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Tension Between Israel and US Is Rising With Gaza Death Toll

(Bloomberg) -- The almost-daily phone calls stopped months ago. Now the tensions between Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s war on Hamas have burst into the open as the two leaders bicker publicly.

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Late last week, the US announced its army would build a pier to bring aid to civilians in Gaza, with food short and relief groups warning of famine amid Israel’s assault. Biden demanded the Israeli leader “pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost,” warning that “he is hurting Israel more than helping Israel.”

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Netanyahu fired back the next day. “He’s wrong on both counts,” he said in an interview with Politico parent Axel Springer.

The public back-and-forth was a dramatic departure from Biden’s public embrace of Israel after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the deadliest in the country’s history. The US president worked closely with Netanyahu to deliver sweeping military and diplomatic support. But with more than 30,000 dead, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, and Israel planning an assault on Rafah, the last major city in the enclave where residents are sheltering, tensions between the Israeli leader and his most important ally over the civilian death toll have become impossible to conceal.

Biden was caught on a hot mic Thursday telling a legislator that he planned a “come-to-Jesus” meeting with Netanyahu. That came just days after his administration hosted Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet but also Netanyahu’s main political rival, for top-level meetings in Washington.

The Israeli leader smelled betrayal. “To the extent that Hamas believes that there’s daylight between us, that doesn’t help,” Netanyahu told Fox News Monday. Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

For the moment, the Biden administration has kept up the flow of weapons and other support to Israel, even as it steps in to deliver humanitarian aid directly.

Biden, 81, and Netanyahu, 74, have differed for decades. But this time, the tensions are even more real. The US argues Israel isn’t doing enough to limit death and suffering among the millions of ordinary Palestinians who have no link to Hamas and its violent policies. In northern Gaza, US officials note, citing a World Heath Organization statement, a dozen children have starved to death while their parents eat grass and use animal feed for flour.

Biden’s under increasing pressure to do more to rein in his ally, both from other capitals and from key supporters at home, where liberal and younger voters are demanding an end to support for Israel.

“You have two people who are exquisitely skilled and exquisitely sensitive politicians, who, rather than trying to help each other, are trying to squeeze each other,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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The deaths of some 100 Gazans seeking aid from a convoy at the end of February became a turning point, US officials said. That event involved some shooting by Israeli troops but mostly, Israel says, trampling due to a stampede. It rejects the idea that it’s been careless toward civilians.

People close to Netanyahu argue that US policy is now aimed at separating the prime minister from his electorate in the hope of causing a political crisis in Israel that will lead to a more moderate government without Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners.

This was evident when Biden sanctioned extremist Jewish West Bank settlers, the key constituents of Netanyahu’s partners.

In a report to Congress Monday, the US intelligence community questioned “Netanyahu’s viability as leader.” It predicted “large protests demanding his resignation and new elections” that it said may lead to a more moderate government.

“It is likely that the Gaza conflict will have a generational impact on terrorism,” it said, underscoring US intelligence agencies’ concerns about the scale of the devastation in the Palestinian territory.

An Ex-Israeli Leader Warns His Nation Against Attacking Rafah

For his part, Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, made sure in his Sunday interview to argue that he’s not leading his nation anywhere it doesn’t wish to go. A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found 75% of Jewish Israelis favor expanding military operations in Rafah.

White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton said Monday that Biden’s decades-long ties with the Israeli leader allow the US president “to be direct and honest at a time where that’s needed. But there’s no change here in the strength of the two leaders’ relationship.”

Netanyahu says Israel will eventually invade Rafah, the southern Gaza city, where some 8,000 Hamas fighters, its leaders and the remaining 134 Israeli hostages are thought to be ensconced.

Biden doesn’t want Israel to move forward out of fear that too many civilians will be killed.

“Our view is that no military operation should take place in Rafah if there is not a credible and implementable plan to take care of the safety and security needs of the more than a million civilians who are sheltering there,” Dalton, the White House spokeswoman, said Monday. “And we’ve seen no such plan.”

But when Gantz, a popular opposition politician, met officials in Washington last week, his message was clear: The attack on Rafah must proceed eventually.

The tensions extend beyond the current fighting. The Biden administration believes that it’s time to start planning for the day after the war, meaning a regional arrangement involving Saudi and Emirati aid for a Palestinian state to run Gaza and the West Bank.

This is anathema to Netanyahu who says if a Palestinian state is the result of the October 7 massacre, that rewards terror. Palestinians, he and his aides say, must learn the opposite — that violence will bring only harsh reprisal.

They also say something else: The more Biden tries to drive a wedge between the Israeli public and their prime minister, the stronger he will make Netanyahu because voters don’t appreciate such interference.

--With assistance from Courtney McBride and Peter Martin.

(Updates with US intelligence agencies’ comments.)

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