You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Danger Zone

How One Error May Haunt Biden’s Foreign Policy Legacy

The president’s foolish trust in Netanyahu was a terrible mistake. It’s not too late to correct—barely—but tough medicine is required.

President Joe Biden
Yuri Gripas/Getty Images

The Biden administration is compounding its biggest foreign policy mistake by falling into a trap that has bedeviled U.S. policymakers often in the past.

The initial mistake was embracing a dangerous, profoundly unreliable foreign leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads a reckless and extremist government, as a full partner. It was a decision that any student of Netanyahu knew would end in disaster—no matter how well intentioned the impulse behind it in the wake of the October 7 terror attacks may have been.

Netanyahu is untrustworthy. He has a proven record of manipulation, deceit, and mendacity. He is a sworn enemy of peace in the region. He has treated Palestinians with disdain and disrespect ever since he entered politics. And the extremists in his coalition are even worse—rabid theocratic nationalists who believe that Israeli lives are infinitely more valuable than those of their closest neighbors.

The secondary error that the Biden team is now making is that, after the catastrophic consequences of its policy have become painfully clear, it is seeking to fix the mistake not by undoing it but by augmenting its policy with incremental measures. You can’t fine-tune a massive error into being a success. That is a lesson the United States learned in Vietnam, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.

We say this as genuine admirers of the Biden administration’s foreign policy to date and with the greatest respect for the foreign policy judgment of Biden and his team. When Biden chose to pull out of Afghanistan, even though the exit was badly botched, we praised the decision to leave and to finally bring America’s longest war to an end. We consider the effort to engineer, finally, a real pivot in the focus and priorities of the U.S. to the Indo-Pacific region and to bolster that move with the creation of new alliances, deepened friendships, active diplomacy, and sound measures to counter Chinese competition to be one of the most important, best-executed strategic shifts in recent U.S. foreign policy history, and to be one with important benefits for the world as a whole.

Biden’s courage and leadership in the wake of Russia’s brutal, unprovoked invasion and massive escalation of its war in Ukraine is in the best tradition of American presidents. Revitalizing and expanding NATO will—unless undone by Donald Trump and the MAGA GOP—bear national security benefits for all in the Western alliance for decades to come. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director Bill Burns, and their associates are quite simply the very best, most experienced, wisest group of foreign policy and national security professionals the U.S. has seen in over three decades. They’re among the best ever.

But their Israel-Gaza policy now threatens to overshadow all of that and to become a mistake that haunts them into the pages of history.

Like many such errors, it began with a sound impulse. Israel, a close ally, had been brutally attacked. It was only natural that the U.S. would respond in their moment of need with an offer of assistance. But almost from the outset, the degree to which that assistance was offered without clear conditions opened the door for Netanyahu to take advantage of the U.S. and to do so in ways that would result in a devastating loss of innocent human life, an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis, and deep damage to America’s standing in the world and the Biden administration’s standing with millions of U.S. citizens.

While the U.S., from the outset, sought to influence Israel to take steps to reduce the loss of human life in Gaza and later actively worked to find acceptable deals for the release of hostages that might also come with some form of extended pause in the fighting, time after time its efforts were rebuffed by Netanyahu. Nevertheless, whenever he was asked, Biden asserted the U.S. would not set preconditions for aid to the Israelis. Biden administration officials regularly defended Israel’s actions even when they were clearly indefensible. And the crisis for the people of Gaza and, secondarily but nonetheless importantly, for the Biden administration grew worse with every passing day.

Within weeks, it was clear that Netanyahu would say one thing in meetings with Americans and do something else altogether. Eventually he and his supporters would make statements that flew directly and outrageously against U.S. wishes and in opposition to American interests. They spoke about ethnically cleansing Gaza of Palestinians. They said the war would continue indefinitely. They rejected the idea of a two-state solution.

Gradually, frustration within the Biden administration began to grow. Behind the scenes, divisions hardened among senior officials about the wisdom of throwing in with Netanyahu. Anger at him rose as it became clear that he not only refused to be held accountable for the security debacle that took place under his watch but that he also saw continuing the war as the only way he could maintain power. Further, of course, there were persistent questions about Netanyahu’s motives because he was so closely aligned with Biden’s political opponents in the U.S., Donald Trump and the GOP.

The frustration came out in statements calling for Israeli restraint. The vice president made a particularly clear call for this during a trip to the region in December. During her visit, Harris articulated a U.S. vision for “postwar Gaza” and the region that was ignored, then derided by Netanyahu.

Later, the U.S. would tweak the Israelis in comparatively small ways. Biden refused to speak to the Israeli prime minister for a while. Sanctions against four Israeli West Bank “settlers” were effectively a slap on the wrist, easily ignored by Netanyahu. (We think it would have been more effective and appropriate to sanction extremist Israeli Cabinet ministers who were fomenting anti-Palestinian violence and promoting ethnic cleansing—like, for example, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir or Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.)

But of course none of these measures worked. They did not address the core problem. The U.S. could try to cajole and persuade Netanyahu, but the two nations’ interests were not aligned from the outset, and Netanyahu had absolutely zero meaningful incentive to succumb to U.S. entreaties or admonitions. Netanyahu is a liar, a user, an exploiter, and a malignant narcissist, just like his U.S. political ally Trump. Furthermore, he seems intent on actively seeking a confrontation with President Biden to serve his political survival.

By now it should be clear that the lipstick of rhetorical admonitions did not improve the appearance of this particular pig of a gross policy miscalculation. Nonetheless, as recently as a few days ago, a senior U.S. official said to one of us that we could not be tougher with Netanyahu because we would lose our leverage with him.

What leverage? He does not listen. He has ignored much if not all of our guidance. We may have achieved minor gains on humanitarian issues but at what cost? Nearly 30,000 Palestinians are dead. More will die if a ground operation in Rafah is launched, as appears to be imminent. Tens of thousands are at risk of starvation or disease. Israel’s abuses in Gaza are among the worst we have seen in recent history—far worse in terms of civilian toll than even Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine. And all of this is, undeniably, uncomfortably and, indeed, shamefully, being enabled by the United States.

When a major mistake is made, the first step is to stop making it worse. Recognize it for what it is. And change course. For the U.S., this means being direct and open in its criticism of Netanyahu. It means Biden, who is more popular than Netanyahu in Israel, taking his message directly to the Israeli people. It means making it clear that our goal is peace and stability and that we will support it—but it means that not only is Hamas gone but that Israel and the Palestinian Authority get new leadership. It means using our diplomatic leverage to get the release of the hostages and then to declare “mission accomplished” and to take a big step back away from this conflict, turning key remaining issues over to regional partners and international institutions.

It means working with the Saudis to use the carrot of a normalization agreement to set up a plausible process toward an independent demilitarized but secure Palestinian state. In this regard, it means recognizing a Palestinian state and making work toward it a centerpiece of U.S. regional policy. It means backing international institutions capable of providing aid.

Perhaps most consequentially, it means walking back Biden’s error of saying aid to Israel would be unconditional. It must be conditional. All aid is conditional. And it is vitally important that Netanyahu understand that America is not giving him a blank check and that the U.S. will no longer underwrite activities that are contrary to our interests or in violation of international law.

(It is also essential to understand that whatever our critique of the Biden administration’s Israel-Gaza policy to date, the only hope of undoing recent mistakes and achieving positive results lies with maintaining America’s current leadership. Donald Trump, as we have both written elsewhere, would be many times worse, many times more accommodating to the extremist elements in Netanyahu’s government.)

The bond between the American and the Israeli people is and should remain unbreakable. But we should not make the mistake of confusing the Israeli people with a dangerously radical government led by an accused criminal. We must recognize—the president must recognize—that the old U.S.-Israel relationship that Biden first got to know as a young senator is a thing of the past, a Cold War relic. We must accept that if America’s goal is regional stability, there is no path to get there that does not involve dignity and self-determination for the Palestinian people. We must understand that to the world and to the rising generation of American voters, not only is this the right path, but it is one that we have strayed from for far too long.

The only way to fix a broken policy is to end it. It is time to start anew with both the U.S.-Israel relationship and with the U.S.-Palestine relationship. If this administration can do that, it can add this area of Middle East policy to its long list of foreign policy triumphs. If it cannot, it is quite possible it will haunt Biden’s legacy for many years to come.