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Signs of growing friction between U.S. President Biden and Israel's Netanyahu


Just a few months ago, President Biden stepped off Air Force One in Israel and gave a warm embrace to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Today, those two leaders are increasingly at odds over how Israel is conducting its war against Hamas in Gaza. For a closer look, we are joined by NPR's Greg Myre, who has recently returned from Israel. Hi, Greg. Welcome home.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So President Biden - fair to say he remains Israel's strongest supporter on the international stage. And yet, I'm prompted to ask, how did we get here, where Biden and Netanyahu are publicly criticizing each other?

MYRE: Yeah. So a lot of these tensions were playing out behind the scenes, and they've become increasingly public over this planned or possible Israeli ground invasion of Rafah. And that's the town on Gaza's southern border. There's more than a million Palestinian civilians there, and it's really the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza. Now, Biden's position, which he restated recently, is that Israel has the right to go after Hamas, but it needs a credible plan for evacuating and protecting civilians. And when asked if this was a red line, Biden said, yes, it is.

KELLY: Yes, it is - and then Netanyahu responded with his own red line?

MYRE: That's correct. He says - he said, my red line is that I'm going to make sure there's not going to be another Hamas attack like the one on October 7. And just today, he spoke by video link from Israel to the annual conference of the pro-Israel group, AIPAC, here in Washington. And he said, quote, "to win this war, we must destroy the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah." So he's clearly not backing down. And this friction comes as Biden and Netanyahu face domestic political challenges. I spoke about this with Brian Katulis at the Middle East Institute.

BRIAN KATULIS: It's also coming at this sensitive political juncture with the November elections here in the United States as well as a pretty tenuous political situation for Netanyahu at home. He's probably at his weakest ever in all the time that he's ruled Israel.

MYRE: And so there is this widespread view in Israel that the country will hold elections when the war is over, and Netanyahu and his Likud party are way down in the polls.

KELLY: OK, but back to the red line because, Greg, as you know, the whole point - if you draw a red line, you're signaling there will be consequences if it's crossed. So if Israel does go ahead with this offensive in Rafah, do we know what the U.S. would do?

MYRE: Mary Louise, no, we don't. Biden didn't say that - what he might or might not do. Now, he's proposed another big military aid package for Israel, which is already the leading recipient of U.S. military assistance, so he would have options - things he could do. But Biden has long been a very big supporter of Israel, and the U.S. has usually limited itself to relatively mild criticism and not concrete action when it comes to Israel. And we have, in the past, seen this clear pattern in Israel-Hamas battles. The U.S. will publicly support Israel for several weeks of fighting and then privately tell the Israelis to wrap it up. The Israelis have generally gone along with this, but this round of fighting in Gaza really is unprecedented.

KELLY: Are there other key issues on which the U.S. and Israel now find themself not in alignment?

MYRE: Yeah. The U.S. is really pressing Israel on several fronts. It's the civilian death toll in Gaza, the shortage of humanitarian aid reaching Gaza, the absence of a long-term plan. And it's quite striking that the U.S. is planning to build this temporary pier on Gaza's Mediterranean coast to deliver aid. Now, plenty of aid could go through a major Israeli port, Ashdod. It's just 20 miles north of Gaza, on the coast. But in the face of Israel's resistance, Biden has opted for this complicated effort to build a pier. And it looks like it will take more than a month, despite the urgent need.

KELLY: That is NPR's national security correspondent, Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.