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Israel tests Biden's influence, and progressives' patience

Analysis: President Joe Biden has slowly increased pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move toward a cease-fire. It's not enough for the left.
Image: President Joe Biden returning to the White House on May 18, 2021.
The question now is whether the new Democratic president has real influence on the Israeli leader.Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — That's enough now, President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a phone call Wednesday morning.

Biden, who has been walking a fine line between giving Israel space to retaliate against Palestinian rocket attacks and placating his left flank by incrementally increasing pressure on Israel to scale back, informed Netanyahu that "he expected a significant de-escalation today" on the path to a cease-fire, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said.

In recent days, Biden and his aides have gone from reticence on a possible cease-fire to supporting one to publicly revealing that he expects it to happen. Still, Biden hasn't demanded that from Netanyahu.

The view from the West Wing is that it's time for Netanyahu to start winding down, according to a White House official familiar with the president's position. The evolution of Biden's messaging is aimed at letting Americans know where he stands without ratcheting up too much public pressure on Israel, the official said.

The question now is whether the new Democratic president has real influence on the Israeli leader. It amounts to the first big foreign policy test of the Biden era, and the outcome will go a long way to demonstrating whether this Democratic president's application of soft American power can be effective.

For four years, Netanyahu and President Donald Trump locked arms, further driving a wedge between Israel and Democrats who had been frustrated with Netanyahu's aggressive criticism of President Barack Obama. At the same time, many progressives see Palestinians as a people oppressed by Israel, and their perspective has gained traction and volume within Democratic circles.

There is a lot at stake right now for Israel's relationship with its most important ally, and for Biden as he tries to navigate a political tightrope. His public posture has moved in the direction of progressives, but not enough to satisfy them.

"A cease-fire would be necessary but not sufficient," said an aide to one Democratic lawmaker who wants the administration to put more pressure on Israel. "We support an immediate cease-fire and ... think Biden should demand it. That doesn’t solve the underlying issue, which is the ongoing occupation."

And Biden won't even get credit for a cease-fire unless Netanyahu follows his lead.

Biden has consistently said Israel has a "right to defend itself" from Palestinian rocket attacks. But many Democratic elected officials, and voters, believe Netanyahu's government has gone beyond self-defense in an exchange of hostilities that has killed more than 200 people, most of them Palestinians.

On Tuesday, Biden praised Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., one of Israel's harshest critics in Congress, during a visit to an auto plant in her district.

"I admire your intellect, I admire your passion, and I admire your concern for so many other people," Biden said from the lectern, shortly after Tlaib confronted him on a tarmac and pressured him to do more to protect Palestinians.

Along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., Tlaib plans to introduce a House resolution that would block Biden's recent approval of a $735 million arms sale to Israel. The resolution stands no chance of enactment in a Congress that remains supportive of U.S. assistance to Israel. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., decided against sending a letter to the Biden administration seeking a delay in the deal, according to Politico, a move that would have fallen far short of actually voting to stop it.

At the same time, Biden is taking hits from Republicans, who almost uniformly support Netanyahu's actions. So far, his rhetoric and actions have been weak, they say.

"Who cares what Joe Biden expects?" Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Fox News Wednesday. "The people of Israel have a right and expectation that they can protect themselves from thousands of rockets and missiles being fired into their cities. They should only de-escalate once they destroy Hamas' war machine. Joe Biden should stand up to the radical anti-Israel voices in the Democratic Party."

The White House official said that the administration believes Israel already has accomplished its military objective.

Whether that is Netanyahu's view, and whether Netanyahu will accede to Biden's request for de-escalation and a cease-fire, remains to be seen. Israel’s goals appear to be broader than the direct effects of military strikes. Rather, they include hitting hard enough to send a message to Palestinians.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, told NBC's Andrea Mitchell that he sees no sign of an abatement in hostilities, and that Israel has not achieved everything it wants to.

"There is still a lot of work to do to send a clear, resounding message to Hamas that their aggression, the fact that they attacked us, is something that we will not tolerate now, and it will have no home for the future," he said.

Whatever comes next, Americans will learn a lot about whether Biden's foreign policy approach is an effective one.