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Netanyahu Ignored Every Warning. Now Biden Is Telling Israel: ‘Enough Is Enough’

With a shipment of some 3,500 bombs currently on halt, U.S. President Joe Biden is sending a clear message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a ground operation in Rafah. Biden is sending a clear and unequivocal message: enough is enough.

Smoke rises after an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday.,Credit: Hatem Khaled/Reuters // Haaretz

The United States will not "isolate itself from the rest of the world to stand behind Israeli intransigence," the president told his secretary of state. The president in question was not Joe Biden and the secretary of state is not Antony Blinken. Rather, it was President Gerald Ford who said this to Henry Kissinger at the height of the March 1975 "reassessment" crisis.

While trying to mediate an Israeli-Egyptian disengagement agreement for Sinai, in the aftermath of 1973's Yom Kippur War, the Americans encountered Israeli defiance, stalling and endless arguments. As a result, the United States announced a "reassessment" of its Middle East policy, which included delaying the supply of F-15 jets – at the time Israel's would-be force-multiplier weapons platform.

The crisis setting is very different, relations between Israel and the United States in 2024 are inherently different than in 1975. The geopolitics are diametrically different. The international context is patently different. But what President Biden said on Wednesday is, in a limited way at this point, a "reassessment."

When the American president says in a CNN interview that the United States will not supply Israel with offensive weapons to attack Rafah, less than a week after putting on hold a major arms shipment of some 3,500 bombs, it is a reassessment by definition, by nature and by design.

The question of whether this is a major shift or a symbolic warning depends on Israel, not the United States. After months of deliberately seeking an open confrontation with the Americans to serve his political interests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally got his crisis – and immediately and predictably started to pontificate.

Since the March 1975 reassessment (which was reversed later that year), the Americans have curtailed arms shipments to Israel several times, including between December-February during the latest war in Gaza. Those were very specific and temporary delays that were done quietly and designed to send a message, but did not reflect negatively on relations.

The uniqueness of the current decision is its openness. The shipment on hold includes 1,800 2,000-pound bombs, 1,700 500-pound bombs and possibly JDAM kits – the joint direct attack munition that converts unguided "dumb" bombs into guided precision bombs. Simultaneously, in April Congress approved Biden's request for a $14-billion emergency arms deal for Israel, and just last week authorized an $827-million munitions shipment.

Does this mean Biden's statement should be taken lightly or dismissed as a momentary spasm caused by pressure from congressional Democrats? Absolutely not.

The barrage of spin and clichés such as "This will pass," "When push comes to shove, we're allies," "This is just symbolic" and "The GOP loves us" is irrelevant and misguided. As long as Mr. Netanyahu is in power, this will not pass.

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The whining and wailing from Jerusalem could be heard across the Atlantic in Washington. Israel is "deeply frustrated by the U.S. decision," on top of "Israel is upset and furious by the U.S. blindsiding it with the hostage/cease-fire deal" from three days earlier. The frustration is understandable; the surprise is not.

Mr. Netanyahu was warned repeatedly but chose, as he always does, to dismiss, deride or ignore the warnings and discreet messages. For seven months he has deceived, manipulated, evaded, stalled and refused to engage with the United States. He has shown nothing but crude disregard for U.S. requests. Even when they may have been wrong, he did not engage in a truthful dialogue and try to persuade them. He just ignored or came out with defiant and incendiary statements.

From a U.S. point of view, irrespective of whether this decision proves to be a symbolic one-off, Israel brought this on itself. This is how it is perceived and interpreted in Washington: Israel has been ignoring U.S. ideas and requests on how to avoid civilian deaths in Gaza. Israel refuses to engage in a dialogue with the Americans on postwar Gaza governance. Israel has been employing tactics and munitions that caused unnecessary destruction and a very high civilian casualty rate. Israel created a humanitarian crisis that the United States has been criticized severely for enabling.

Of course Israel has a different perspective and explanations. But to pretend to be surprised by Biden's statement is disingenuous at best, manipulative at worst.


A protester holding a placard depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the inscription "Fascist," during a pro-Palestinian rally in Paris on Tuesday.  (Credit: Julien de Rosa/Agence France-Presse (AFP)  //  Haaretz)

Immediately after the United States confirmed that the arms shipment has purposely been delayed, Mr. Netanyahu came out with a gem: this decision will potentially "jeopardize negotiations to reach a hostage deal." He may as well have said the decision will adversely affect global warming or the NBA playoffs.

The decision to halt the shipment was followed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks that the United States will review "near-term security assistance" to Israel in light of developments in Rafah. And then Biden's CNN interview focused on Rafah. They directly linked a policy revision to a potential Israeli attack on Rafah.

It is worthwhile, therefore, delving into how the U.S. approach to Rafah contrasts starkly to Israel's. Netanyahu, with extra pathos and sanctimony, portrayed Rafah as Stalingrad in 1942-1943 or the Battle of the Bulge in 1944-1945. The be-all and and-all of "total victory," and the eradication of Hamas.

By accusing Biden of stopping Israel on the precipice of victory, Netanyahu is purposely implying that the president is preventing Israel from toppling Hamas. That was his aim since October: to project failure on either or both the Israel Defense Forces and the United States.

The American evolution of thought on Rafah is more subtle and linked to reality. It began with a simple question back in October: If Rafah is Hamas' military center of gravity, along the 14-kilometer-long (8 mile) Philadelphi route stretching from Rafah in the southeast to the Mediterranean in the northwest, then why didn't Israel begin the campaign in the south instead of invading northern Gaza and Gaza City? A three-star Marine general dispatched to advise Israel asked that specific question as early as October. Defense Secretary Austin asked that question again a few weeks later.

As the invasion of northern Gaza progressed, with thousands of civilian deaths and widespread destruction, accompanied inevitably by a humanitarian crisis, the United States began to question whether Israel might do the same in Rafah. The Americans didn't object to surgical, intelligence-driven, smaller operations, but cautioned Israel again and again regarding a large-scale operation.


Palestinians fleeing Rafah on Thursday. )Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters  //  Haaretz)

In the past few weeks, that warning was magnified as negotiations over a hostage deal seemed to progress. But then Netanyahu came up with a logical fallacy, declaring that "an operation in Rafah will be launched with or without a cease-fire." That seemed to be too much for the Biden administration.

The main criticism the United States has of Israel's prosecution of the war isn't the civilian casualties or the devastation, but the total lack of clearly defined, coherent and attainable political goals. The path to toppling Hamas is diplomatic, not an onslaught on Rafah – however justified and sensible it may seem to military planners.

With his decision to condition arms shipments subject to Israel's Rafah policy, Biden is sending a clear and unequivocal message: enough is enough.