Netanyahu agrees to send officials to Washington to discuss Rafah strategy

The call comes after President Joe Biden has increased his criticism of Israel’s strategy in Gaza

Eric Garcia
Washington, DC
,Andrew Feinberg
Monday 18 March 2024 22:11 GMT
Chuck Schumer says Netanyahu's government 'no longer fits the needs of Israel'

Israel will send a delegation to brief US officials on a planned offensive in Rafah after a phone call between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday.

Mr Sullivan told reporters at the daily White House press briefing that Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu spoke about Israel’s ongoing campaign in Gaza and plans for an Israeli attack on Rafah. Administration officials, including Mr Biden, have said the US would not support such an offensive “without a credible plan” on the part of the Israelis.

He said Mr Biden “explained why he is so deeply concerned about the prospect of Israel conducting major military operations in Rafah” if such operations were “of the kind of conducted in Gaza City and Khan Yunus” in the months since the 7 October attacks by Hamas killed more than 1,000 Israelis.

“More than a million people have taken refuge in Rafah ... they have nowhere else to go Gaza as other major cities have largely been destroyed. And Israel has not presented us or the world with a plan for how we’re where they would safely move those civilians, let alone feed and house them and ensure access to basic things like sanitation,” he said.

Mr Sullivan also noted that Rafah remains “primary entry point for humanitarian assistance into Gaza from Egypt and from Israel,” and said any Israeli invasion of that city “would shut that down or at least put it at grave risk right at the moment when it is most sorely needed”. He further cited Egyptian concerns that an invasion of Rafah would send a flood of refugees over the Gaza border into Egypt, a development which Egypt has said would prompt them to withdraw from the decades-old Camp David Accords peace treaty with Israel.

“Our position is that Hamas should not be allowed safe haven ... but a major ground operation there would be a mistake, it would lead to more innocent civilian deaths, worse in the already dire humanitarian crisis, deepen the anarchy in Gaza, and further isolate Israel internationally,” he said.

He added that he’d asked Mr Netanyahu to dispatch what he described as “a senior interagency team composed of military intelligence and humanitarian officials” to Washington so they can “hear US concerns about Israel’s current Rafah planning and ... an alternative approach that would target key Hamas elements in Rafah and secure the Egypt Gaza border without a major ground invasion”.

“The Prime Minister ... agreed that he would send a team to Washington to have this discussion and have this engagement and we look forward to those discussions,” he said.

Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu have known each other for decades. In the days after the 7 October attacks, Mr Biden visited Israel and voiced strong support for the country, but as the conflict has persisted the uneasy relationship between them has been strained.

In a press conference last month, Mr Biden said Mr Netanyahu’s response had become “over the top” – signaling the US’s first major break with the Israeli government’s response. Mr Netanyahu rebuffed Mr Biden, telling presenters on the Fox and Friends programme: “We’re not getting off the gas.”

The tension between the two leaders over Israel’s planned invasion of Rafah has persisted for month as the number of Palestinians civilians killed in the post-7 October operation has increased and pro-Palestinian protesters have routinely disrupted Mr Biden’s public events, even as Mr Netanyahu has rebuffed US officials’ pleas for his forces to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties.

Asked why Mr Biden feels the conversations from the Israeli delegation might be more productive than his previous outreaches to Mr Netanyahu, Mr Sullivan described the talks as a “natural evolution of a discussion between partners”.

“We've had many discussions at many different levels between our military, our intelligence, our diplomats, our humanitarian experts, but we have not yet had the opportunity to have an all encompassing comprehensive, integrated, strategic discussion about how to achieve ... the ultimate defeat of Hamas and to the protection of civilians and the stabilisation of Gaza in a way that will lead to the long term security of Israel as well as the protection of innocent human life that is in Gaza,” he said.

The call and the news of the planned meetings between Israeli and US officials come just days after the Israeli prime minister voiced outrage at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s speech calling for new elections in Israel.

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel,” Mr Schumer said in a speech in Congress on Thursday. “The Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past.”

Mr Schumer, who as the senior senator from New York represents the state with the most Jewish-Americans in the country, reportedly told the White House about the speech in advance.

Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Joe Biden on Monday (Getty Images)

Mr Biden later praised his speech, saying: “He made a good speech, and I think he expressed serious concern shared not only by him, but by many Americans.”

Mr Netnayahu criticised Mr Schumer’s words on CNN on Sunday as “totally inappropriate”.

“It’s an inappropriate to go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there,” he told host Dana Bash. “That’s something the Israeli public does on its own. We’re not a banana republic.”

Monday’s call between the two leaders also focused on efforts to provide aid to Gaza. Earlier this month, the United States announced it would conduct airdrops to assist Gazans amid an ongoing humanitarian crisis. The Biden administration also announced it would build an emergency aid seaport off the coast of Gaza.

The call comes as Mr Biden is facing criticism from many Democrats over his stance on the conflict. A slice of Democratic primary voters in states including Michigan, Washington State, North Carolina and Minnesota have voted “uncommitted” as a means to express their dissatisfaction with the Biden administration’s support for Israel.

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