Biden downplays his disagreement with Netanyahu over possibility of a postwar Palestinian state

From left, U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

From left, U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Getty ImagesWashingtonCNN — 

President Joe Biden spoke by phone Friday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reiterated his support for an eventual Palestinian state, one day after the Israeli leader appeared to publicly reject that outcome in a sign of the growing divides between the two men.

A few hours after he got off the phone with his counterpart, Biden sought to downplay any disagreement and said he would still try to convince Netanyahu to get behind a two-state solution, insisting that result was possible even with Netanyahu in office.

But he was less clear exactly how he would achieve it.

“I’ll let you know when I get him to agree,” Biden told reporters.

The lack of certainty only underscored the challenge Biden faces as he tries to apply pressure on Netanyahu to adopt a new battlefield approach and plan for a future in Gaza, only to be met with open resistance and disagreement.

Biden and Netanyahu remain deeply at odds over the fundamental question of what will happen to Gaza once the war against Hamas concludes, despite intense American efforts over the past several months to engage officials in Israel and the wider region on a plan they hope can finally resolve the decadeslong conflict.

Biden and his top officials — including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Israel and the region last week — have said the creation of a Palestinian state with guarantees for Israel’s security is the only way to finally bring peace and stability to the Middle East.

Netanyahu said during a news conference Thursday that he had rejected those calls, arguing such a step would clash with the security of Israel.

“In any future arrangement … Israel needs security control all territory west of Jordan. This clashes with the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty. What can you do?” he told a news conference in Tel Aviv when asked about reports that he told American officials he opposes the idea of Palestinian sovereignty.

How the two leaders bridge that gap remains a question, one Biden’s aides recognize won’t be quickly resolved.

Biden suggested to reporters Friday that one solution would be the creation of a Palestinian state without its own military.

”There are a number of types of two-state solutions. There’s a number of countries that are members of the UN that don’t have their own militaries,” he told reporters in the White House East Room. “I think there’s ways in which this could work.”

Biden raised the imperative of an eventual Palestinian state with Netanyahu during their telephone call earlier in the day. The conversation, their first in nearly a month, stretched around 40 minutes and did not yield any new agreements about the future of Gaza or the trajectory of the conflict there, according to White House readouts.

In the telephone call, Biden “reiterated his strong conviction in the viability of a two-state solution — understanding of course, that we’re not going to get there tomorrow,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said following the call.

Biden and Netanyahu, who have known each other for more than four decades, have found themselves frequently at odds, both before the October 7 Hamas attacks and after. Biden has bemoaned Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition and told donors last month that his counterpart’s political predicament was making it difficult for the prime minister to alter his approach to Gaza.

Privately, American officials said they regarded Netanyahu’s latest statement as similarly politically motivated, as he finds himself under intense pressure inside Israel over the October 7 attacks, the inability to secure the release of additional hostages held by Hamas and an uncertain strategy in Gaza.

Rifts within Israeli society and even among Netanyahu’s own war cabinet were emerging Friday over the prime minister’s strategy, adding pressure to Netanyahu’s government. Family members of hostages and their supporters blocked a highway in Tel Aviv on Friday calling on the Israeli government and the international community to do more to help secure the release of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

And in a television interview, Israeli war cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot urged the country’s leaders to better define the trajectory of the war in Gaza and said a longer ceasefire was the only way to secure the release of additional hostages. He said Israel needs fresh elections amid eroding public trust in Netanyahu’s leadership.

“We need to go to the polls and have an election in the next few months, in order to renew the trust as currently there is no trust,” Eisenkot told Israeli broadcaster Channel 12 during an interview on Thursday evening. “The state of Israel is a democracy and needs to ask itself, after such a serious event, how do we go forward with a leadership that is responsible for such an absolute failure?”

Israel’s current politics have long frustrated Biden, who has name-checked the most right-wing members of Netanyahu’s government as standing in the way of a two-state solution.

Still, White House officials have said the president remains adamant that any differences with his counterpart are best aired behind the scenes rather than in public. Biden offered his Israeli counterpart and the people of Israel his unwavering support in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attack, even flying to the warzone to show what he said was his and the United States’ unequivocal support for their ally.

But that fulsome support has grown increasingly controversial and less tenable as Israel’s massive airstrikes campaign – followed by a ground incursion – resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza.

Even as public sentiment began to shift under Biden’s feet, with polls showing his support among younger voters and Arab Americans eroding, senior US officials insisted they would stick to the strategy of quietly counseling – and sometimes, criticizing – Israel on the war. The administration simply did not believe that publicly shaming Netanyahu and his government, and their war decisions, would be constructive.

Netanyahu’s most recent comments appeared to stand in contrast with that approach, allowing US-Israel rifts to spill into public view.

On Friday, senior administration officials sought to downplay Netanyahu’s most recent rejection of the idea of a Palestinian state, insisting he had said as much publicly in the past. Kirby said Biden was hardly “Pollyannish” about the prospects of reaching a two-state solution.

“He understands how hard it is,” he said, adding later: “We’re not going to agree on everything. We’ve said that, and good friends and allies can have those kinds of candid, forthright discussions, and we do.”

What Kirby would not say is whether Netanyahu has given Biden any private assurances – including in Friday’s phone call – that he would be willing to budge on such a fundamental clash.

“I won’t get into the prime minister’s side of the conversation. I think that’s better for his staff to speak to,” Kirby said.

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