Netanyahu cancels White House talks on Rafah after U.S. allows cease-fire resolution to pass at U.N.

The U.S. abstained from a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for a cease-fire through Ramadan, while calling for release of Israeli hostages

Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves 10 Downing Street following brief talks with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 24 March 2023 in London, United Kingdom.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi’s meetings in the White House set for this week after the U.S. failed to veto a call for an immediate cease-fire in the U.N. Security Council on Monday.

The U.N. Security Council presented a resolution authored by the 10 non-permanent members of the body, calling for “an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan respected by all parties leading to a lasting sustainable ceasefire” as well as “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, as well as ensuring humanitarian access.” It did not, however, condition the cease-fire on the release of the hostages. 

The U.S. abstained from the cease-fire vote, allowing it to pass with support from the 14 other members of the Security Council. Afterward, U.S. officials argued that the resolution did tie the demand for the cease-fire to the call for the release of all hostages — despite Russia and China having vetoed a U.S. resolution last week tying a cease-fire to the release of the 134 hostages, including four Americans, held by Hamas. 

“Our vote does not — and I repeat that, does not — represent a shift in our policy,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday. “We’ve been clear and we’ve been consistent in our support for a cease-fire as part of a hostage deal.” 

The Prime Minister’s Office said after the vote that “the U.S. retreated from its consistent stance in the Security Council that only a few days ago tied a ceasefire to the release of the hostages,” which China and Russia vetoed on Friday.

“This retreat hurts the war effort as well as the effort to free the hostages because it gives Hamas hope that international pressure will allow them to get a ceasefire without freeing our hostages,” the PMO added. “In light of the change in the American stance, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided the delegation will not depart.”

Over the weekend, the U.S. reportedly asked for tweaks in the resolution’s text that removed reference to a “permanent ceasefire” and replaced it with “lasting ceasefire” language. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said after the vote that she also sought to add a condemnation of Hamas to the resolution, but the request was voted down.

“We did not agree with everything in the resolution. For that reason we were unfortunately not able to vote yes. However, as I’ve said before, we fully support some of the critical objectives in this non-binding resolution, and we believe it was important for the council to speak out and make clear that a cease-fire must — any cease-fire must come with the release of all hostages,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Thomas-Greenfield added: “The only durable end to this conflict is the release of all hostages.”

President Joe Biden asked Netanyahu in a phone call last week to send a delegation to Washington to discuss alternatives to a major IDF operation in Rafah, cautioning Israel that the U.S. thinks a large operation would be a “mistake.”

Netanyahu said that he told Biden he is “determined to act in Rafah to finally eliminate the remaining Hamas battalions while granting humanitarian solutions to the civilian population,” his spokesman said.

Dermer, Hanegbi and a representative of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Defense Ministry unit that handles humanitarian matters in Gaza, had yet to depart Israel as the U.N. Security Council meeting took place on Monday. 

Netanyahu’s threat comes after months of tensions with the Biden administration over Israel’s prosecution of the war in Gaza. 

In recent weeks, Biden said that Netanyahu was “hurting Israel more than helping Israel,” while Vice President Kamala Harris’ called to “distinguish or at least not conflate the Israeli government with the Israeli people.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a Biden administration ally, also called for new elections in Israel.

The administration and Netanyahu have been at odds not only over a large-scale operation in Rafah, but a post-war plan. The Biden administration believes a revitalized Palestinian Authority should govern Gaza and steps must be taken towards a two-state solution, both of which Netanyahu opposes.

War cabinet Minister Benny Gantz broke with Netanyahu on his decision to withdraw the delegation, saying the prime minister should have gone to the White House himself given the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“The Security Council’s decision has no operational significance for us, and in any case, we will continue to listen to our friends,” Gantz wrote. “The special relationship between Israel and the U.S. is an anchor in Israel’s security and foreign relations and the direct dialogue with the American administration is an essential asset.”

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid argued that Netanyahu canceled the delegation for domestic political needs, citing disputes in Netanyahu’s government coalition over a push to draft Haredi citizens of Israel. 

“This is an alarming irresponsibility from a prime minister who has lost it,” Lapid wrote.

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