A day after President Biden voiced his strongest criticism of the Israeli government since the war in Gaza began, many Israelis were moving past the public rupture on Wednesday, with some suggesting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might seek political benefit from escalating a fight with the American leader.
The disagreement between Israel and its closest ally over what a postwar Gaza should look like poses risks for the Netanyahu government, analysts said, raising questions about how long the United States will continue to offer untrammeled support for the invasion of Gaza. But it also offers Mr. Netanyahu an opportunity to repair his sagging domestic ratings by presenting himself as a leader unbowed by foreign demands.
“He’s looking at a potential election campaign a few months down the road,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “This is going to be his platform: ‘I am the leader who can stand up to Biden and prevent a Palestinian state.’”
On Tuesday, in some of his most pointed comments about Israel’s conduct of a war that has killed thousands of civilians, Mr. Biden said Israel risked losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza. He also criticized Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right government, which he said doesn’t “want anything remotely approaching a two-state solution” to the country’s long-running conflict with Palestinians.
The Biden administration has proposed that after the war, the Palestinian Authority, the body that administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, should also take charge of Gaza as part of a process that could lead to a Palestinian state. But hours before Mr. Biden spoke on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu all but ruled that out, dismissing the idea of turning Gaza into what he called “Fatahstan,” a reference to the Palestinian group, Fatah, that controls the Palestinian Authority.
“Yes, there is disagreement about ‘the day after Hamas,’” Mr. Netanyahu said.
That dispute will form the backdrop to an upcoming visit to Israel by Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, who is expected to arrive in Jerusalem later this week to discuss the war and its aftermath with Mr. Netanyahu.
The prime minister’s office declined to comment for this article.
Israeli commentators discussed whether Mr. Netanyahu’s reproach might encourage the Biden administration to place modest limits on the United States’ support for Israel, which includes billions of dollars in annual aid; munitions; diplomatic cover at the United Nations; and — until now, at least — full-throated backing for the invasion.
But those issues may be of secondary concern for Mr. Netanyahu for the moment as he tries to rebuild his ebbing popularity, Mr. Rabinovich said. The prime minister’s security credentials have been badly damaged by his government’s failure to prevent the Hamas-led raid on southern Israel that killed an estimated 1,200 people and led to the abduction of roughly 240 others.
To his critics, Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to assume full responsibility for the disaster has compounded a sense that the prime minister has placed his personal interests above those of the state. Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to resign despite being prosecuted on corruption charges left the country divided, created huge political instability, and led to five elections in less than four years.
Since Oct. 7, Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud, has fallen far behind that of his main rival, Benny Gantz, a former military chief who — in a bid to foster national unity — has joined Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet for the duration of the war. The latest poll, published on Monday by Channel 13, one of Israel’s main television channels, found that Mr. Gantz’s party would win 37 seats in a snap election, far ahead of the 18 seats that Likud was projected to take.
And a survey conducted last month by the Jewish People Policy Institute found that 55 percent of respondents had strong trust in Mr. Gantz, as opposed to only 32 percent for Mr. Netanyahu.
Analysts say Mr. Netanyahu is now trying to regain the backing of longtime Likud voters by doubling down on traditional right-wing policy positions, such as opposition to a Palestinian state and rejection of the Oslo accords, the interim peace agreements between Israelis and Palestinians that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
“I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Tuesday. “Gaza will be neither Hamastan nor Fatahstan.”
In past elections, Mr. Netanyahu won public support by presenting himself as the only leader experienced enough to protect Israel from myriad foreign threats, and as the politician best placed to maintain Israel’s relationship with the United States. The debacle of Oct. 7, coupled with Mr. Netanyahu’s growing tensions with Mr. Biden, have forced the prime minister to find another approach, according to Nahum Barnea, a veteran commentator for Yediot Ahronot, a centrist Israeli newspaper.
“He failed as Mr. Security and he failed as Mr. America,” Mr. Barnea wrote in a column on Wednesday. “Maybe he’ll succeed as Mr. Never Palestine.”
Despite their differences on other issues, Mr. Biden has offered unwavering public support for Mr. Netanyahu’s primary war goals: the removal of Hamas and the freedom of the hostages in Gaza. And even amid his criticisms on Tuesday, Mr. Biden renewed his pledge to help Israel “finish the job” against Hamas.
Last week, his administration vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for an immediate cease-fire. But amid rising domestic criticism of Mr. Biden’s support for Israel, U.S. officials have pressed the country to reduce civilian casualties. More than 15,000 Palestinians — possibly thousands more — have been killed to date, according to Gazan health officials.
On Wednesday, a day after Mr. Biden’s comments, a White House spokesman dodged questions about whether the United States had formally concluded that Israel’s bombing was indiscriminate, which could be a war crime under international law.
American officials have also pressed Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, amid profound food, water and fuel shortages there and the near-collapse of the territory’s health system.
As disagreement between the countries becomes more public, Israeli commentators have questioned whether Mr. Biden might press Mr. Netanyahu to halt the invasion earlier than Israel’s military wants, or stop vetoing U.N. resolutions unfavorable to Israel.
Mr. Biden is “now watching the war with a stopwatch in hand,” Mr. Barnea wrote. “Another week, another two weeks. The clock is ticking.”
Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York, said in an interview that Mr. Biden would have “no choice but to move away from his position” if Mr. Netanyahu did not do more to address U.S. concerns.
“History shows that whenever an American president had a dispute with Israel, but explained it in terms of American interests, the American public supported their position,” Mr. Pinkas added.
Mr. Netanyahu does have a history of changing position under U.S. pressure.
During his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, he continued with the Oslo process, even handing over control of parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, despite fiercely opposing such moves when he was in the opposition.
During his second term, a decade later, Mr. Netanyahu responded to pressure from the Obama administration by agreeing to a monthslong freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. And in 2009, he made a speech in which he set out the terms under which he would accept the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Bibi has no problem reversing course,” said Mr. Rabinovich, the former ambassador, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.
“The one guiding principle,” Mr. Rabinovich said, “is: ‘I must stay in power.’ If he comes to the conclusion that staying in power requires changing course on these issues, he’ll do it.”
Jonathan Reiss contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel.