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Israel's most important ally, the U.S., expresses frustration with the war in Gaza

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel's most important ally is expressing frustration. President Biden has said Israel's response to the October 7 attack by Hamas is over the top. He has recently added that Israel cannot kill another 30,000 Palestinians, referring to the death toll in Gaza. Chuck Schumer, who is both the U.S. Senate leader and the highest elected official in the United States who is Jewish, has called for new Israeli elections. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister Schumer apparently wants out, is pushing back.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It's inappropriate to go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there. That's something that Israel - Israeli public does on its own, and we're not a banana republic.

INSKEEP: Netanyahu was speaking there on CNN. Michael Oren joins us next. He was once Prime Minister Netanyahu's choice for ambassador to the United States. He is also a distinguished historian, and he is with us now from Tel Aviv. Ambassador, welcome back.

MICHAEL OREN: Good to be with you, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to play you a bit of President Biden from MSNBC the other day. He's talking about Prime Minister Netanyahu. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He's hurting Israel more than helping Israel by making the rest of the world - it's contrary to what Israel stands for. And I think it's a big mistake.

INSKEEP: The argument being that Israel is fighting the war against Hamas in such a way that builds greater and greater opposition around the world. Is Biden right about that much?

OREN: Well, he's right about the opposition, Steve. I think he's wrong about Netanyahu. And I'll explain what I mean. I think there's a misconception in America that the prime minister of Israel is like the president of the United States, the commander in chief. He isn't. The commander in chief of the IDF is not the prime minister, not the defense minister, not even the chief of staff. The commander in chief of the IDF is the Israeli government. It's consensual.

And were Netanyahu would go tomorrow, Israel would have exactly the same policies toward Gaza, toward the pending incursion into Rafah. I don't think anything would change, and it could actually be more aggressive 'cause the Netanyahu I know, though he sounds - can sound very belligerent, is actually conflict averse.

INSKEEP: I want to understand what you're saying there, Ambassador. Are you telling me that Netanyahu has defied, it seems, U.S. calls for greater restraint, is helpless in this situation? He's just doing what he politically has to?

OREN: No. He's doing what he didn't have to. The vast majority of Israelis, for example, are against aid to Gaza. They feel that Hamas has not given even the names of the list of the hostages. We don't know whether the hostages are alive or dead. He hasn't let any medicine into the hostages. The Red Cross hasn't gotten in to see the hostages. And the majority of Israelis feel that this is the only leverage we have over Hamas is by denying aid.

By the way, I personally don't agree with that. I think that Hamas would like to see Palestinians starve 'cause that puts more pressure on Israel to agree to a cease-fire. But that's the political reality, and Netanyahu and the government has actually been going against majority of Israeli opinion on that, I think, wisely. But generally speaking, again, were Netanyahu to disappear tomorrow as prime minister, Israel would have exactly the same policy.

INSKEEP: It's useful to hear that political read, but I'm thinking about what you just said, that Netanyahu has been going against a demand to deny aid to Gaza. Israel is not helping very much to allow aid into Gaza. The United States has had to arrange airdrops and trying to build a special pier at sea, very inefficient ways, when Israel could simply open a land border or cause fewer restrictions at the land border with Egypt. Can you really say that Netanyahu is doing anything to allow aid into Gaza?

OREN: Well, put it this way, he's doing more than the Israeli populace - majority of Israelis - would like to see. Yes, I think Israel could do a lot more. And I - again, I've been a strong advocate of aid since the beginning of the war, not just on moral purposes, but also on strategic purposes. Again, Hamas wants Palestinians to die, wants them to starve, 'cause that puts pressure on Israel to agree to a cease-fire, and a cease-fire means Hamas wins. It comes out of the tunnels. It declares victory, and it prepares for the next onslaught against Israel. So it's in Israel's also strategic interest, not just the moral interest, to increase that aid. To the degree that Israel has given aid, though, Netanyahu has gone against the current in Israeli public opinion.

INSKEEP: President Biden, of course, has continued talking of a two-state solution, a long-term, two-state solution - an independent state for Palestinians with some kind of borders. Prime Minister Netanyahu has continued to say he will never accept that. He needs something less than that. Could any Israeli government move the ball in that direction?

OREN: Well, I think the next Israeli government, a different Israeli government, may not have the same type of constraints that Netanyahu has played. He's under pressure from his extreme right wing. And so he is using the opportunity of President Biden's calling for a two-state solution to say, I'm the only person who can prevent the emergence of a two-state solution. Another government may say, OK, we're willing to talk, and we can talk about a path to a two-state solution. That would not commit us in any way. I personally think that would be a prudent way to proceed.

INSKEEP: A prudent way to proceed. Is that what you said?

OREN: I do think it would, 'cause I think that President Biden has taken a lot of risks for us in opposing cease-fires and keeping the munitions coming. He's paying a political price for it, and I think that we could make things a little bit easier for him.

INSKEEP: OK. Michael Oren is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. Ambassador, thanks so much.

OREN: Have a good day, Steve.

INSKEEP: And that's one of many viewpoints we're hearing. You can find others at npr.org/middleeast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.