Read between the lines for Biden’s changing position on Israel, US official says

Netanyahu is determined to attack Rafah, despite US warnings. Andrew Feinberg speaks to Israeli and American officials about what the consequences might be

Tuesday 07 May 2024 09:35 BST

President Joe Biden has once again warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his continued opposition to a full-scale invasion of Rafah, but the White House is keeping mum on the potential consequences if the embattled Israeli leader goes ahead with his plans.

The Gazan border city remains the last refuge for many Palestinian civilians in an area that has been devastated by seven months of war. But over the weekend, Israeli forces began airdropping leaflets warning that they were “about to operate with force against the terror organisations in the area you currently reside”.

According to the White House, Biden “reiterated his clear position on Rafah” during a phone call with the longtime Israeli leader on Monday.

White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby said at a briefing on Monday that Biden’s conversation with the Israeli leader had been “constructive” but stressed that the American president’s “clear” view is that Israel’s plans for Rafah “could potentially put more than a million innocent people at greater risk”.

“During his call with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the President again made this clear: We continue to believe that the hostage deal was the best way to avoid that sort of an outcome while securing the release of those hostages. And as I said, those conversations continue,” Kirby said.

He added later that Biden’s “consistent” view has been that “ground operations in Rafah” would not be acceptable to the United States.

The president and other top US officials have consistently warned Israel against a full-on ground invasion in Rafah. Experts say such an invasion would have a devastating effect on the humanitarian crisis that has taken hold in Gaza amid food shortages and the destruction of most medical facilities in the territory.

But Netanyahu — who is currently on trial for corruption and, his critics say, hoping to remain in power in order to avoid consequences from a conviction — has defied the Democratic-led US administration and has made clear his plans to press ahead with the operation. The Israeli PM says he believes Rafah to be the last redoubt of the Hamas terrorists who carried out the 7 October 2023 terrorist attack on Israel.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke just hours before Hamas announced that it had accepted a ceasefire proposal put forth by Egypt and Qatar. That deal would have seen a number of Hamas-held hostages released in exchange for Israel freeing Palestinian prisoners and backing off on its planned Rafah operation.

An Israeli government spokesperson dismissed the Hamas announcement and said the proposal that Hamas had claimed to have accepted was a “softened” version of an Egyptian proposal, which included “far-reaching” conclusions that Israel could not accept.

“This would appear to be a ruse intended to make Israel look like the side refusing a deal,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Kirby, the White House spokesperson, said talks continue with the aid of Bill Burns, the CIA director and veteran US diplomat, who arrived in Doha over the weekend.

He told reporters that Burns was at that very point “in the region, having these conversations with the Israelis, the Qataris, the Egyptians” and again implied — but did not explicitly state — that America’s lack of support for an Israeli ground operation could lead Biden to cut off offensive military aid to Israel.

Over the weekend, Axios reported that the US has paused a planned shipment of ammunition meant for Israel — including the 2,000lb unguided bombs that Israeli planes have been dropping on Gaza to horrific effect during the seven-month war against Hamas.

Pointedly, Kirby declined to confirm the report on Monday, but he also refused to deny it outright. Instead, he replied to a question about whether the US is sending “mixed messages” by continuing to supply Israel with arms by stating that “two things can be true at once”.

“Israel has a right and a responsibility to defend itself. And we're going to continue to provide for their security and help them with that. And at the same time, they have a right and obligation to be careful about civilian casualties and getting more humanitarian assistance,” he said.

Another US official, who also spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity, said Kirby’s words were meant to convey that for Biden, cutting off offensive weapons to Israel is no longer unthinkable.

The official pointed to exchanges between the White House spokesperson and The Independent in which Kirby vociferously defended US military aid, even after some of it was used to kill World Central Kitchen aid workers last month.

“He’s no longer saying ‘no’ [to conditioning military aid] — interpret that however you will,” they said.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in