Netanyahu’s decision to cancel Washington meetings on Rafah creates new rift with Biden

(CNN) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided on Monday to cancel a planned visit by a delegation to Washington – a visit that President Joe Biden had personally requested a week earlier in hopes of offering a constructive approach – as differences continue to deepen. represents another low point that separates the two figures.

Netanyahu threatened to suspend the delegation’s visit if the United States does not veto a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on Monday. When the US abstained from voting, allowing the measure to pass, the Israeli Prime Minister took action and canceled the meetings, already posing a political threat to Biden.

U.S. officials had planned to give the Israeli delegation a set of alternative options for pursuing Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, hoping to counter what the U.S. believes would be a threat if Israel launches a full-scale ground offensive. There will be humanitarian disaster.

U.S. officials said those options will continue to be shared, including in a conversation earlier this week between Biden’s top advisers and Israel’s defense minister. But the public suspension of face-to-face talks was a clear example of the tense situation that has developed between Israel and its main ally.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Jerusalem on March 17. Leo Correa/AP

U.S. officials said they were surprised by Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the delegation’s visit, after the United States had approved the passage of a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Inside the White House, the move was seen as an overreaction, possibly reflecting Netanyahu’s own domestic political concerns, according to a US official. Hours after the delegation’s visit was cancelled, Israeli Minister Gideon Sa’ar resigned from the current government after not being included in the war cabinet.

The official said Netanyahu did not communicate directly with Biden regarding his decision, while Biden has no plans to call Netanyahu to discuss the matter.

The talks in Washington were expected to take place at a critical time, not only because of the trajectory of the conflict but also to assess Washington’s influence on its ally. Biden’s patience with Netanyahu is wearing thin and his ability to bend Israeli decision-making appears to be waning, even as the United States continues to provide significant military and diplomatic support.

In the United States, calls to end the fighting have crossed political boundaries. Even Biden’s rival in the presidential race, former President Donald Trump, said in an interview over the weekend that it is time for Israel to “end its war” and “come in peace.”

Now, Biden finds himself in a delicate position. If Israel’s prime minister rejects his team’s options — as Netanyahu indicated even before this week’s meetings broke down — the president could be forced to decide whether he should express his disappointment. should be made more public. And potentially reduce staunch American support.

a division on rafa

Over the weekend, the United States was in constant contact with Israel to discuss the UN Security Council resolution for a ceasefire, and made clear in those talks that Washington’s position has not changed: a ceasefire. The firing should also be accompanied by the release of the hostages.

The official said this made US officials find Netanyahu’s comments on Monday strange and odd that the United States had changed its position. Biden aides felt the prime minister had unnecessarily chosen to create the impression of an agreement between the United States and Israel.

President Joe Biden in Las Vegas on March 19, 2024. Kevin Lamarck/Reuters

For more than a month, White House officials have been watching with increasing concern as Israel’s leaders, including Netanyahu, have been signaling their intention to launch a major ground offensive in Rafah, what they call Hamas’s last major stronghold. .

US officials have warned that such a campaign would result in a humanitarian disaster, insisting that Israel develop a credible plan to protect the 1.4 million Palestinian civilians sheltering there, many of whom are under the direction of the Israeli military. had fled to other parts of Gaza.

Yet, despite such strong warnings from Israeli officials, the US has believed for weeks that Israel is not, in fact, on the verge of expanding its military campaign in southern Gaza. The start of Ramadan – a deadline that some members of the Netanyahu government warned would trigger the next phase of the war – came and went without any change in the conflict.

“We are weeks away from being ready,” a senior US official said on the eve of the Muslim holy month.

Pressure increased on America and Israel

With Ramzan ending in about two weeks, the pressure is mounting. But even as US officials insist that Washington should first look at a plan that ensures the safety of civilians, they have also expressed doubt over whether such a plan is even feasible.

They clearly highlight the reality that there is nowhere for so many civilians to leave the enclave, as much of Gaza has been destroyed by Israeli bombing – and is no longer habitable. And if such a windfall plan exists, no White House official has seen it yet.

“I’ve looked at the maps, I’ve studied the maps, there’s nowhere for those people to go,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said late last week.

Later, in an interview, Harris refused to rule out consequences for Israel if it went ahead with its plans in Rafah.

“I’m not ruling anything out,” he told ABC.

Indeed, Biden’s advisers are evaluating various options for how to respond if the Rafah operation takes place. Officials declined to provide details, but the president is under increasing pressure from Democratic lawmakers to begin providing military aid to Israel over its humanitarian efforts, and to take diplomatic steps that signal disapproval. U.S.

At their meetings this week, U.S. officials planned to pressure the Israeli delegation to adopt a more targeted military campaign focused on high-value Hamas targets holed up in Rafah, people familiar with the matter said.

A more targeted approach could be combined with efforts to better secure the border between Egypt and Gaza – where Rafah is located – to curb Hamas’s ability to smuggle weapons into the enclave.

In addition to the more than one million civilians sheltering there, US officials have also expressed fears that the attack on Rafah could prevent much-needed humanitarian aid from entering Gaza. The city has been the main land crossing for trucks carrying aid from Egypt. There are also concerns that an operation in Rafah could rupture Israel’s relations with Egypt.

America sent warning to Netanyahu

Biden administration officials have warned Israel that it risks becoming an international pariah if the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens or is prolonged.

When Biden proposed this week’s meetings during a phone call with Netanyahu last Monday, the idea came as a surprise to Israelis, people familiar with the matter said.

“You need a strategy that works,” Biden told Netanyahu in their first conversation in more than a month. “And that strategy must not include a large-scale military operation that puts thousands of lives (civilians, innocent people) at risk in Rafah.”

“Send your team to Washington. Let’s talk about it,” Biden told Netanyahu, according to Biden’s top national security adviser. “We’ll show you what we think is a better way.”

Inside the White House, the move was seen as a way to show Washington’s intention to find creative approaches to shaping Israel’s war plans.

However, ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu expressed doubt about options short of an all-out ground invasion, insisting that this was the only way to rid the area of ​​occupation by Hamas agents.

“We have no way to defeat Hamas without entering Rafah,” Netanyahu said after meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken late last week. “I told them I hoped we could do it with the support of the United States, but we would also do it alone if necessary.”

Blinken left the Middle East on Friday without any commitment to increase the amount of humanitarian aid to Gaza or to scale back the planned offensive in Rafah.

At the same time, Netanyahu has indicated that such an operation is unlikely to begin any time soon, giving the United States an opportunity to intervene and continue negotiations to ensure a pause in the fighting in exchange for the release of the hostages. .

Those talks appear to be moving forward, as Israel and Hamas grapple with major differences, such as the proportion of Palestinian hostages and prisoners who will be freed as part of the deal.

US officials believe that if Israel launches its offensive in Rafah, hostage negotiations will fail, giving even greater urgency to its list of options.

(TagstoTranslate)Benjamin Netanyahu(T)Gaza(T)War Israel and Hamas(T)Joe Biden

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