WASHINGTON — President Biden has maintained his public support toward Israel even as he adopted a somewhat sharper private tone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a calculus shaped by Mr. Biden’s longtime relationship with the Israeli leader as well as by growing hopes that Israel’s military operations against Hamas are nearing an end.
In a phone call on Monday, Mr. Biden warned Mr. Netanyahu that he could fend off criticism of the Gaza strikes for only so long, according to two people familiar with the call. That conversation was said to be significantly stronger than an official summary released by the White House. It affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense and did not repeat calls by many congressional Democrats for an immediate cease-fire.
That phone call and others since the fighting started last week reflect Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu’s complicated 40-year relationship. It began when Mr. Netanyahu was the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and Mr. Biden was a young senator with a passion for foreign affairs. Since then, they have rarely seen eye to eye, but have forged an occasionally chummy working relationship through seven American presidencies — Mr. Netanyahu has been prime minister for four of them — and raging political battles over the Iran nuclear deal and Israeli settlement policy.
Today, that relationship is as complicated as ever. Mr. Biden’s juggling act on Israel, always a challenge for an American president, is especially difficult given that Democrats are no longer solidly in Israel’s corner.
Palestinian grievances — and that his approach has less to do with the military situation on the ground than with domestic politics and his broader foreign policy agenda, including nuclear talks with Iran.
For his part, Mr. Netanyahu is fighting for his political life at home while trying to sustain support for his country in Washington. With Mr. Biden now in the Oval Office, the men are again trying to sustain mutual trust amid larger forces driving them apart.
Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel, said that Mr. Biden had bought himself private space to persuade Mr. Netanyahu to wind down the strikes in Gaza, which were launched in retaliation for Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Mr. Indyk also said that Mr. Biden was trying to get the Israeli leader to agree to a cease-fire “by making clear publicly that he was in Israel’s corner, that Israel has a right to defend itself, and that he has Netanyahu’s back.”
“That was very important for the moment that has now come, in which he has to turn to Netanyahu and say, ‘Time to wrap it up,’” Mr. Indyk said.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu have been through countless highs and lows together.
After Mr. Netanyahu faced his first electoral defeat, in 1999, Mr. Biden sent him a letter, praising him for having shown political courage during talks with the Palestinians that were hosted by the United States in Maryland. Mr. Netanyahu replied, and gratefully noted that Mr. Biden was the only American politician to write to him after his defeat.
approving new housing construction in East Jerusalem, a setback to Obama administration efforts to mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Obama White House officials were enraged, and several urged Mr. Biden to skip a planned dinner with Mr. Netanyahu in Tel Aviv and leave the country immediately. Mr. Biden disagreed, and chose to confront the Israeli leader in private while minimizing the public discord, betting that such an approach would be more effective, people familiar with the episode said.