Growing Divide Between Biden and Netanyahu on Gaza’s Future Plans

Earlier this week, 99 out of the 120 members of the Knesset voted against unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. The rare moment of near-consensus in Israel’s fractious parliament was meant as a rebuke of American efforts toward Palestinian statehood. Last week, reports emerged that the Biden administration was planning a renewed push for a two-state solution, perhaps going as far as unilaterally recognizing a State of Palestine. Netanyahu, who leads a cabinet with far-right partners and has opposed Palestinian statehood for nearly all of his career, was quick to smack the idea down. “In a historic decision, the Knesset united overwhelmingly in support of my proposal, with 99 of 120 members voting against the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state,” Netanyahu said Wednesday on X, formerly Twitter. “Peace and security for Israel will be achieved through negotiations, not through unilateral actions. Today, we stand united more than ever.”

It’s unclear whether any plans are actually afoot for the United States to recognize a Palestinian state. And differences between Biden and Netanyahu over Palestinian statehood are nothing new. But both sides are signaling that a yawning gap remains between Netanyahu and Biden over what will happen when the Israel-Hamas war ends. US AMBASSADOR to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield votes last Friday to abstain on a resolution demanding aid access to Gaza. Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked US President Biden for helping to craft the resolution. (credit: David Dee Delgado/Reuters) At the same time that the Israeli government was demonstrating broad opposition to unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations was circulating a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council that reiterates an “unwavering commitment to the vision of the two-State solution” of “Israel and Palestine.” “It is really meant to be nothing more than a signaling to the Israelis that the administration is unhappy,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute think tank, said about the draft resolution. Parsi added that the draft was “a signaling to the international community that the administration is unhappy, but not necessarily so unhappy that he’s willing to do anything about it.” Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum, which supports a two-state solution, used similar language. The administration’s statements about a Palestinian state, he said, are “a signaling exercise to the Israelis, to other parties in the region, about the administration’s desire to get this done and desire to actually move towards two states.”

A range of countries and the United Nations have recognized a State of Palestine, a symbolic step that has not altered conditions on the ground in the West Bank or Gaza. But were the United States to do so, it would send a strong message to Israel about Biden’s priorities. Rumors denied Administration officials, however, denied rumors that they will recognize Palestine, with US Ambassador Jack Lew telling American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that White House officials “have never said there should be a unilateral recognition.” And despite its differences with the Netanyahu government, the United States continues to defend Israel in international forums. After circulating the draft resolution, the United States vetoed another resolution in the Security Council that was more critical of Israel and called for an immediate ceasefire, which Israel rejects because it would leave Hamas in power. The United States also sent an official to the International Court of Justice this week to defend Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is being challenged in the court. A legal adviser to the State Department said “Any movement towards Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza requires consideration of Israel’s security needs.” Last month, the United States said a genocide case that South Africa brought against Israel in the ICJ lacked merit.

Still, the far-right flank of Israel’s governing coalition seems to be getting the American signals about Palestinian statehood — and rejecting them. Simcha Rothman, an influential far-right lawmaker, appeared Thursday night at CPAC, the signature annual conservative convention held outside Washington, and told a friendly crowd that a Palestinian state would be a “prize for terror.” “The idea that, for some strange reason, people would force Israel, especially after Oct. 7 into a Palestinian state cannot be explained by anything but how deep antisemitic thought came to a reality,” Rothman said. On Thursday night, Netanyahu doubled down again — releasing a plan for the so-called “day after” the war that did not include progress toward a Palestinian state. That same night, Israel approved more than 3,300 new settlement homes in the West Bank — an apparent repudiation of US priorities.

Netanyahu’s one-page plan for the day after the war would have “local officials” who have never been involved in terrorism play a leadership role in Gaza while Israel’s military maintains the freedom to operate there. It did not reference a role for the Palestinian Authority, which governs day-to-day life in West Bank Palestinian population centers and which Biden wants to run Gaza after the war. The Palestinian Authority immediately rejected the plan, saying that it would not move toward Palestinian statehood. “Gaza will be part of the independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and any other plan is doomed to fail,” a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said. Despite pressure from the United States, Palestinian leaders, and others, a recent poll showed that there is not much appetite in Israel for a two-state solution. Just 37% of Israelis said their government should agree in principle to the establishment of a Palestinian state, according to the survey from the Israel Democracy Institute.

Netanyahu has faced pressure from the family members of hostages and others to reach an agreement with Hamas to free the captives. But the poll also found that there was no majority support for a solution to the Israel-Hamas war in which Israelis are guaranteed the release of hostages, long-term quiet, a treaty with Saudi Arabia, and an agreement to establish a Palestinian state. Officials from the Biden administration have made clear that progress toward a Palestinian state is necessary if Israel hopes to establish relations with Saudi Arabia — a goal Netanyahu has long sought. “If the normalization conversation with Saudi Arabia is to be achieved, there must be an over-the-horizon process that includes a vision for a demilitarized Palestinian state,” Lew said in his prepared remarks to the Jewish leaders, who were on a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations. Koplow said an Israel-Saudi Arabia treaty also serves the United States’ broader interests in the Middle East, and that progress toward an independent Palestine gives US officials “what they really want, which is a Saudi normalization deal that takes the Saudis out of China’s orbit.” David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with close ties to Israel, said Netanyahu needed to come to terms with the idea that following the war in Gaza, neighboring states won’t establish ties with Israel unless there’s progress on Palestinian statehood. “The environment in the Arab world will not permit a breakthrough unless it’s tied to a real pathway to a Palestinian state,” Makovsky said. “Now, a pathway to a Palestinian state is not the same as a Palestinian state. But it has to be something they view as very tangible in that direction.”