risk provoking a much wider regional war that they certainly don’t want, and we probably don’t want right now either,” Esper told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “So they have to be careful, but I do think that they will step back up their proxy attacks.”

The situation remains deeply uncomfortable for Biden, for whom every development in the Middle East brings a reminder that events he can’t control pose a grave and growing risk to his hopes for a second term.

And Netanyahu – facing his own existential political moment – seems in no mood to help.

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