Israel team to visit US over Biden concerns on Rafah, Gaza 'anarchy'

By Trevor Hunnicutt, Doina Chiacu and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that an Israeli military operation in Rafah would deepen anarchy in Gaza and they agreed that teams from each side would meet in Washington to discuss it, the White House said.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the two countries would have a comprehensive discussion on the way forward in Gaza, where a humanitarian crisis is raging after six months of fighting.

The meeting could happen this week or next, Sullivan said, and no Rafah operation would proceed before the talks.

"Anarchy reigns in areas that Israel's military has cleared, but not stabilized" in Gaza and a humanitarian crisis would deepen if Israel were to go ahead with an offensive in Rafah, Sullivan said, summarizing Biden's message to Netanyahu.

"We've had many discussions in many different levels between our military, our intelligence, our diplomats or humanitarian experts, but we have not yet had the opportunity to have an all-encompassing comprehensive, integrated, strategic discussion...," he said.

The two leaders have had increasingly tense relations over Gaza. Sullivan described the conversation as "businesslike" and said it did not end abruptly. Biden did not threaten to limit U.S. aid to Israel, he said.

Biden told Netanyahu that he needs a coherent strategy for Gaza, Sullivan said, "rather than Israel go smashing into Rafah." He reiterated U.S. support for the Israeli effort to destroy Hamas militants who attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7.

Sullivan also confirmed that Marwan Issa, the No.3 leader within Hamas' ranks, was killed in an Israeli operation last week. Hamas has not commented.

The call was the first between the two leaders since Feb. 15 and comes amid sharp tensions between Israel and its most steadfast ally over Netanyahu's handling of the war in Gaza.

Netanyahu said the two men discussed Israel's commitment to achieve all the targets it had set out for the war: eliminating Hamas, releasing all the hostages and ensuring Gaza would no longer pose a threat to Israel.

This would be done "while providing the necessary humanitarian aid that helps achieve those goals," he said in a statement.

In a speech on Thursday, Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, a longtime supporter of Israel and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official, called for new elections in Israel and said Netanyahu was an obstacle to peace.

Biden praised the speech the following day and said that Schumer had echoed the concerns of many Americans.

Netanyahu responded harshly on Sunday, telling CNN in an interview that Schumer's speech was "totally inappropriate".

Netanyahu reaffirmed to a cabinet meeting on Sunday that Israeli forces would thrust into Rafah, the last relatively safe place in the tiny, crowded enclave, despite international pressure for Israel to avoid further civilian casualties.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Doina Chiacu and Steve Holland, writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Susan Heavey, Alex Richardson, Heather Timmons, Cynthia Osterman and Deepa Babington)