Politics

‘No one knows what he’s going to say’: White House fears mount about Bibi’s DC visit

The White House has grown anxious about Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming address to a joint session of Congress, believing the Israeli prime minister could use the forum to criticize President Joe Biden for not supporting the retaliation against Hamas in Gaza enough.

The speech next month could create a diplomatically complicated and politically dicey spectacle for a president running for reelection. Fears among West Wing aides have grown in recent days as Netanyahu has made a series of public statements — including one in a video address delivered in English — accusing the administration of withholding more military aid than has been publicly disclosed.

“[Netanyahu’s] video this week was not helpful at all,” said one senior official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about internal deliberations. “And he could make it far worse up there in front of Congress.”

Another senior official put it more bluntly: “No one knows what he’s going to say.”

Frictions have deepened between Biden and Netanyahu since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, with Biden aides increasingly believing that the Israeli leader is prolonging the conflict to stay in power — and that he would prefer Donald Trump return to the White House. And the war has created a thorny political dilemma for Biden, who has been slammed by Republicans for insufficiently supporting Israel yet at the same time also taken heat from some members of his own party for not protecting Palestinian civilians.

But the accusations lobbed by Netanyahu over the past few days have put the relationship at a new nadir, taking the West Wing by surprise and leaving Biden aides deeply frustrated, according to the officials. The Biden administration postponed a high-level U.S.-Israel meeting on Iran after the release of Netanyahu’s video.

“We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week. She, and other aides, insisted that only one shipment was paused, with no other changes to weapons transfers.

As of this week, the White House had yet to send an invitation for Netanyahu to meet with Biden when he comes to Washington for his scheduled speech on July 24, according to the first senior official and two others. Those officials stressed that such an invitation will likely be offered — noting that it would be a major slap in the face if the two leaders did not meet and that Biden was not inclined to make such a public rebuke of his Israeli counterpart.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the invitation.

But meetings have been taking place at slightly lower levels. Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer met Thursday at the White House with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The group discussed the war against Hamas, the state of Gaza and Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit. The video — and the rancor it caused in Washington — was briefly mentioned, two U.S. officials said.

Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesperson, hinted at the message Blinken delivered in the meeting.

“I don’t think it’s productive to engage in an intense public back and forth about this,” he told reporters Thursday, adding that Blinken in a meeting with Netanyahu last week assured the prime minister “our commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.”

Inside the West Wing, aides believe that Netanyahu will use the congressional speech to address his audience at home as much as in the U.S., according to one of the senior officials. The prime minister will likely express gratitude for the United States’ help and stress the longstanding alliance between the two nations. But aides also anticipate that Netanyahu will ask for more assistance without any conditions — something they suspect will be icily received by Democrats.

The big unknown, the senior official admitted, is if Netanyahu will use the moment to offer any specific criticisms of Biden or his response to Israel’s operations in Gaza. The West Wing is keenly aware of Netanyahu’s precarious domestic political situation, in which he is trying to placate the far-right members of his coalition who want further escalation of the war against Hamas. For the prime minister, being perceived at home as fighting Biden could be helpful.

Airing his grievances about arms transfers with the Biden administration openly, Netanyahu told Punchbowl News in an interview published Friday, “was absolutely necessary after months of quiet conversation that did not solve the problem.”

“I’m not a partisan, I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I’m an Israeli patriot, and I speak on behalf of the Israeli people,” he continued.

Netanyahu has used speeches to Congress for his political purposes before, infuriating the Obama-Biden White House when he addressed a joint session in 2015 to attack that administration’s proposed Iran nuclear deal.

That 2015 speech was not received well by progressive Democrats, who have only grown more critical of Netanyahu since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. Democrats have chastised the Israeli PM for disregarding humanitarian concerns in Gaza and empowering a far-right government in Israel.

“I didn’t attend last time, for obvious reasons,” said Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.). “I think that Americans are becoming more deeply concerned about what is being done to taxpayer dollars as it relates to what’s happening in that region.”

Some progressives, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have indicated they will skip the late July speech.

Shadowing the address is the long-term status of U.S. aid to Israel. The White House helped shepherd a massive weapons package through Congress and has consistently signed off on additional arms shipments. But it withheld a shipment of 3,500 bombs believing they would cause unnecessary devastation if used on the densely populated city of Rafah.

Around that time, House Republicans invited Netanyahu to speak before Congress. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a strong Israel supporter but a vocal Netanyahu critic, dropped initial reservations about the address and assented to the invitation. “The White House was not surprised by the invitation,” said a Schumer spokesperson.

A year ago, Netanyahu sought a White House meeting with Biden in the midst of a backlash at home to his proposal to overhaul Israel’s judicial system. The president, who had spoken out against the changes, declined, and instead met with the Israeli prime minister on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Not even three weeks later, Hamas terrorists stormed over the Israeli border, propelling the region into war and irrevocably changing the dynamic between the two leaders.

The Israeli prime minister’s video this week, accusing the U.S. of withholding military aid, has raised the stakes (and the concerns) about his July 24 speech.  

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