rafah riff

Biden to Netanyahu: Consider ‘alternative approach’ to Rafah

Biden summons Israeli military leaders to Washington to express his concerns about Israel’s planned invasion


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets President Joe Biden in Israel, days after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack

In a Monday phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Joe Biden reiterated Washington’s support for Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas while offering a resounding rejection of Israel’s plans to mount a major ground operation in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where many Hamas fighters are believed to be hiding. 

Acknowledging Hamas’ presence in Rafah, Biden told Israel they could operate there — but only in a highly targeted way. At Biden’s request, Netanyahu agreed to send a senior delegation of military, intelligence and humanitarian officials to Washington within the next week to listen to the White House’s concerns about Rafah.

“The president has rejected and did again today the straw-man that raising questions about Rafah is the same as raising questions about defeating Hamas. That’s just nonsense. Our position is that Hamas should not be allowed a safe haven in Rafah or anywhere else, but a major ground operation there would be a mistake,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters at a Monday press briefing. 

At the meeting with senior Israeli officials, the White House will lay out an “alternative approach that would target key Hamas elements in Rafah.” An Israeli Embassy spokesperson declined to comment.  

After the call, Netanyahu’s office issued a readout with language that seemed to take this concern into account. He said that increasing humanitarian aid will help Israel achieve its war efforts — a shift in Israeli rhetoric.

“We talked about the latest developments in the war, including Israel’s commitment to achieve all of the war’s aims: Eliminating Hamas, freeing all of our hostages and ensuring Gaza will no longer be a threat to Israel — all the while giving necessary humanitarian aid that helps us attain those goals,” Netanyahu said in a Monday statement.

Monday’s phone call, the first between the two leaders in more than a month, came as Democrats in Washington have sought greater scrutiny of Israel’s actions in Gaza, with some progressives heightening calls to limit U.S. military assistance to Israel. Sullivan said Biden did not threaten to withhold military aid.

“The president didn’t make threats. What the president said today was, ‘I want you to understand, Mr. Prime Minister, exactly where I am on this. I am for the defeat of Hamas. I believe that they are an evil terrorist group with not just Israeli but American blood on their hands. At the same time, I believe that to get to that you need a strategy that works, and that strategy should not involve a major military operation,’” Sullivan said, recounting the conversation. 

In the phone call, Biden “emphasized his bone-deep commitment to ensuring the long-term security of Israel, and he affirmed, as he did in his State of the Union, that Israel has a right to go after Hamas, the perpetrators of the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” said Sullivan, who also noted that “Israel has made significant progress against Hamas.”

Israel has killed “thousands of Hamas fighters, including senior commanders,” said Sullivan. He confirmed that Israel last week killed Hamas’ No. 3 military official, Marwan Issa. 

“Hamas could of course end this crisis tomorrow if it chose to do so,” noted Sullivan. “Far too little of the energy and the pressure to end this conflict has been applied to Hamas. We will keep pointing that out.” 

But Israel’s military successes against Hamas have not resulted in bringing stability to the Gaza Strip, Sullivan alleged, arguing that “anarchy reigns in areas that Israel’s military has cleared but not stabilized” — and any military plan that aims to oust Hamas “cannot succeed without an integrated humanitarian plan and political plan,” said Sullivan. 

Israeli forces on Monday mounted an operation at Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital, a site where Israel fought Hamas militants last fall. That Israel is fighting there again “tells us something else that is of some concern,” said Sullivan. 

“Israel cleared Shifa once. Hamas came back into Shifa, which raises questions about how to ensure a sustainable campaign against Hamas so that it cannot regenerate and cannot retain territory,” said Sullivan. 

Biden is not the only Democrat frustrated with Netanyahu. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) gave a speech calling for new elections in Israel to unseat Netanyahu. Sullivan declined to say whether Biden and Netanyahu discussed Schumer’s controversial remarks. But he offered indirect criticism of Netanyahu’s recent TV appearances where Netanyahu spoke out against Schumer’s speech.

“You have the prime minister speaking on American television about his concerns about Americans interfering in Israeli politics, and then your question is, should Americans be speaking into Israeli politics, which, in fact, we don’t do nearly as much as they speak into ours,” said Sullivan — a remark that he described as “just an observation.” 

But Sullivan did make clear that Biden and Israeli leaders are far apart on several key issues, after he described the White House’s goal of defeating Hamas and creating a Palestinian state as a precursor to Israel’s broader integration into the Middle East.

“[Biden] believes we need to drive to that outcome,” said Sullivan. “While it is true that many voices in Israel can’t see that today, that is not going to alter the president’s view, from his perspective, that that is what is not just in the U.S. national security interest, but it’s really the only solution to Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state that is secure and at peace with its neighbors, including its most immediate neighbors, the Palestinian people.”

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