In Israel, Biden Will Find a Country Distrustful of Its Own Leaders

Since the October 7 Hamas attack, Prime Minister Netanyahu has studiously refrained from facing Israeli reporters. His refusal to conduct press conferences stands in contrast to several Israeli leaders who have done so.

AP/Susan Walsh, file
President Biden meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu at New York, September 20, 2023. AP/Susan Walsh, file

Upon arriving in Israel on Wednesday, President Biden will find a country that has lost trust in its own leadership, from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down. In contrast, the American president, at least for now, is enjoying a period of wide admiration. 

“I hear people who say that Biden is here to give us a bear hug,” the head of Israel’s national security council, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Israeli reporters Tuesday. Khibook dov, Hebrew for bear hug, refers to an unloving embrace designed to hold one back from acting. Mr. Hanegbi wouldn’t have it. 

Mr. Biden “is not here to give us a bear hug, he’s here to give us a good hug, a loving hug,” Mr. Hanegbi, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s closest advisers and his frequent liaison to Washington, said. “For the first time in the history of Israel’s wars, the leader of the world’s top power is coming here to be with us.”

Mr. Biden is expected to join a meeting of Israel’s security cabinet on Wednesday morning before flying to Amman, Jordan for a meeting with King Abdullah and President al-Sisi of Egypt. The Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, who was scheduled to join the meeting, withdrew in an apparent rebuke to Mr. Biden. 

Chancellor Scholz landed in Israel Tuesday.  President Macron is due to arrive there as well. President Zelensky plans a visit, and several other world leaders also are expected to take solidarity tours. Mr. Netanyahu makes almost daily statements alongside such visitors. 

Yet, since the October 7 attack the premier has studiously refrained from facing Israeli reporters. His refusal to conduct press conferences stands in contrast to several leaders who have done so, including the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, and the Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi. Some have acknowledged shortcomings. 

“This war started with an intelligence failure,” the commander of the IDF’s intelligence directorate, Aman, Major General Aharon Haliva, said in a statement Tuesday. “Aman under my command failed to predict the murderous terror attack. We did not fulfill our most important mission, and I take full responsibility.”

General Halevi, similarly, acknowledged failure, as did the head of Shabak, Israel’s equivalent of the FBI, and others. Like them, General Haliva vowed to do better and said that while past failures will be extensively examined, now is the time to turn the ship around and beat Hamas. 

During the Tuesday press conference, Mr. Hanegbi was repeatedly asked why as the man at the top, his boss, Mr. Netanyahu, refuses to similarly take responsibility for failures. Mr. Hanegbi’s response, which was criticized as an attempt to shirk responsibility: “There will be a day when previous and current premiers will have to answer such questions.” 

Anger in Israel goes beyond the initial failure to predict the attack. Repeated system-wide glitches are feeding the public’s outrage. Last week, a top official urged all Israelis to secure enough food and bottled water to last for at least 48 hours. As supermarket shelves emptied quickly, the official acknowledged that he misspoke.  

Residents of Gaza border communities who escaped the horrors there with nothing but the clothes on their backs complain that government offices are slow to address immediate basic needs. Volunteers often jump to the rescue, filling the void left by failed government bureaucrats who seem overwhelmed. 

Initial reports of similar disorder in the IDF ranks have been widely refuted. Yet, some gaps remain. “We have everything here, but we can use more ceramic body armor,” a soldier from a unit preparing to invade Gaza told Israel’s Kan radio. Once again, volunteers in Israel and America have been donating such gear. 

Nevertheless, government offices — and even more so the army — seem to have turned the corner. On Tuesday, the IDF announced the killing of the most senior commander of Hamas’s military wing to date, Ayman Nofal. The ability to locate and hit a large number of Hamas officials in the last few days indicates that the IDF and its intelligence arm are regrouping. 

The government’s declared goal — eliminating Hamas’s military and governance capabilities — will nevertheless necessitate a ground operation in Gaza to follow the current ferocious air bombardment. And that invasion was put on hold when Mr. Biden announced his visit, Israel’s Channel 11 television reported Tuesday. 

According to Israeli reports, American officials are pressuring the IDF to delay the ground operation until Gaza humanitarian efforts are set. Reports of a blast at or adjacent to a Gaza hospital on Tuesday have been confirmed by Israeli intelligence to have been the result of a misfired rocket fired by Islamic Jihad from within Gaza.

As Arabs and even Westerners like Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada rush to condemn Israel, Washington is concerned that the war could widen to include Hezbollah, Iran, and even Russia. 

Mr. Biden’s hug may yet force Israel to hold back. For now, though, Israelis — and their government — warmly embrace the president, hoping his presence will help them push back against international pressure to prematurely end their mission to eliminate Hamas. 

________

This dispatch has been updated from the bulldog.


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