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The relationship between Biden and Netanyahu is tense as never before. Can the two leaders move on?

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have long had a complicated relationship, but they are running out of room to maneuver as their views on the Gaza war diverge and their political futures hang in the balance.

Their ties have reached a low point as Biden blocks the delivery of heavy bombs to Israel – and warns that the delivery of artillery and other weaponry could also be suspended if Netanyahu goes ahead with a large-scale operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

For his part, Netanyahu ignores Biden’s warnings and promises to press on, saying: “If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone.”

“If necessary, we will fight with our fingernails. But we have a lot more than just fingernails,” he said.

Biden has long prided himself on being able to govern Netanyahu with carrots rather than sticks. But the escalation of friction over the past seven months suggests his approach may be long past its sell-by date.

As both men weigh an explosive situation in the Middle East against their own domestic political problems, Netanyahu has become increasingly resistant to Biden’s public charm offensives and private pleas, leading to the president’s more assertive pushback in recent weeks.

“If they invade Rafah, I’m not going to provide the weapons that have been historically used to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, that are dealing with that problem,” Biden said in a CNN interview on Wednesday, expressing his growing revealed differences of opinion. with Netanyahu.

Biden aides nevertheless insist that the president is unwilling to allow the US-Israeli relationship to truly fracture on his watch. They cite not only political necessity — a majority of Americans support Israel — but also Biden’s personal history with the country and his belief in the country’s right to defend itself.

The president’s aides, watching as pro-Palestinian protests roiled his party and the college campuses that have been hotbeds for Democratic voters, have mused for months that Biden could be the last classically pro-Israel Democrat in the White House .

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Their optimism about their ability to keep Netanyahu in check may be falling into the same trap that has plagued a long line of American presidents who have clashed with the Israeli leader in recent decades.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby declined to say Thursday whether Biden informed Netanyahu of his decision to suspend the shipment of 3,500 bombs when the leaders spoke earlier this week. But he said Biden has been “direct and frank” with Netanyahu about his concerns.

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other since Biden was a young senator and Netanyahu was a senior official in the Israeli embassy in Washington.

They’ve been through tough times before.

There were disagreements over Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank during Barack Obama’s administration, when Biden was vice president. Netanyahu later strongly opposed Biden’s push to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which was struck by Obama and scrapped by Donald Trump. Netanyahu chafed at Biden and urged him to de-escalate tensions during Israel’s bloody 11-day war with Hamas in 2021.

The leaders went without talking for more than a month earlier this year as Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu grew over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The relationship remained workable despite such disagreements between the center-left Democrat and the leader of the most far-right coalition government in Israel’s history.

But with the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu coming under greater strain than ever before, it is unclear how the leaders will move forward.

Netanyahu is caught between public pressure for a hostage deal and hardliners in his coalition who want him to expand the invasion of Rafah, despite global unrest over the damage it could do to some 1.3 million Palestinians sheltering there . He has made it clear that he will continue with a Rafah operation with or without a hostage deal.

The Israeli leader vowed to destroy Hamas after the October 7 rampage in southern Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and some 250 captured and held hostage. But his public reputation has since plummeted as he faces pressure to find a path to a ceasefire that would bring home the remaining hostages and the remains of Israelis killed in captivity.

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He opposed an investigation into what led to the intelligence and military failures that led to the Hamas attack. Meanwhile, he continues to face legal troubles, including a long-running corruption trial in which he is accused of fraud and taking bribes.

Netanyahu’s political survival may depend on the Rafah offensive. If he reaches a hostage deal that fails to capture Rafah, hardliners in his coalition have threatened to overthrow the government and call new elections at a time when opinion polls predict he would lose.

“To keep his partners on board and prevent them from pre-empting elections in which Likud will be decimated and he will be removed from office, he must keep the myth of ‘total victory’ alive – and that is only possible by avoid a deal with Hamas,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer, columnist and author of a Netanyahu biography, in the daily Haaretz.

Aviv Bushinsky, Netanyahu’s former spokesman and chief of staff, said the Israeli leader remains focused on the main goal of the war – defeating Hamas – because of concerns about his image and legacy.

He said Netanyahu has branded himself as the “tough guy on terror” during his career.

“He thinks this is how he will be remembered. He has been promising for ten years that he will cream Hamas,” Bushinsky said. “If he doesn’t, he will be remembered in his mind as the worst prime minister of all time.”

Biden, meanwhile, faces growing protests from young Americans, a part of the electorate crucial to his re-election. And he faced backlash from Muslim Americans, a key voting bloc in the battleground state of Michigan. Some have threatened to withhold their votes in November to protest his government’s handling of the war.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Biden ally who is frustrated with the administration’s handling of the war, said Thursday that Biden should go further and suspend the supply of all assault weapons to Israel.

“The United States does and must stand with its allies, but our allies must also stand with the values ​​and laws of the United States of America,” Sanders said. “We must use all our power to prevent the catastrophe in Gaza from getting worse.”

At the same time, Biden is facing sharp criticism from Republicans, including presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee Trump, who say his decision to withhold weapons is a betrayal of a vital Middle Eastern ally.

“What Biden is doing regarding Israel is shameful. If a Jew voted for Joe Biden, they should be ashamed of themselves. He has completely failed Israel,” Trump told reporters on Thursday.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Biden’s move is “simply a nod to the left flank” that delivers “a big win to Hamas.”

The friction between American and Israeli leaders is not without precedent.

The relationship between President George HW Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was strained when the Republican government threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees to thwart new settlement activities in the West Bank. The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been marked by mutual distrust over the Democrat’s efforts to revive the Middle East peace process and broker a nuclear deal with Iran.

“There were always solutions if the government leaders really couldn’t get along. Maybe we’ll find out,” said Elliot Abrams, a senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration. “But of course this could be a sort of self-solving problem in the sense that one or both of them could be dismissed from their position within a few months.

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AP writers Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed reporting. Frankel reported from Jerusalem.

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