Biden and Netanyahu Seek Opposing Goals in Cease-Fire Talks

President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel each addressed the future of the battle in Gaza this week, speaking just a day apart but worlds removed from one another in a way that captured the essential tension between the two men after more than four months of fighting.

Mr. Netanyahu spoke of war and how it would continue even if there is a temporary cease-fire to secure the release of hostages, just “delayed somewhat.” Mr. Biden spoke of peace and how such a cease-fire deal could “change the dynamic,” leading to a broader realignment that would finally end the underlying conflict that has defined the Middle East for generations.

The disparity in visions reflects the opposing political calendars on which the two leaders are operating. Mr. Netanyahu has a compelling interest in prolonging the war against Hamas to postpone the day of reckoning when he will face accountability for failing to prevent the Oct. 7 terrorist attack. Mr. Biden conversely has a powerful incentive to end the war as soon as possible to tamp down anger in the left wing of his party before the fall re-election campaign when he will need all the support he can get.

At the same time, each has reason to think he may yet get a better deal if the other loses his post. Mr. Biden’s advisers are acutely aware that Mr. Netanyahu’s government could fall in response to the terrorist attack while the Israeli prime minister, who goes by the nickname Bibi, may prefer to buy time until November in case former President Donald J. Trump recaptures the White House.

“It’s absolutely fair to say Biden and Bibi are on different political timetables with respect to the Gaza war — and I think it’s an increasingly significant part of the equation,” said Frank Lowenstein, a former special envoy for Middle East peace under President Barack Obama.

The divergent goals are playing out this week as negotiators try to hammer out a hostage deal before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next month. Mr. Biden said on Monday that U.S.-brokered talks were close to an agreement and that he expected a cease-fire to begin by the end of this weekend. But that depends on Mr. Netanyahu going along with a bargain with Hamas.

The relationship between the two men has been complicated these past four months. While they hugged on an airport tarmac in Tel Aviv when Mr. Biden came to visit just days after the terrorist attack that killed 1,200, their telephone calls have grown increasingly edgy as they quarreled over the Israeli military operation that has claimed nearly 30,000 lives in Gaza.

At one point in December, the conversation grew so heated that Mr. Biden declared that he was done and hung up the phone, an episode previously reported by Axios. In public, Mr. Biden has resisted a more open break, continuing to back Israel’s right to defend itself and still describing himself as a Zionist, as he did again on Monday, even as he complained that “there are too many innocent people that are being killed.”

Mr. Netanyahu has been more willing to publicly defy Mr. Biden, a position that allows him to argue that he is the one person capable of standing up to American pressure for a two-state solution to the Palestinian dispute — and therefore should be kept in office, whatever the failings leading up to Oct. 7.

“The farther Netanyahu gets away from Oct. 7, the less responsible and accountable he gets to be held, in his opinion,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York. “And as time moves away from Oct. 7, it also gets closer to Nov. 5,” the American election that could return Mr. Trump to power.

“But it goes deeper than that,” he added. “Netanyahu, I think, is seeking a direct confrontation with Biden because it’s good for his political interests. He’s trying to change the narrative.”

It is, however, a risky game. It has become clearer than ever how dependent the go-it-alone Israel really is on the United States — not just for the munitions it is using in its war against Hamas but for its defense in the international arena, where Washington has vetoed repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions and backed Israel at the International Court of Justice against calls for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

Moreover, Mr. Biden is offering Mr. Netanyahu something the Israeli genuinely wants: the prospect of normalization of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, which would be a paradigm shift for the Jewish state after three-quarters of a century in a hostile neighborhood and the kind of historic achievement any prime minister would want for his legacy. Mr. Biden’s point is that such a breakthrough can only come if the war is brought to an end and a Palestinian state is on the table.

Mr. Biden seemed to offer something of a concession to Mr. Netanyahu on that front during an interview on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” on Monday, making clear that he was not insisting on “a two-state solution immediately but a process to get to a two-state solution.” Yet it is unclear whether Mr. Netanyahu, who has resisted such a solution for much of his long career, could accept even a process.

Part of the challenge for Mr. Biden is that when it comes to the military campaign, it is not just a matter of the president versus the prime minister. The Israeli political establishment across the spectrum, from left to center to right, supports the war against Hamas following the terrorist attack that traumatized the country. There is little sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza even among Mr. Netanyahu’s political opponents.

But there is daylight between Mr. Netanyahu and other political figures on the question of the hostages. While he has expressed a hard line during negotiations to pause the fighting to secure the release of some of the roughly 100 people seized on Oct. 7 and still held by Hamas, he has been pushed to do more to free them by others in the government, families of the hostage and protesters in the streets.

Biden administration officials see that as a way to drive a wedge between Mr. Netanyahu and the rest of his allies of convenience in the war cabinet. Either the prime minister accepts a hostage-for-cease-fire deal, in this view, or he will lose critical support that he has counted on to hang onto power.

For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has his own interest in separating Mr. Biden from his own political coalition. “Bibi may even stand to gain by driving a wedge between Biden and the Arab American community — by marginalizing them politically if not defeating Biden,” Mr. Lowenstein said.

That was playing out on Tuesday in Michigan, where Arab American voters and other supporters of the Palestinians were voting “uncommitted” in the Democratic primary as a protest against Mr. Biden’s support for Israel. Some saw Mr. Biden’s expression of optimism on Monday that a cease-fire was near, which came in response to a reporter’s question during a visit to a New York ice cream shop, as a last-minute effort to defuse anger in Michigan.

Mr. Netanyahu is “totally motivated by his own political survival — and avoiding legal sanction as well,” said Mara Rudman, a former deputy special envoy for Middle East policy under Mr. Obama. “And I suspect Netanyahu would see playing a role in dislodging Biden as a win-win, however much that actually is counter to interests of Israeli — and Palestinian — people.”

If he cannot dislodge Mr. Biden, he may be able to blame him, according to some Israeli analysts. Mr. Netanyahu’s oft-stated goal of destroying Hamas may be militarily unrealistic, according to security analysts, and so if he falls short of accomplishing that, the prime minister could point to American pressure as the reason.

“Biden is going out on a limb, losing votes, people are screaming genocide at him wherever he goes,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster and analyst who worked as an aide to Mr. Netanyahu in the 1990s. “And Netanyahu is not giving him any backup because Biden is a good scapegoat for why Netanyahu won’t have total victory.”

“We are getting an unprecedented level of support from Biden, both militarily, moral, emotional and global,” he added. “From our end, we return it with petty arguments, internal political declarations and extremism baiting to get folks riled up.”

The Biden team has grown increasingly frustrated over that. The president’s advisers had hoped that the war would be wrapped up by early January so that by summer everyone would be focused on reconstruction efforts in Gaza and peacemaking efforts leading to Palestinian autonomy.

That way, the theory went, left-wing voters and Arab Americans angry at Mr. Biden, particularly those in swing states like Michigan might have calmed down to a degree and, however reluctantly, returned to the president’s fold in time to defeat Mr. Trump.

But it has not worked out that way, at least not yet. January is over, and February is almost as well. The calendar keeps slipping. The Biden and Netanyahu timetables are heading for a collision.