WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has been venting his frustration in recent private conversations, some of them with campaign donors, over his inability to persuade Israel to change its military tactics in Gaza, and he has named Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the primary obstacle, according to five people directly familiar with his comments.
Biden has said he is trying to get Israel to agree to a cease-fire, but Netanyahu is “giving him hell” and is impossible to deal with, said the people familiar with Biden’s comments, who all asked not to be named.
“He just feels like this is enough,” one of the people said of the views expressed by Biden. “It has to stop.”
Biden has in recent weeks spoken privately about Netanyahu, a leader he has known for decades, with a candor that has surprised some of those on the receiving end of his comments, people familiar with them said. His descriptions of his dealings with Netanyahu are peppered with contemptuous references to Netanyahu as “this guy,” these people said. And in at least three recent instances, Biden has called Netanyahu an “asshole,” according to three of the people directly familiar with his comments.
Asked about Biden’s private comments about Netanyahu, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said in a statement that the two leaders have a respectful relationship. “The president has been clear where he disagrees with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but this is a decades-long relationship that is respectful in public and in private,” the spokesperson said.
Since he embraced Netanyahu in a bear hug in a visit to Israel after 1,200 Israelis died in the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7, Biden has grown steadily more frustrated with the rising Palestinian civilian death toll in Gaza, now a reported 28,000, and Netanyahu’s reluctance to pursue a long-term peace deal.
The bluntness of Biden’s private, unfiltered reflections on Netanyahu, as well as Netanyahu’s failure to shift tactics in the Gaza Strip, suggest that the dynamic between the two leaders could be nearing an inflection point.
Israel is planning a ground assault on Rafah, a city in southern Gaza where more than a million Palestinians displaced from northern Gaza are sheltering. Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the operation even though U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed their public opposition to it, unless Israel provides safe passage to Palestinian civilians.
On Sunday, Biden told Netanyahu on a phone call that he believes “a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan” for protecting and supporting the Palestinians sheltering there, the White House said in a statement.
The bulk of their 45-minute conversation focused on a long-discussed but repeatedly delayed agreement between Israel and Hamas to free hostages being held in Gaza in exchange for a pause in military operations and the release of Palestinian prisoners, according to the White House.
Biden took a notably sharper tone Thursday and described Israel’s military assault in Gaza as “over the top.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also decidedly blunt last week after a meeting with Netanyahu in Israel. Blinken said he told Netanyahu that the number of Palestinian civilians who are dying every day because of Israel’s military operations “remains too high.”
Yet people familiar with Biden’s private comments said he has told them he believes it would be counterproductive for him to be too harsh on Netanyahu publicly.
Biden’s frustrations with Netanyahu have also not led to a major policy shift, but his administration has begun to consider such options. Two weeks ago, officials told NBC News that the administration was discussing delaying or slowing U.S. weapons sales to Israel as leverage to get Netanyahu to dial down Israeli military operations in Gaza and do more to protect civilians.
In another potential policy shift, NBC reported last week that administration officials are drafting options for formally recognizing an independent Palestinian state.
Yet, even as Biden has escalated his rhetoric, he is not yet prepared to make significant policy changes, officials said. He and his aides continue to believe his approach of unequivocally supporting Israel is the right one.
Some Democrats in Congress have called for putting conditions on U.S. aid to Israel. Other Democrats, including military veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, have cited that experience and questioned Israel’s tactics, arguing that heavy bombardment and steep civilian casualties are counterproductive methods that threaten to provide more fuel to extremists.
One irritant Biden has expressed in recent private conversations, according to the people familiar with his comments, is that he feels his administration keeps coming up with good deals for Israel, such as a recent one involving Saudi Arabia, only to have Netanyahu reject them.
A deal to release hostages and pause Israel’s military operations would cap weeks of high-level efforts by Biden and his top aides to secure a pact, which they hope might eventually lead to a long-term cease-fire.
In perhaps some of his rawest recent private moments, however, the president has said Netanyahu wants the war to drag on so he can remain in power, three of the people familiar with his comments said.
At a fundraiser Biden attended in the past few weeks, he spoke about Israel and his frustrations with Netanyahu to a small group of donors. In response to being thanked for standing with Israel and against antisemitism, Biden took the opportunity to lay out some of his views, according to a supporter who was present.
“I’m a Zionist,” Biden said, reiterating his views that Hamas must be destroyed and that Israel must be protected, according to the supporter.
But Biden also aired his frustration with Netanyahu, who is often referred to as “Bibi.”
“He did say Bibi started off great, but ‘he’s been a pain in my ass lately’ or ‘he’s been killing me lately’ — one of those things,” the person who was present for Biden’s comments recalled. “He goes, ‘But he’s doing a disservice … of late.’”